New England Patriots deserve respect thanks to their defense

Raekwon McMillan (center) and the Patriots defense

Raekwon McMillan (center) and the Patriots defense
Photo: Getty Images

If the playoffs were starting right now, the New England Patriots would be the AFC’s sixth seed. They’d get an opening-round matchup with the Tennessee Titans, followed by a likely road gig against the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a tough path in the already daunting American Football Conference. That said, if any team is going to come out of the AFC that isn’t the Chiefs, Bills, or Dolphins, I have a sneaky suspicion the Patriots could be that team.

Let me make one thing clear. Mac Jones isn’t a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. He’s not elite in any metric. As it’s looking right now, he’ll never be the guy that helps the Patriots win the AFC East. That said, they don’t seem to need that. New England only needs a stout defense, good offensive line play, and a group of running backs capable of methodically pushing the ball downfield. Guess what? The Pats have all of the above.

All New England needs is for their defense to keep it in the game, and that’s been the case all season. The only games where it hasn’t been the case were against the Bears and the Ravens. We’ll get to those in a second. New England has arguably the strongest defense in the league, and it’s been able to hold teams like the Jets to 20 points total in two games, the same amount the Jets scored in their lone game against Buffalo, widely considered one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Patriots did this all while not taking the Jets’ offense seriously. Head coach Bill Belichick even admitted to looking past the Jets and onto the Vikings ahead of their Week 11 matchup, and keep in mind, the Jets were ahead of the Patriots in the standings prior to this contest.

Now, where the Pats seem to struggle is against mobile quarterbacks. They’ve only had two games this year where opponents have scored more than 25 in regulation, the aforementioned Ravens and Bears. Both games saw the opposing quarterbacks rush for 107 and 82 yards respectively. New England is incredible at shutting down a passing game. In fact, the Pats are allowing the fourth-fewest passing yards per game and the second-lowest passer rating of any defense in the league, but struggle to contain the quarterback once he’s outside the pocket. I want to emphasize too, it’s not that these quarterbacks are beating them through the air once they get outside the pocket. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson ranks 14th in passer rating outside the pocket. Justin Fields ranks 31st. Neither has been incredibly effective in that scenario. It’s their legs.

The Patriots’ combination of high blitz rate (28 percent, which is 12th-highest in the NFL) and elite coverage makes them very sack-happy (36, second-most in the NFL). They also have the highest QB hurry percentage in the NFL (14.8 percent) and the second-highest pressure rate (29.8 percent). However, these tendencies also leave a lot of room open ahead of the line of scrimmage, and any elusive quarterback that can evade the pressure will have lots of room to run. That makes guys like Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, and maybe Patrick Mahomes all the more dangerous against New England. At the same time though, it makes guys who fold under pressure like Kirk Cousins (lowest passer rating under pressure in NFL among qualified QBs) look like they’re seeing ghosts. That’s why I’m taking the Patriots in a landslide this Thanksgiving by the way.

Because of this, the Patriots actually have a very good matchup against a few of the AFC’s top contenders: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Miami (although they lost to them in Week 1, I feel New England has improved since then), and Los Angeles. Those are all teams the Patriots could see in the playoffs. It’s just as likely that New England faces Buffalo, Kansas City, or Baltimore and gets bounced in the Wild Card Round, but if the cards fall right, they could do some serious damage.

The remainder of the Patriots’ schedule isn’t easy with two games left against Buffalo and matchups with Cincinnati, Minnesota, and Miami still on the horizon. Those will be benchmark games to determine the Pats’ viability in the postseason. It’s clear that if the Patriots want any chance of doing damage come mid-January, the offense will have to show signs of life. That said, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. If they’re looking solid right now with Mac Jones playing some of the worst football of his life, they can absolutely be contenders if Jones gains a little confidence down the final stretch of the regular season.

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