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Is Patriots defense primed to peak over final eight-game gauntlet?

The Patriots defense has had an excellent first half of the season, but the true tests lie ahead.

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As was the case in 2021, the Patriots defense hits the bye week flying high. Last year, they were coming off of a wind-swept victory over the Bills in Buffalo, capping off a seven-game win streak that had the team atop the conference in a race for the singular playoff bye. But coming out of the early-December break the Patriots had three of their worst defensive performances of the season in their final four games before saving their worst for last in a 47-17 domination at the hands of the Bills.

This year the Pats defense is back at it, coming in at seventh in points against, second in takeaways, 5th overall in defensive DVOA and first in defensive EPA. They overwhelmed Sam Ehlinger and the Colts, not allowing a third-down conversion in fourteen attempts.

Any way you cut it, the Pats defense is playing really well, but will it be enough as the games become even more critical?

"It was just good team defense," said Bill Belichick following the win over the Colts. "Any time you have a good pass rush, you have good coverage. Any time you have good coverage, you'll have a good pass rush. Some of those sacks looked like coverage sacks, where there was nobody to throw to. Some of them were great rush sacks where they didn't have time to execute the passing game. But good team defense is really what it's about."

After tying a team record with nine sacks there are reasons to feel both confident but also trepidatious about how this year's squad will fare down the stretch. At 5-4, the Patriots are right in the playoff mix, but based on the offense's struggles there seems to be even more pressure on the defense to deliver in the face of the toughest, defining final frame of the season.

After the bye week, things kick off with a huge rematch against the Jets, who are coming off their own impressive victory over the division-leading Bills. That win, along with Miami's defeat of the Bears, have kept the Patriots at the bottom of the AFC East illustrating just how competitive the division has become and how critical every one of the final eight games will be.

"We just have got to continue to build," acknowledged captain Devin McCourty. "It is not going to get easier at this point in the season. We have got to still play better, it is what it is. Especially the week after next, going back into the division with the Jets."

The Jets believe they should've won last weekend over the Patriots. It's hard to understate how important the rematch Foxborough with both teams coming off their bye weeks will be. But that's just the start of a final gauntlet that will include two games against the Bills and one against Miami, who are a combined 8-1 against the Pats over their last nine games against them.

Table inside Article
Offense Overall Offensive DVOA Rush DVOA Pass DVOA Points Turnovers
NYJ 21st 17th 21st 21.8 (20th) 13 (t-23rd)
MIN 11th 4th 18th 24.1 (9th) 8 (t-5th)
BUF 4th 25th 2nd 27.5 (3rd) 14 (t-30th)
AZ 26th 23rd 27th 22.6 (t-16th) 9 (10th)
LVR 20th 8th 22nd 22.9 (15th) 7 (t-2nd)
CIN 17th 22nd 14th 25.3 (6th) 10 (t-14th)
MIA 5th 19th 3rd 23.7 (11th) 10 (t-14th)

All aspects of the defense will be tested, with top-10 rushing teams Minnesota and Las Vegas sure to test the statistical weak link of the Pats D (27th rush defense DVOA, 16th in rush defense EPA, 23rd in yards-per-rushing-attempt). Dalvin Cook (743 rushing yards, 4th ) and Josh Jacobs (608 rushing yards, 9th) are powerful backs who can move the pile, though it might be the mobile quarterbacks that are the bigger concern.

Kyler Murray (59 carries, 359 rushing yards) has a skillset similar to Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields, whose legs made a major difference in solving the Patriots' defense. Josh Allen has 392 rushing yards of his own along with four rushing touchdowns. Solving mobile quarterbacks is a big key for the second half of the season.

The weaponry the defense will face is also among the league's best. While Buffalo and Stephon Diggs and Miami with Tyreek Hill need no introduction, Justin Jefferson, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams and (potentially) Jamarr Chase are explosive game-changers that will put the Patriots coverage to the test.

Ultimately the final eight games will be defined by the AFC East divisional battles against the teams the Patriots defense should be most familiar with. Until the team solves Tua Tagolvailoa and Josh Allen they'll be scrapping things out with the Jets for third place.

The pass rush, led by league sack leader Matthew Judon should be a reason for optimism, but Judon's 2021 season featured a similar start. With Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche coming on Judon hasn't had to carry the load himself and that could be why he's due for a stronger finish in 2022. Christian Barmore's return from injury should provide a boost, as they need the disruptive interior defensive lineman back as soon as possible.

The added speed on New England's defense could also make a difference this year and be a reason to believe they'll have some new twists for the Bills, a team they had no answers to in their last two matchups. Sub-package players like Mack Wilson, Jabrill Peppers and Raekwon McMillan provide new depth and options to counter well-rounded, explosive attacks like the Bills and Dolphins.

Despite turnover and changes to the defense this season, they've once again flashed their dominance through the early months of the season. Will 2022 be the year where they return to their roots of playing their best football after Thanksgiving? After a brief break, the time is fast approaching to find out.

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