Underrated and overlooked are two words that are seldom used when discussing the New England Patriots.
The extended run of success that the Patriots organization has enjoyed for the better part of two decades is unprecedented, all culminating in a seventh consecutive AFC championship game appearance.
The team has been led here on the arm of Tom Brady, who at the age of 40 has overcome the lackluster play of the talent lacking New England defense. At least, that’s what many in the national media would lead anyone who is listening to believe. The narrative that has been constructed about this defense is one of liability and detriment which is simply not the case.
This defense is healthy, well rested, and playing at a level that is anything but a hurdle for Brady to overcome on the teams path to a sixth super bowl.
One of the biggest advantages of this Patriots team, and specifically the defensive unit, is the health that they are experiencing this late in the season. Dont’A Hightower suffered a season ending pectoral tear in New England’s week seven victory over the Atlanta Falcons, leaving that defense with a huge hole to fill.
Kyle Van Noy was called upon to fill that hole, and performed admirably in his new role as the quarterback of the defense. Following a week 13 injury suffered by Van Noy, however, the Patriots defense found themselves shorthanded at an already shallow position. New England’s divisional round matchup with the Tennessee Titans marked the return of Van Noy, and a resurgence of the much maligned Patriots defense. The Titans were able to muster only 14 points of offense, and 65 yards rushing.
The health of Van Noy however isn’t the only change to the Patriots defensive front, following the addition of the former Pittsburgh Steeler defensive end James Harrison. Harrison has added a set of fresh legs to help set the edge and get after the quarterback, a particular weak point of the Patriots defense. In his week 17 debut Harrison showed what he has left in the tank following a performance in which he totalled two sacks, was involved in five tackles, and forced a fumble from New York Jets quarterback Bryce Petty in 27 defensive snaps. The divisional round saw Harrison on the field for a total of 30 defensive snaps in which he set the edge in the run game, helping to contain Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry, and totalling three tackles.
Additionally, one of the premier run stuffers for the Patriots run stuffers Alan Branch, is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Should he be available, it would be a huge boost to the run defense of New England facing one of the league’s best running backs in Leonard Fournette. One thing is for sure, the Patriots defense is benefiting from the return of some veterans, as well as the addition of others through free agency.
While the health and addition of some new personnel for the New England defense is all well and good, what really matters is how this team and these players have performed on the field.
The Patriots have statistically struggled in a few categories through the regular season finishing 29th in yards per game allowed, 30th in passing yards per game allowed, and 20th in rushing yards per game allowed. Despite the struggles this unit experiences giving up yardage, they step up when it really matters.
This Patriots team finished the season ranked fifth in the league in scoring defense, allowing only 18.5 points per game in the regular season. The first four weeks of the season were historically bad for the defensive unit in New England. If you evaluate the Patriots scoring defense from week five forward, after giving Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia time to make adjustments as well as the new personnel to gel in a complicated system, this unit finishes first in the league allowing only 14 points per game.
With the success the team has seen defensively in terms of allowing points, they have also seen a lot of success in terms of their red zone defense. This Patriots unit finished fifth in the league allowing opponents to convert only 46 percent of their trips into their red zone into touchdowns.
While the Patriots statistically allow opponents to move the ball between the 20’s, Patricia, Belichick, and this “bend don’t break” mentality of the New England defense stand tall when it matters most. They force opposing teams to settle for three points while they score seven. It’s a formula that has worked in years past, and continues to be effective this season.
The Patriots matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game this Sunday is one that will test this New England defense. This defense must shut down an explosive rushing attack led by breakout rookie Leonard Fournette. They must also contain the legs of Blake Bortles and the improvisation, play extending that comes with it. If the Patriots defense can continue to play to the level they have all season, and force the Jaguars to settle for field goals, they should be making plans for their trip to Minnesota for Super Bowl LII.
–Adam Myers is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @AdamTMyers