This was significant because third down had been a major problem leading up to the game. The Buffalo Bills had been 7-of-11 on third down in the first half against the Patriots on Dec. 24, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were 10 of their first 13 on third down against the Patriots on Dec. 17.
So what sparked the turnaround? And can it continue in the playoffs?
Those are timely questions, and here are some answers after reviewing Sunday's 12 plays and with insight from Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia:
Seven-DB package picks up momentum. Of the 12 third downs, nine of them came with the team’s seven-defensive-back package on the field. That’s a smaller lineup, with three defensive linemen and one linebacker (Marquis Flowers). When a team goes that small, it potentially leaves itself vulnerable to the run, but ...
Early downs set the unit up for more predictable situations. Belichick made the point that the Patriots created some long-yardage situations because of their play on early downs, which helped the cause by putting the Jets in obvious passing situations. That was reflected in how the Jets needed 7 or more yards on nine of their 12 third-down situations. Part of that was because of the Patriots' play, while ...
Jets ineptitude helped, too. Quarterback Bryce Petty wasn’t sharp, as a third-and-3 pass to the left sideline stands out as one that was particularly off the mark. Even on Eric Lee’s safety, on third-and-7, Petty easily could have thrown the ball away as it was more of a coverage sack. On the Jets' initial third down, in which they needed 11 yards, a false start on first down was a good example of self-inflicted wounds.
Tackling is excellent. While the Jets’ struggles contributed to the result, the Patriots’ tackling on third down also was impressive. In particular, safety Devin McCourty’s excellence in that area showed up, while James Harrison’s sound tackle on receiver Robby Anderson in the open field was textbook. Patricia always preaches fundamentals, and the Patriots traditionally get better in that area over the course of the year. It showed up again Sunday.
Flowers has blossomed. Primarily a special teamer in the first three years of his career, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Flowers has been given more responsibility on defense, with the team tapping one of his primary assets -- speed -- in that seven-DB package. He was a significant part of the team’s third-down success on Sunday, leading the huddle in the seven-DB package. “I think one thing that he does, which is great in a lot of those situations, it becomes a much more opened-up game; there's more speed on the field offensively, and Marquis plays extremely fast,” Patricia said. “He hustles, he runs, he has really good speed, so it's something that kind of just fits his skill set really well.”
Looking ahead to playoffs. While the level of competition is a significant part of the analysis, the Patriots' solid results in the seven-DB package is a boost of sorts for the team leading into the playoffs. This was a significant issue prior to the finale, and the reliance on the team's deep personnel at defensive back -- and their strong tackling skills -- will be critical in the postseason. It gives them a faster lineup that gives them the best chance to get off the field on third down when it is an obvious passing situation.