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Yes. The New England Patriots defense is championship caliber. They were championship caliber last year. Their defense is better this year. No, Ty Law isn’t walking through that door. but in today’s NFL, he doesn’t have to be.
No one wants to revisit February of last year, but if a certain undersized receiver had made a catch he usually makes, the Patriots very well may have won the Lombardi Trophy with the 31st ranked defense (yardage wise) in the NFL. If that defense was championship worthy, certainly this year’s improved version is.
Will the Patriots defense single-handedly win them a game in the playoffs? Probably not, but they might not have to. A championship caliber defense is one that can play well enough to help a team win a title. The Patriots defense is capable of doing so. The question is, will they?
Bill Belichick has never been too keen on expressing emotion, but he may want to consider sending Gary Kubiak and the Houston Texans a belated Christmas card signed by the entire Patriots organization. The first round bye afforded to New England as a result of the Texans loss to the Colts last Sunday will be instrumental to the team healing up, especially defensively.
Starters Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Brandon Spikes, and Rob Ninkovich are all banged up for the Pats, and should benefit from an extra week of rest. Of the four, the one who appears to have the most concerning injury is Ninkovich, who hurt his hip during the Miami game. However, according to the Boston Herald, there is optimism that he may be ready to go come game time next Sunday. A healthy Patriots defense not only means that their best players will be on the field, but that they can do more scheme wise to pressure and confuse opposing offenses.
Before Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard were sidelined with injury, the new starting cornerback tandem was helping change the Patriots defensive philosophy. With Devin McCourty pushed to safety and Kyle Arrington to the slot corner role, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia were dialing up more blitzes, as they felt more comfortable with coverage in the back end. Assuming Dennard and Talib were held out of the Miami game as a precaution and are set to go from here on out, we can look forward to a return to this aggressive style of play.
A better secondary leading to more blitzing and chances for impact plays is great in theory, but the front seven has to hold up their end of the bargain. For the most part they have, and rookies Chandler Jones and Donta’ Hightower have shown promising flashes and the ability to make game changing plays. Along with kingpins Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the Patriots defense no longer lacks the top end talent needed to deviate from their past vanilla formations.
On paper, the defense has solid players, and with Bill Belichick calling the shots, there’s no reason their play shouldn’t match their ability.
How well the Patriots defense needs to play to win a game depends on which opponents they draw in the postseason. The Denver Broncos are the only elite offensive team representing the AFC in the playoffs, and if the Patriots were to reach the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers are the only elite offensive team in the NFC. However, each of these teams would have difficulty stopping the Patriots offense, as Green Bay has struggled defensively all year, and the Broncos have given up and average of 39 points per game to the Patriots over the two teams’ last three meetings.
On the other hand, some of the better defensive teams remaining such as the Bengals, Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks and Falcons have solid offenses, but not electrifying ones. In other words, the Patriots defense shouldn’t have to shut down an explosive offense to win a game this post season. If they play well against the teams that can limit Brady and the offense and play competitive against the explosive teams that are vulnerable on defense, the Patriots will have a chance to win every time they step onto the field.
Last season, they gave up 10, 20, and 21 points in their three playoff games. Those are championship caliber numbers. With a reloaded secondary and more aggressive front seven, similar production is not beyond reason this postseason.
Then it will be up to Tom Brady and the offense to determine whether or not the Patriots are a championship caliber team. That’s a bet I’m willing to take.