JUST LIKE '06 COLTS, THIS DEFENSE PUTTING IT TOGETHERBy Mike Reiss
It can happen this quickly. The New England Patriots defense has turned the corner, just like linebacker Rob Ninkovich decisively did on an explosive strip sack in the first quarter of the team's playoff win over the Denver Broncos.
This has shades of the 2006 Indianapolis Colts written all over it.
That was the year the Colts finished the regular season ranked last in the NFL in rush defense (173 avg. per game), last in third-down defense (47.1 percent) and 23rd in points surrendered (22.5 avg.). Entering the playoffs, one of the big questions was whether a team with such a porous defense could win the Super Bowl.
The Colts showed it can be done, as they flipped a switch and looked like a different unit in the postseason. The return of injured safety Bob Sanders, who was limited to four regular-season games with a knee injury, provided a major postseason spark as the Colts' last-ranked run defense buckled down to hold opponents to an average of 73.3 yards per game in the playoffs.
For the Patriots, one could make the argument that the returns of safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes after seven-game absences have been Sanders-like. The defense looks different with those two in the lineup. More energy. More spark. More physicality. More production (14 negative plays against the Broncos).
Yet what often happens, with the '06 Colts as the perfect example, is that a unit gets stereotyped based on what happened in the regular season. This overlooks some of the specific matchups in the playoffs, which can help mask weaknesses. For example, the Patriots' defense is obviously better now that the explosive Packers and Saints are out of the playoffs; those were tougher matchups than the 49ers and Giants could potentially be in the Super Bowl.
And there is one other thing. We generally tend to be quick to pull the trigger on a team's demise (how many times have we read the Patriots' dynasty is over?) and much slower to catch up to something we haven't seen before. It's almost like we have to wait until more analysts validate the thought for it to become reality.
No one is saying the Patriots' defense is suddenly going to dominate a game, but after watching the collapses of the Packers' and Saints' defenses, and the rise of the more-confident, let-it-rip Patriots, trust your eyes.
Their confidence is rising and with good reason. This defense has turned a corner.
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DOMINATING EFFORT MORE A PRODUCT OF BRONCOS' FUTILITYBy Chris Forsberg
Go ahead and accentuate the positive, but let's not be delusional.
The New England Patriots produced their finest defensive effort of the 2011 season on the big stage of the divisional playoffs Saturday night against the Denver Broncos, but the idea that the unit, as a whole, has turned the corner is as cringeworthy as Tim Tebow's quarterback rating (52.7).
Let's keep in mind that, over the course of a 16-game regular season, the Patriots' defense ranked 31st in total yards allowed (411.1) and passing yards per game (293.9), the latter of which would have been an NFL record if not for the Green Bay Packers -- unceremoniously knocked out of the playoffs Sunday in large part because of their can't-get-a-stop defense -- giving up nearly 300 yards per game through the air.
Yes, the Patriots were phenomenal in limiting Tebow to a mere nine completions and 136 passing yards. Here's another appropriate description of that performance: outlier.
The Broncos ranked 23rd in the NFL in total offense (316.6 yards per game) and 31st in passing (152.1 yards per game). Let's not confuse them with the 2000 Rams, just like no one should suddenly see shades of the 1985 Bears in these Patriots after one solid performance.
In fact, New England's offense was its best defense Saturday. Two early touchdowns forced the Broncos to try to throw their way back into the game and, let's be honest, Tebow's 2011 highlight compilation will include far more clips of him doing damage with his legs than his arm.
Here's more good news for the Patriots: The Baltimore Ravens that visit Sunday in the AFC Championship game are a middle-of-the-road offense. Baltimore ranked 15th in the NFL in total yards (338.7 per game) and 19th in passing attack (213.9). Buoyed by the confidence of last week's performance, there's a very good opportunity for New England to put together another solid defensive outing.
Then -- and only then -- can we talk about the defense turning a corner (even if the jury will remain out, especially if they run into a pass-happy team in the Super Bowl). Let's see a little consistency before we suggest the Patriots' defense is running a reverse in the postseason.
Ultimately, it shouldn't matter how we classify the defense. The Patriots were atrocious stopping opposing teams during the regular season and still won 13 games. If they give up 500 yards in each of their next two games and still find a way to win both, no one will care whether the defense ever turned the corner.