Defense becomes a key for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said the thing that stood out to him most when comparing the New England Patriots from September/October to the team he saw in December was their cornerbacks. He saw great growth from Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington.

When defensive lineman Vince Wilfork reflected on the 2010 regular season, he saw a different Patriots team after the Nov. 7 road loss to the Cleveland Browns, one that demonstrated more trust and played better together. He's noticed there aren't as many mistakes from the defense.

Both Sparano and Wilfork, from different perspectives, highlighted how the Patriots' defense has evolved over the course of the year. The contrast from "before" and "after" is striking.

"I think you have seen growth from Week 1 to now, especially with the young guys; it's good to see
the maturation process this defense has gone through," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who played more snaps than any defender and is one of the team's captains. "After that Cleveland game, I think the guys really took it to heart how they embarrassed us out there. We have been playing pretty well ever since."

How well?

The "before" and "after" from the Cleveland game speaks volumes when looking at two of the most important defensive statistics.

In the first eight games of the season, the Patriots allowed 188 points, or an average of 23.5 points per contest. In the final eight games, they cut the number to 125 points, an average of 15.6 points per game.

Meanwhile, the turnover count spiked from 14 through the first eight games to 24 over the final eight. No statistic correlates more to winning and losing than turnovers.

This isn't to say the improving defense has all of a sudden become dominant, a unit for opposing
offenses to fear. After all, backup Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn carved them up pretty
good for three quarters on Dec. 19 before the New England defense played perhaps its best quarter of the season to close out the game.

The dramatic second-half improvement in points allowed and turnovers, and the fourth quarter of
the Green Bay game, provide the perfect snapshot for what the Patriots' defense has mostly been this
season: vulnerable at times (the Patriots rank last in the NFL on third down), but a unit that often rises up in critical situations.

It's a defense that has also benefited from the offense's knack for producing quick starts, as New
England outscored opponents 103-39 in the first quarter this season. That means the Patriots are often playing games on their terms, which forces the opposing offense into a more one-dimensional approach.

"When you're in a hole and behind against them, you start to feed their ego a little bit," Sparano
said. "You go back there and you start to throw the football around, I think that feeds them a little bit that way. You can't get behind."

Entering the playoffs, one of the real concerns for coach Bill Belichick is how things will come together on the defensive line, where it's Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork and then a significant drop-off.

Veteran end Gerard Warren is being carefully managed (just 17 snaps in the finale and eight the week
before against the Buffalo Bills) as it looks like the grind of the season has affected him; in one play early against the Dolphins, he ended up flat on his back, pancaked to the ground. The Patriots need the 10-year veteran to find the fountain of youth in the playoffs.

With second-year man Ron Brace (elbow) on season-ending injured reserve, the status of Mike Wright (concussion) uncertain and rookie Brandon Deaderick suspended, the line has been depleted to the point that rookie free agent Kyle Love projects as a starter in the 3-4 alignment if the playoffs began today.

The concern is magnified when looking at the three potential divisional-round opponents -- Kansas City,
Baltimore and the New York Jets -- all of whom present significant power-based challenges at the line
of scrimmage and potentially explosive running games. Because of this, the Patriots are likely to be
spending significant time in their base 3-4 alignment, highlighting the importance of sturdy play from
their three linemen. That might be a big reason Bill Belichick had players in full pads for Wednesday's
practice, coupled with getting inside linebacker Brandon Spikes -- returning from a four-game suspension -- integrated back into the mix.

The Patriots surely aren't the only playoff team with similar concerns, but that hasn't stopped the
confidence of defenders from rising. As the statistics reflect, it's been a different unit since the Nov. 7
loss to the Browns.

"You [reporters] see it, I can see it. I saw it a little earlier than [reporters] did," Mayo said. "I am happy
with the maturation process that these young guys have gone through and this total defense."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.