Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Just how bad IS this defense?

Sixteen games should be long enough to figure out whether a team has, or does not have, what it takes to succeed in the post-season.

There are plenty of opportunities to trip, stumble, fall, or simply not show up so that regardless of what league you're in, and regardless of who you play, and regardless of how the games play out, your final record is an accurate reflection not only of what YOU are ... but what the REST of the league is.

This is in preface to the following analysis of the Patriots as they prepare for the playoffs.

I will admit that the Patriots are the most confounding 13-3 team I've ever seen. But they are 13-3, and that, alone, reflects a certain toughness that indicates the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.

Consider: They only have four reliable receivers, and none of them have the type of speed or ability to "stretch the field" the way Randy Moss did in his prime. What they do have, though, are two tight ends who can turn short-to-medium passes into long gains by their YAC ability (yards after catch). Rob Gronkowski has become a folk hero this year, in part because he's had a tremendous season on the field and also in part because his goofy, happy-go-lucky persona acts as an acute counterpoint to the dour, almost uncommunicative Bill Belichick and the scripted polish of Tom Brady.

Still, I think Aaron Hernandez, the other tight end, may end up being more valuable in the post-season. The Patriots can use him so many ways, and he can take advantage of just about any matchup teams throw at him. And if he's healthy -- as he is now (after injuring his knee early on) -- he's a real game-changer.

Wes Welker is Wes Welker. He's like a Timex watch ... takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. If all three receivers, along with Deion Branch, are on their games, it becomes tough to cover all four of them effectively. Lately, the x-factor has been Hernandez as opponents have worked harder to take Welker and Gronkowski out of their games. But it's tough to cover Hernandez man-to-man too, so we'll see what happens going forward.

They not be the fastest, but it's tough to find four more reliable receivers than Branch, Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez. If Chad "No-show" Cinco could ever get off the mark, Brady could pass all day and the Patriots would score 40 points a game.

Well, you say, they may have to ... with that defense. And you may be right. The defense, even in a league whose rules are slanted heavily toward quarterbacks and passing, is pretty bad.

Some of that comes as the result of injury. The Patriots didn't have Patrick Chung for much of the second half, and linebackers Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes have missed significant time.

And some of it comes to ... I don't know ... you tell me.

Devin McCourty looked poised to be the shutdown corner the Patriots hadn't had since losing Asante Samuel to free agency (and his "shutdownability" will always come under question in my eyes because of the one interception he didn't make), but he took about 10 giant steps backward this year. Whether it was injury, whether he was a victim of there being no formal workouts (and teaching) due to the lockout, or whether it was something else, McCourty backslide dangerously.

It could be that McCourty was so used to playing zone at Rutgers (and last year) that he couldn't adapt to the Patriots' game plan, coming into the season, of playing more man coverage and using a ravamped D-line to put more pressure on the passer.

None of that happened. The revamped D-line proved as toothless this year, especially in the beginning, as it was last year, and the Patriots ended up playing a soft zone through most of the season that left the middle of the field wide freaking open for even mediocre quarterbacks to pick them apart.

This was written off as "bend but don't break," and, whether through skill or good fortune, it worked through most of the season. But as we got down to the final four or five games, it didn't work quite as well ... OR ... someone on that defense had to come up with a spectacular play to avert disaster (such as Jerod Mayo's interception in the Washington game). The point is, the defense does not dominate, and it's dangerously close to doing just the opposite ... of being dominated. And this is especially true now that all-purpose defensive lineman Andre Carter is out for the playoffs.

Carter is the only guy on that d-line, other than Vince Wilfork, that the Patriots could keep out there on every play and have reasonable expectations that he'll come through. He was equally adept at rushing the passer and containing the running game (this aspect of their defense has really suffered in his absence).

If the Patriots weren't putting up 30-plus points per game, they'd be home today making plans to play golf.

But they do put up 30 points a game ... most of the time. If they can keep doing that, they have a shot in these next few weeks. They may have to win a lot of shootouts to do it, but it's doable.

Still, if you're watching, and you see a team that's so wracked with injuries that it loses practically all its games in the second half of the season come out and score 21 points right away, the way the Buffalo Bills did Sunday, it's human nature to wonder whether (or maybe when), this bubble bursts and they dig themselves too deep a hole.

Will the Steelers, or the Ravens, come in here and play just enough defense to keep the Pats to, say, 24 points ... and is that defense so bad that either Pittsburgh or Baltimore can pile up 25 or more in Foxborough?

Yes and no. Yes, the Steelers can. I'm not sure the Ravens can. And I don't think either Denver, Cincinnati or Houston can either.

But here's what you have to remember when you talk about this Patriots defense. The game is skewed toward passing. All the rules favor quarterbacks and receivers. Brady got pushed down Sunday while he was (half-heartedly, I must admit) trying to make a tackle following an interception. It probably should have been a penalty anyway (it looked as if he may have been clipped in the unlikely event that anyone seriously thought he needed to be blocked), but the call was knocking the quarterback down. He was in the act of at least looking as if he was trying to make a freakin tackle!!.

Then again, McCourty got called for "hitting a defenseless receiver" just as a fellow Patriot was intercepting a pass. Is that not occasion for McCourty to become a blocker? Just asking.

With the rules so skewed toward quarterbacks and receivers, is it any wonder both Tom Brady and Drew Brees vaulted past Dan Marino's season's record for passing yards, and that Aaron Rodgers (who did not play Sunday) was close behind? Is it any wonder, as Ochocinco said earlier this year in a tweet, that the elite quarterbacks are routinely putting up fantasy numbers every Sunday?

If you're playing under these rules, nobody's defense is going to stop anybody consistently ... and they've all shown signs of the strain. Green Bays's (as in the 15-1 Packers) certainly didn't shut anyone down this year. The Ravens, on the road, were mortal (they got eaten alive by Philip Rivers who certainly did not have his best season). Only the Steelers, it says here, have the balance to be able to win a game via both sides of the ball, if it comes down to that. Most all other teams, including the Packers, have to rely on only one specialty.

And if it's not working on that particular day, then what we have here is a year where just about every team has serious flaws. All of which means that winning and losing, in these playoffs, is going to be one giant crapshoot. And that means the Patriots have just as good a shot of winning the roll as anyone else.

So when you assess their chances in this next month, consider the following: I doubt there are many 13-3 teams that have lived with so much week-to-week uncertainty as this one has. We're not just talking about key injuries here (and they've had their share of those), we're talking about week-to-week uncertainty about how the defense is going to hold up against whatever quarterback it is facing and whether Brady and his receivers have enough firepower to overcome it.

Although the Patriots had trouble with the toughest part of their schedule (losing two straight to the Giants and Steelers during a run where they played -- at the time -- a run of games against perceived playoff teams), they rebounded and won eight in a row. Eight in a row in the NFL is good regardless of who you play. When you see how the Steelers and Ravens -- in particular -- slipped up on the road late in the season, it gives you a better appreciation for how tough it is to win consistently in the NFL. So all this armchair analysis that they didn't beat many playoff teams (and the answer is they went 1-3 against teams who have made this year's playoffs, and that team is Denver) doesn't matter. They played the schedule. They went 13-3.

And at the time they played -- and beat -- some of those teams (like the Jets, twice; and San Diego, Philadelphia and Oakland) the teams were enjoying success that the Patriots, in some cases, derailed.

I certainly get that people are concerned about this defense. You'd have to be blind not to be concerned. But what this team may lack in defensive skills it more than makes up for with intangibles.

I know. I know .... ahhhhh. the dreaded intangibles. It's right up there with "all he does is win" in the pantheon of sports cliches.

Yet even cliches have a purpose. And the best thing about this year's Patriots team is that they've recovered from some horrendous starts to win important games. And as long as they're home, and as long as they have that track record, no team can feel safe if it piles up a two-touchdown lead in the second quarter. The Patriots have quick-strike capability oozing out of them, and Brady's been there so many times he's certainly not going to be fazed if the Bengals, or even the Ravens take an early lead (Pittsburgh may be a different story).

So they're tough. They're resilient. They're not going to roll over and die, the way they did against the Ravens in 2009. And they're not so one-dimensional this year that a team like the Jets (and aren't we happy they're out??) can take two guys out of the game and beat them.

They've also benefited from teams' overall shakiness when playing them. By rights, the Patriots should be 10-6, and perhaps would be if the Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins and Bills don't hand them their last four games. And while it's easy to say "they're lucky," it's not quite that simple. Could it possibly be that teams know the Patriots are relentless on offense, and that even though they've built up big leads they still have to take chances on making big plays? And that the more gambles you take, the better the chances of having some of them blow up in your face?

That's the thing about football. Just about everything leads to something else. And the only thing that matters at the end of the day is who won.

So if the Patriots' defense gives up 32 points and the offense scores 35, does it matter five seconds after the game ends? No. Do you want to pull your hair out along the way? Of course you do. It's only natural. All that matters is that they won.

So far this season, that formula has worked. Teams march up and down the field on them ... and they march up and down right back. The difference, perhaps, is that the Patriots, late in games, seem to have a knack for doing just enough to come out ahead. And that, in itself, is a skill.

Realistically, here's what I think will happen. Pittsburgh, despite a less-than-healthy Ben Roethlisberger (who isn't going to have time to really rest that sprained ankle since the Steelers don't have a bye), will beat the Broncos. I also think Houston will defeat Cincinnati (though I'm far less sure of this, given the Texans' tenuous quarterback situation).

This puts the Pats against the Steelers and Ravens against the Texans. I think it'll be a tough game. But I also think that Roethlisberger's health will be a factor, as well the absence of Rashard Mendenhall. The combination of the two, given the Patriots' ability to put up points even against the best defenses, should be enough to put them over the top and put them in an AFC final against Baltimore.

For some reason, the Patriots have some real tong wars against the Ravens. If you remember correctly, it was the Ravens who gave them their toughest fight in 2007 en route to that 17-0 season.

I think it'll be a tough game here, too. But I just don't think Joe Flacco is going to stand in their way in their attempts to reach the Super Bowl.

I also think that playing, and beating, their two so-called equals en route to Indianapolis will toughen them up (if it doesn't kill them first) so that they'll give whichever team that face there (and I think it'll be New Orleans, I really do) a decent game for a while.

But I think that's where it ends, too. I really don't see how, with all other things being equal (meaning that Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are certainly in Brady's class), the Patriots can beat either team. The shootout advantage is certainly nullified. Brees has so many weapons at his disposal he could invade any country and win with them. It just seems to be too big a task.

So my final answer is: New Orleans over New England ... fairly comfortably.

No comments: