- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Looking for a consistent theme with the New England Patriots' struggles during the 2011 campaign? Start your hunt in the turnover column.
One season after setting an NFL record with a mere 10 giveaways (five fumbles, five interceptions), the Patriots have already turned the ball over a whopping 14 times this season and have a minus-8 turnover ratio in their three losses, committing four turnovers in losses to both the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.
For much of the past two weeks, the catchphrase around the Patriots has been "eliminating mistakes" and it's evident now it's code word for limiting turnovers (and penalties, which have been just as much of a thorn in recent weeks). Instead, New England has made it insanely difficult on itself at times.
Consider this: The Patriots topped the NFL in turnover differential last season at plus-28 (the next closest team, Pittsburgh, was plus-17). When you do that, your defense can rank 25th in yards allowed and you can still win 14 games. This season, New England is tied for 15th in the league in turnover differential at even through eight games.
Having been bred under the Parcells Doctrine, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is certainly aware of the importance in limiting turnovers. In fact, it's been a hallmark of his 12 seasons in New England.
Since the start of the 2001 season, the Patriots have committed only 236 turnovers in 168 games, the lowest total in the league. The Patriots have averaged a mere 1.4 turnovers per game during that span, while the league average is 1.74 turnovers per contest, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Doesn't sound like much, right? But that difference averages out to 5.3 fewer turnovers per 16-game regular season. That undoubtedly makes a difference in the win column by season's end.
And, wouldn't you know it, the Patriots are averaging 1.75 turnovers per game at the midway point of the 2011 season. No wonder they've looked average at times.
If there's good news for the Patriots, it's that the majority of their turnovers have come in bulk. Twelve of those 14 turnovers came in three games, against the Bills, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Patriots lost two of them and needed a touchdown in the two-minute drill to escape against Dallas.
Amazingly, the Patriots have never had a season with three games of at least four turnovers since 1999, or before Belichick arrived. Much of the team's sustained success this decade can be traced in large part to avoiding giving the ball away.
What's more, the Patriots have finished on the negative side in turnover differential just once since Belichick's first season in New England (2005, minus-6). In the Super Bowl seasons (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007), the Patriots were a combined plus-49 overall during the regular season.
The Patriots have seemed to put a premium on ball security in recent years, and the brunt of the turnover problem at the moment falls on quarterback Tom Brady. After throwing only four interceptions all of last season, Brady set an NFL record by going 335 consecutive pass attempts without an interception before getting picked in the 2011 season-opener in Miami.
Barring another extended mistake-free streak, Brady will almost certainly set a career high for interceptions this season, his previous worst mark being 14 in three different seasons (2002, 2004, 2005). Yes, the Patriots won a Super Bowl in 2004, but the others were two of the team's more frustrating seasons. What's more, Brady threw 13 picks for a 2009 team that stumbled through a 10-6 campaign and suffered an early playoff exit.
Not all of Brady's interceptions this season have been his fault. He's been hurt by tipped passes and fortuitous bounces for the defense. But he's also had his share of head-shaking throws.
That includes a pair of interceptions Sunday against the Giants -- one of which prompted Brady to emphatically spike a water bottle on the sideline, his frustration boiling over.
"I'm sure Tom would like to maybe have a couple of those back," Belichick said. "[When] a quarterback has a good arm like Tom does and is accurate, sometimes you feel like you can get a ball into a receiver and a lot of times he does, and sometimes he doesn't."
When he doesn't, it's been a backbreaker for the Patriots. Those turnovers are a big reason New England has stumbled at the midpoint of the season.
Brady, who also fumbled a possession away Sunday, is doing his defense no favors with turnovers that short-circuit potential scoring drives, or give the opposition short fields with which to generate their own points. Earlier this season, Brady threw the first red-zone interception of his career at Gillette Stadium.
Ranking second in the NFL in passing yards (2,703) and third in passing touchdowns (20) has a way of masking Brady's struggles, but he (and his offensive brethren) absolutely has to value the ball more moving forward.
Otherwise the Patriots are simply giving wins away.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Uncharacteristic turnovers are making life difficult for Tom Brady and his offense.