In posting their fifth 13-win season of the Belichick era, the Patriots will wait and watch for their next opponent to emerge from the AFC wild card playoffs this weekend. A three-loss season and home-field advantage usually gives fans license to at least check out Super Bowl ticket prices. However, some Patriots fans have shown concern over this team’s ceiling, with a recent ESPNBoston.com poll showing 63 percent of fans are worried about the defense's vulnerability.
Here are three notable statistical stories that emerged from the regular season:
-- Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders used as many different players in the secondary (15) as the Patriots did this season. New England’s pass defense was constantly in the spotlight, and every week yielded a new argument about how bad it really was and what it all meant. New England did give up 4,977 passing yards, more than any team in history except this year’s Green Bay Packers. However, defensive passing yards allowed don’t tell the whole story, particularly when a team’s offense is as prolific as New England’s. Consider that the four teams that have allowed the most passing yards this season are the Packers, Patriots, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, four division champions with a combined 50-14 record. Removing the blowout situations paints a clearer picture of the defense, an opportunistic unit that is willing to surrender yards (8.2 yards per attempt in 10-point games or less, 29th in NFL) in exchange for preventing the big play. Additionally, the Patriots defense has made some big plays of its own, tying for second in interceptions (23) and first in red-zone interceptions (six).
-- Playoff-caliber defenses will look to take away first and second options in the passing game, but New England is the only team in the league with four 700-yard receivers (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch). Only once in team history have even three Patriots receivers hit the 700-yard mark (1994: Vincent Brisby, Ben Coates, Michael Timpson). Given New England’s unprecedented receiving depth, the key will be giving Tom Brady enough time to go through his progressions. Both the New York Jets last year and the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 stopped the Patriots in the playoffs by successfully taking away Brady’s primary receiver and limiting his time to find an alternative option. The Jets sacked Brady a season-high five times in their playoff victory last year, while only allowing seven completions for 57 yards to Welker. The Ravens sacked Brady a season-high three times in their 2009 playoff win, with Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk (instead of Randy Moss) leading the team with eight targets apiece. In the playoffs, the offensive line must give Brady enough time to find the open man, regardless of the opponent.
-- It would be easy to overlook the contributions of Stevan Ridley this season in an offense featuring names like Brady, Gronkowski and Welker. After all, 53 running backs had more rushes than Ridley’s 87 carries, and Ridley only scored one touchdown on the season. However, evidence is mounting that the Patriots found a pretty solid player with the 73rd overall pick in last year’s draft. Ridley’s 5.1 yards per rush is 10th among the 56 running backs with at least 85 rushes. Ridley has been among the league’s most powerful runners, averaging 2.6 yards after contact per rush. That trails only Ben Tate, Isaac Redman and Donald Brown among running backs with at least 85 carries. However, Ridley was far more than just a niche power rusher, averaging a 20+ yard run once every 17.4 carries. That was the seventh-best average among backs with at least 85 carries, trailing Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden, C.J. Spiller, Matt Forte and Fred Jackson. That’s pretty explosive company, and Ridley’s combination of speed and power has served the Patriots well. When Ridley had at least 10 rushes, the Patriots were 4-0 (including their last three games).