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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Patriots' defense comes of age

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The big man, the mountainous nose tackle who actually tackled running back Arian Foster while he was being blocked at the line, professes not to hear the chatter.

Vince Wilfork waved off questions with his massive football paw about the hype surrounding the Houston Texans and their defense coming into the Monday night meeting with Wilfork's New England Patriots, the one that Texans receiver Andre Johnson proclaimed was the biggest in franchise history.

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Wilfork didn't acknowledge the pundits who proclaimed J.J. Watt the most disruptive defensive player in the league, espousing Watt's gaudy sack totals and pass defenses and all those other defensive categories that don't ever really pertain to Wilfork because he draws so many double teams.

"I could care less about stats," Wilfork insisted. "The only stat I care about is the W. We win, and I'm happy. We lose, and I'm not."

Taking that criteria into account, Wilfork should qualify as positively giddy over a 42-14 beatdown of the Texans, who came to Gillette Stadium with an 11-1 record and some lofty goals in tow. Wilfork announced Houston was "the best team in football" before he and his defense completely stripped Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson down to their skivvies with a physical, pressure-oriented assault that limited the Texans to a woeful 2-for-14 on third-down conversions and forced nine negative plays.

It was a dominant New England defensive performance led by their most dominant force. Wilfork was a one-man wrecking crew, deflecting passes, hauling down running backs and harrying Schaub. On one play late in the first quarter, Wilfork not only decked Schaub for a 9-yard sack, he also forced a fumble that was ultimately recovered by tackle Chris Meyers, but effectively put an end to any chance of Houston generating any offensive continuity.

Remember when the New England defense was on life support, a porous, disjointed, vulnerable collection of athletes who were trying to subscribe to the "bend but don't break" philosophy of their predecessors, only to snap whenever games got tight? They allowed Ravens, Seahawks and even the Jets to come roaring back from late-game deficits (although the Patriots squeaked out a win over New York in overtime). They left us thinking a Super Bowl run was pure folly, simply unfathomable.

That was in the first half of the season. But a trend has developed over the past three seasons that's difficult to ignore. New England has posted a perfect 21-0 record in the second half of seasons since 2010. Truthfully, that streak could have been even more impressive, except the Patriots lost their final regular-season game of the 2009 season to -- you guessed it -- the Houston Texans.

It was a meaningless contest with no playoff implications but proved to be incredibly costly because it was the day Wes Welker shredded his knee.

In other words, the last time the Patriots lost a game in the second half of the season, they weren't even really trying to win.

Not coincidentally, as the team peaks in the final weeks, the defense's performance improves significantly.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2010, opposing quarterbacks in the first half of the season registered a Total QBR of 68.6 against the Patriots, which left New England ranked 30th in the NFL.

But, in a dramatic turnaround, the Total QBR for opposing quarterbacks over the second half of the season dropped to 37.4, or second-best in the league.

Total QBR is a rating that summarizes all of the quarterback's contributions (passing, rushing, fumbles, sacks and penalties) into a 0-100 scale in which 50 is average.

Thus, Matt Schaub is one in a line of quarterbacks who was hoping to make his mark but was squashed by the Patriots' resurgent defense.

So why such a huge disparity from the beginning of the season to the end?

"Well," mused cornerback Kyle Arrington, who submitted another fine performance Monday night, "we talk an awful lot around here about playing our best ball this time of year. We're geared that way."

There are some more tangible reasons why New England's defense, particularly the secondary, looks more solvent. Cornerback Aqib Talib (who left with a hip injury in the second quarter and didn't return) has provided some desperately needed juice -- and has freed Devin McCourty to play safety.

McCourty deftly picked off Schaub in the end zone to thwart an early scoring threat, and said he has thrived since switching postions.
Devin McCourty
Devin McCourty celebrates his first-quarter interception, which kept the Texans off the board, with Brandon Spikes.

"I feel more comfortable out there," he said. "[Fellow safety] Steve [Gregory] has helped me a lot with keeping my eyes open, seeing the whole field.

"I probably would have drifted the wrong way a few weeks ago," McCourty said of his pick. "I'm so used to playing corner and being so tight on guys. But I'm getting there. Our defense is really jelling."

In the days leading up to this game, any discussion of defensive dominance centered on the Texans and Watt.

In a rare admission, linebacker Jerod Mayo confessed he grew tired of hearing about it. Watt had some impressive moments in this game, but he left Gillette without a sack, a batted pass or a tackle for a loss. It was the first time all year he was shut out in all three categories.

J.J. What?

"Obviously we always talk about ignoring the noise, but you hear it," Mayo admitted. "You hear it walking down the street. It was a little bit of a motivational factor for me, at least. I'm sure the rest of the guys felt the same way."

Mayo and Wilfork both believe the game plans their coaches conjure up in the darkness of their film cave have much to do with the defensive numbers becoming healthier as the year wears on.

In the first half of 2010, the Patriots surrendered 198 points, or an average of 24.7 per game. Over the final eight games, they reduced that number to 105 points or 13.1 per game.

That trend continued last season. After giving up 184 points (or an average of 23 per game) in the first half of the season, they reduced those numbers to 158 points and a 19.7 average.

"I think what happens is as the season goes on, you see teams start to declare who they are," Wilfork explained. "Early on, you don't know … but when you get to Week 10 and 11, they are who they are. You can really study tendencies, and get it down how you want to play certain teams.

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"I think our staff does a good job understanding what we need to do to be better. You have to be able to win games in November and December.

"Sometimes, those games can make or break your season."

This one game will undoubtedly tarnish the credibility of a Houston team that was looking to establish itself as the indisputable king of the AFC.

The Patriots have made their case to be included in that conversation. The noise will all be about them as they prepare to face San Francisco next Sunday night.

Wilfork said he doesn't hold much stock in statement games.

"No, man," he said. "I'm not into those."

Turns out he might not be telling us the whole story about his disdain for numbers, though. McCourty recalled a team meeting last year just before the playoffs in which the mountainous nose tackle, the heart and soul of the Patriots' defense, pulled out a packet of sheets and recited the dominant numbers that teams put up in the regular season, only to falter once the lights got brighter and the playoffs began.

Wilfork still believes the Texans are a title contender. He already is concerned about the next contending team on its way to Gillette.

"This game has nothing to do with the 49ers," he said. "It's over. Everything we did tonight is in the bag, bagged up and we don't see it no more. We're moving forward."

And, just like the numbers say, the defense is following suit.