Patriots defense gets job done

OAKLAND -- The New England Patriots will wake up Monday morning to find that statistics still suggest they are the worst defense in the NFL. From total yards allowed to yard per play to total passing yards surrendered, the Patriots will be ranked 32nd overall in each -- and it won't even be close.

And while the Patriots gave up a head-shaking 504 total yards Sunday against the Raiders, including 344 more through the air, they found out a little something about themselves in a gritty 34-19 triumph.

A week after being unable to produce the must-have stops in Buffalo, the Patriots made the key plays and did it in the face of a relentless injury bug that has now chomped on the left knee of linebacker Jerod Mayo.

To be sure, this defense is fully aware of their issues. They understand they absolutely have to to turn things around to be competitive in the long-term. But if New England can play the way it did in Oakland, they're confident they can give themselves a chance to turn those statistics around.

"This is a tough, tough, tough bunch," said captain Vince Wilfork. "They take coaching well, they take criticism well, and they're hard workers. Anything [coach] Bill [Belichick] puts on our plate, they try their best to do it. They work so hard. You can't ask for anything better than that. No complaining. People just come to work, put their hard hat on, whatever it may be that day.

"Bill always challenges us, and we stepped up. This week Bill challenged us just to play better football and don't give away the game, and we did."

And that's all that matters right now for the New England defense: Doing enough to win. It doesn't matter that they've given up nearly 2,000 net yards in four games. It doesn't matter that teams are averaging 24.5 points per game.

It matters that the Patriots are 3-1 and will wake up sitting atop the AFC East again.

"Winning is the most important thing," said captain Devin McCourty. "As a player, you want to get [the yardage totals] down. We work hard every day to come out here and play well. [The win] kind of shows how well we played."

Echoed linebacker Gary Guyton: "The main focus now is to get the win. We got the win today and that's a good thing. We'll focus on the win and each week we're trying to get better as a defense."

The Patriots can hang their hat on red zone efficiency. New England spent the first two weeks of the season rallying around the fact that Miami and San Diego were a mere 5-of-10 in the red zone, producing touchdowns only 50 percent of their trips inside the 20.

Out in Buffalo, the Bills scored on 3-of-4 trips and that was enough to win a shootout in which the Patriots' offense turned the ball over four times. On Sunday, Oakland converted just 2-of-5 trips inside the 20, one of which came in the waning moments.

For the Patriots, it's progress.

Players believe if they eliminate the mental lapses that are allowing big plays, those statistics won't look nearly as bad as they do. There's something to that. Take away a 41-yard jaunt by Darren McFadden and a 30-yard scamper by Jacoby Ford and the Raiders mustered just 89 yards rushing on 25 carries (3.56 yards per carry) -- nothing to sneeze at considering Oakland entered the game as the league's top rushing offense.

"Missed tackles hurt us," said safety Patrick Chung."We gotta limit those big plays."

The Patriots will settle for limiting the damage.

"We knew what the Raiders wanted to do," said Wilfork. "They wanted to run the ball. We were challenged. I think, defensively, we took it personally. You take those couple runs, those big runs out, we handled the running game. We definitely handled the running game.

"But we have to keep getting better. This is not the end of the road -- 3-1, that's not where we want to be. We have to keep growing. We're not playing the type of football we're capable of playing. We're far from it. We're just going to keep grinding each week, get better each week, keep moving forward each week. Guys are gaining confidence. Guys stepped up today that we're depending on. You've got to make plays when it counts, and that's what we did."

Maybe the most encouraging aspect for the Patriots' defense is their ability to battle through even in the face of injuries. New England entered Sunday's game battered and bruised, particularly in the secondary, where two of the team's top four corners (Leigh Bodden, Ras-I Dowling) didn't make the trip and, at various points, both safeties on the field were wearing protective casts over their injured thumbs (Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett).

Meanwhile, up front, the Patriots left Albert Haynesworth and his balky back in New England. The team has already watched Myron Pryor go on injured reserve earlier this season and Mike Wright is sidelined while recovering from another concussion. Shaun Ellis is battling a knee issue and Kyle Love got sent to the locker room early Sunday with an ankle injury (though he returned in the second half).

Then Mayo crumpled with what's reportedly an MCL injury that could sideline him for considerable time. The Patriots easily could have crumpled when their best defensive player did the same.

Instead, they rallied.

"It's football," shrugged Guyton, who took over play-calling duties when Mayo went down. "You just come in and do your job."

Echoed McCourty: "That's what it's all about, stepping up ... Guys stepped in and played well. That's proof that we believe in everybody on this team."

The Patriots need to make changes or they won't go very far come January. There's only so long you can mask glaring deficiencies. But the stats don't matter right now, just the final score and the character this team has shown.

"We had everything against us," said Wilfork. "Our backs were against the wall, but you know what? Everyone stayed focused. This team stayed focused. We handled what we needed to handle and we're walking away with a W. It feels good to do that."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.