The Patriots own one of the worst passing and third down defenses in the NFL and their red zone defense ranks 19th in the league. Yet, they stand tall with a record of 6-3. So, what gives?
To answer, we might first turn to how they own the NFL’s best turnover differential at plus 16 (23 takeaways and only 7 giveaways), as well as the NFL’s most potent offense. In short, the Patriots, as they did last season, find a different way to win than most. They take away extra possessions from their opponents and turn those stalled drives into points.
For fans, it is an unappealing way to get things done, especially after witnessing years of dominance by old-time Belichick led defenses. But, for now, as the old adage goes “It is what it is.” And what it has been lately is good enough for 1st place in the AFC East.
In football, one statistic does not define a team's performance. Yet, turnover differential seems to be a very telling statistic for many clubs this year. With the exception of a few, the AFC's top teams in turnover differential are also playoff contenders. In the NFC, eight out of the ten teams who rank high in turnover differential also own a winning record and have legitimate hopes for a playoff spot.
But, as noted, turnover differential does not tell the whole story. See, for example, the teams that own positive turnover differentials such as, Cleveland, Washington and Arizona, but also post losing records. Most are failing miserably in other categories, which negates the extra possessions they are provided to score.
Because the Patriots are such a well oiled offensive machine, have superior personnel between the numbers and on the sideline and just plain know how to win, they mask their flaws.
The point is this: Many fear that when the mist subsides, opponents will peer off into the distance and notice a rather small, feeble army that was just banging their drums loudly. In other words, New England has the appearance of a mighty force, but in reality, they are just masking their weaknesses with lots of noise.
Their game against Buffalo is this fear concisely. New England let a 17-3 and a 24-10 lead slip away before the half. In the second half, they also allowed leads of 31-17 and 31-24 to collapse. The Bills finished with 35 first downs, converted 7-11 3rd downs and their only 4th down attempt, as well as 4-7 attempts in the red zone. (New England’s red zone defense stands at 19th this year). The Patriot’s defense also saw the field for 81 plays and almost 34 minutes, which we can partly attribute to their inability to stop Buffalo on third downs.
For a team that scores over 30 points a game, it is amazing to see how they can continue to win games by a thread. Unlike many sports, football is complementary. One statistic’s relevance is often negated or supported by another, and in the end, many just toss out the stats and watch the on field product. This happens especially when most realize that other factors affect a team’s success.
Nevertheless, it is difficult not to define the Patriots based on the numbers that seem so easily to define them.
The question most will continue to ask is whether the Patriots can rely on those current numbers—their offensive prowess and immensely superior turnover differential stats—to mask their glaring weakness, their inability to break their opponent’s resolve late in games.