IF THE OFFENSE IS OFF, THE PATRIOTS ARE IN BIG TROUBLEBy Chris Forsberg
Conventional wisdom suggests the Patriots' primary focus over the final seven weeks of the regular season should be on a defense that ranks 32nd in the league in yards allowed per game (412 yards per game). But let's face it, more than three months into the 2011 season, there's no magic elixir that will cure what ails the defense.
The success of this season's team ultimately hinges on the offense. There's plenty to tighten up there as well.
For the Patriots, their offense is as simple as 1-2-3. The team ranks first in passing yards per game (326), second in total offense per game (431.9) and third in points per game (28.8). But examine the games they've lost or struggled in this season and there's one common thread: mental mistakes and turnovers, many of which have put the team's defense in tough positions.
When the Patriots take care of the ball and don't shoot themselves in the foot, they are very tough to beat.
Consider this: The Patriots rank in the top 10 in the league in penalty yards (10th, 551 yards). Of their 61 accepted penalties, a whopping 15 are of the false start variety, while 10 more are offensive holding. That's a whopping 41 percent of total fouls working against the offense, and they've been absolute drive-killers at times.
But the real problem has been turnovers, particularly Tom Brady's 10 interceptions this season (six more than all of last season and just four short of a career-high). Eight of those came over three games against the Bills, Cowboys and Giants. The Patriots lost two of those games and needed a feverish two-minute drill to top Dallas on their home turf.
During a 14-2 regular-season last year, the Patriots were a whopping plus-28 in turnover differential. This season? New England is a mere plus-3, only jumping back into the positive with a three-turnover effort against the Jets (and Brady got bailed out early when the Jets dropped a couple of potential interceptions).
The Patriots' defense will never be confused with the '85 Bears (or heck, the '85 Patriots that allowed only 294.6 yards per game, seventh-best in the league). The unit remains on pace to give up the most passing yardage in league history. But New England's defense has limited the damage in the red zone and is middle of the pack in terms of points allowed (16th, 22.2 points per game). If New England's offense -- a group that ranks third in the league by averaging 28.8 points per game -- can keep the defense out of bad situations by not giving the ball away, the Patriots can mask their deficiencies.
Yes, defense won't win this team a championship. But it will do enough to allow the offense to do just that. It's on Brady and his crew to work out the kinks over the final seven weeks and be playing mistake-free ball in the postseason.
IF PATS DON'T IMPROVE PASS DEFENSE, THEY'RE NOT GOING ANYWHEREBy Mike Reiss
After the Patriots' 37-16 win over the Jets, linebacker Rob Ninkovich talked about where the team's defense had been and where he hoped it was headed.
"Our defense has been up and down from week to week and hasn't been where we want it to be," he said. "It's a work in progress. We knew this week was a huge week for our defense."
The way the D rose up against the Jets should provide a boost of confidence to the growing-on-the-job unit. That was a big "up," but it doesn't mean the "down" can be overlooked.
The biggest downer has been how the Patriots have fared against top aerial attacks. In three losses this season, the pass defense has been a primary reason for the final result.
The Bills spread the Patriots out and gashed them. The Steelers had success doing the same, dominating time of possession with a ball-control passing attack. And the Giants, when the game was on the line, moved the ball through the air with ease.
So when asking the question "What's the one area the Patriots must correct over the final seven games of the season?" the banged-up pass defense gets the nod. Yes, the offense still has issues to resolve (e.g., running game, penalties, turnovers), but they seem to pale in comparison to the pass defense.
The Jets weren't built to exploit the Patriots' weakness, but what happens when the team faces a club that can? To win a Super Bowl, one figures they'll eventually have to limit or stop a top passing team. Think Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, for one. Drew Brees and the Saints would be another.
Based on the remaining schedule, the pass defense might not get much of a test in that area until the calendar turns to 2012. This week, they get Chiefs backup quarterback Tyler Palko. Then comes the Eagles (does the injured Michael Vick play?). After that, it's Curtis Painter and the Colts, the quarterback-challenged Redskins and the Tim Tebow-led Broncos. The Patriots finish at home against the Dolphins on Christmas Eve and the Bills on New Year's Day.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for the Patriots as it gives injured players such as cornerback Devin McCourty (separated shoulder) time to heal and younger players time to develop more confidence.
Are you confident this unit can hold up against a good passing team? It looks like we won't get a true answer to that until the playoffs, when the stakes are highest.