Pats defense still faces questions

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The hope for the New England Patriots was that they would build momentum as they kicked off the second half of their season Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but instead, we have more questions.

It starts with the defense that looked like it might have turned a corner against the St. Louis Rams two weeks ago in London but took a sharp U-turn.

The Bills rang up 481 yards and manipulated the sloppy-tackling Patriots for most of the game, holding a decisive time-of-possession advantage. So the question is being asked again: Can New England really win a championship with this defense?

And while we're at it with questions: Can cornerback Aqib Talib, who officially joins the Patriots on Monday, be enough of a difference-maker to decisively turn around the fortunes of the D?

It might seem like a negative slant to a 37-31 victory -- yes, the Patriots won the game, which is most important -- but it speaks in part to how high the franchise has raised the bar over the past decade. It also captured the mood in corners of the Patriots' locker room afterward, with receiver Deion Branch saying of the team's overall performance, "It's not a good feeling."

So while more than half of the NFL's 32-team crop would trade places with the Patriots in an instant, and the club remains in good position in the AFC East (all three division foes lost Sunday) and kept pace with some of the contenders in the conference, this was one of those victories that felt a little hollow to those who look beyond the bottom line.

It traces back to the helpless feeling of not being able to stop the opposition for long stretches and how Bill Belichick, for all his football greatness, has yet to find a consistent cure for his defense after several years of trying. How can this be?

The Bills, whose offense annually gives the Patriots problems, had 35 first downs and were 7-of-11 on third-down conversions. They also converted a big fourth-down play, held a 33:50-26:10 time of possession edge, and totaled 319 net passing yards with another 162 on the ground.

Wait, there's more.

The Patriots allowed 187 yards after the catch on Sunday, matching their highest total of the season (against the Bills on Sept. 30), according to ESPN's Stats & Information tracking. They also allowed 40 rushing yards after initial contact, 12.5 yards over their season average. The tackling, normally a strong point, was atrocious.

"Every time we've played these guys, we've been successful moving the ball," said Bills running back C.J. Spiller, who showed why he's one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers (70 yards rushing on nine carries; 61 yards on four receptions).

That reflects how the Patriots' defense, which thrived off three crucial turnovers Sunday, doesn't instill fear in the opposition. The Bills looked at this game differently than the one they played the week before, when they lost 21-9 to the Houston Texans.

"I don't want to get into the comparisons; you can look at the statistics, and Houston's obviously a top-five defense," Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "[The Patriots] and what they do, they have a great offense, and they're going to make you earn it all the way down the field."

A backhanded compliment, perhaps, but also one that's hard to argue because no one was calling the Patriots' defense the Steel Curtain in the first place. Sunday's final interception, made by Devin McCourty on a Fitzpatrick throw intended for rookie receiver T.J. Graham, was a perfect example of this -- as much of an offensive breakdown as it was a solid defensive play.

Give the Patriots credit for forcing two other big turnovers -- there was no doubt about those -- and that's ultimately what defines this unit. It seems to have a knack for coming up with the timely turnover.

But after a game like Sunday's, is it asking too much for more than that?

Belichick, now in his 38th season in the NFL, knows more about X's and O's than most, so it's puzzling why this has been a recurring theme for his team. His offense has evolved with the changing game, but the defense has been slower to adjust.

It makes one wonder whether the issues begin with a philosophy that seems light on imaginative pressure calls and heavy on a conservative make-the-offense-work-its-way-down-the-field approach. The four-man pass rush, as it's been for some time now, is inconsistent.

Even the most optimistic Patriots follower has to agree that the defense, on the whole, has been frustrating to watch in recent years because it seldom dictates play. Those who take it a step further might say the Patriots have morphed into the team they used to dominate, the powered-by-offense Indianapolis Colts, even if the players themselves say otherwise.

"I saw that guys believed," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who lit into his defensive teammates on the sideline at one point. "That's the main thing. When you get a team to believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to do, that team is unstoppable. With this defense, when I said what I had to say, I saw guys believing and we went out and made the plays."

Maybe Wilfork's right, but it didn't exactly feel that way after Sunday's win. Do Patriots followers truly believe that these Patriots are one step closer to the way the team played defense in its Super Bowl championship days of the early 2000s?

Wilfork said it's a unit that is still growing, one that must be more consistent. They are words we've heard before.

"You've got to try to poise yourself and figure out a way to correct it," said safety Steve Gregory, who returned to the lineup after missing four games with a hip injury. "It's not getting frustrated and getting mad at guys, it's getting in there together and working as a unit to get things better. That's what we're going to focus on this game."

The good news is that the Patriots can do so after a victory.

The bad news is that after a game like this, it feels like the shooting-for-something-greater Patriots are back where they started, answering the same questions about their defense.