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Nitpick and Nitwits: Uh, about that defense?

Don't look now, but that thing that's been ridiculed from the get-go this season? 

You know, that part of the Patriots that seemed to be underachieving, and then when it couldn't get much worse, arguably their best athlete is ditched by the roadside in Cleveland like a fast-food drink cup gets thrown out of a car window?

Yeah, well, that "thing" is Numero Uno in the NFL today.  

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After the 16-3 defensive demolition in Denver, a previously much-maligned New England defensive unit now finds itself #1 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 16.6 points per game over the course of 14 weeks of play.  

No one is better, right now.

Is this a result of actual improved play by the Patriots' defense, or is it more a result of the quality of their opponents' offense?  It's a fair question, perhaps, but the Patriots can't do a thing about the schedule.  You play who the NFL tells you to play.

When you consider how the preseason hype for the New England defense was built in the off-season, by fans and media alike; to have the unit begin the season by pitching a shutout against Houston, then give up 56 points in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Seattle?  You can see this roller-coaster ride has had its share of ups and downs.  Right now, it's back on the upswing after giving up just four touchdowns over the past 14 quarters.

There is some merit to the lack of offensive punch in the schedule, however.  Only one of the 12 Patriot wins thus far has come against a team whose offense ranks in the Top 10 in scoring (Buffalo).  Only two of the 12 wins have come against offenses ranking in the Top 10 in yardage gained (Pittsburgh and Arizona).  

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But you can also see visible, tangible evidence that this defense as it exists in Week 15 isn't the same team that took the field a little more than a month ago.  Both offense and defense are very much by-products of game-planning for a specific opponent, but now when stops are called for - and needed - someone steps up.

Trey Flowers has turned into a force at defensive end with two sacks against the Broncos, for instance.  The Patriots held Denver to just 2-for-12 on 3rd downs.  And, the Broncos traveled just twice into the red zone, were held to a field goal in one trip early and threw an interception in the other.  

That pick by Logan Ryan off Trevor Siemian was a game-altering play - the kind of play usually reserved for championship-caliber defenses.

"This was big for us," Ryan told the media afterward.  "I've been here for four years and haven't won in Denver.  How they ended our year last year, this was definitely a personal game for us.  I don't care what anyone says, we wanted to come out here and completely dominate the game.

"We were doubted all year," he added.  "You said we sucked and we heard about their secondary and their defense, so we wanted to go out (here) and prove something."

Little argument there.  The defense proved something, alright.  They proved they can (when needed) get off the field on 3rd down - long a nitpick this season.  They also proved they can make a big play and force a turnover when they need one - another nitpick - unlike earlier in the year.  

Don't look now, but that thing that's been ridiculed from the get-go this season? 

You know, that part of the Patriots that seemed to be underachieving, and then when it couldn't get much worse, arguably their best athlete is ditched by the roadside in Cleveland like a fast-food drink cup gets thrown out of a car window?

Yeah, well, that "thing" is Numero Uno in the NFL today.  

ap_16354000858937.jpg

After the 16-3 defensive demolition in Denver, a previously much-maligned New England defensive unit now finds itself #1 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 16.6 points per game over the course of 14 weeks of play.  

No one is better, right now.

Is this a result of actual improved play by the Patriots' defense, or is it more a result of the quality of their opponents' offense?  It's a fair question, perhaps, but the Patriots can't do a thing about the schedule.  You play who the NFL tells you to play.

When you consider how the preseason hype for the New England defense was built in the off-season, by fans and media alike; to have the unit begin the season by pitching a shutout against Houston, then give up 56 points in back-to-back games against Buffalo and Seattle?  You can see this roller-coaster ride has had its share of ups and downs.  Right now, it's back on the upswing after giving up just four touchdowns over the past 14 quarters.

There is some merit to the lack of offensive punch in the schedule, however.  Only one of the 12 Patriot wins thus far has come against a team whose offense ranks in the Top 10 in scoring (Buffalo).  Only two of the 12 wins have come against offenses ranking in the Top 10 in yardage gained (Pittsburgh and Arizona).  

ap_16354002549448.jpg

But you can also see visible, tangible evidence that this defense as it exists in Week 15 isn't the same team that took the field a little more than a month ago.  Both offense and defense are very much by-products of game-planning for a specific opponent, but now when stops are called for - and needed - someone steps up.

Trey Flowers has turned into a force at defensive end with two sacks against the Broncos, for instance.  The Patriots held Denver to just 2-for-12 on 3rd downs.  And, the Broncos traveled just twice into the red zone, were held to a field goal in one trip early and threw an interception in the other.  

That pick by Logan Ryan off Trevor Siemian was a game-altering play - the kind of play usually reserved for championship-caliber defenses.

"This was big for us," Ryan told the media afterward.  "I've been here for four years and haven't won in Denver.  How they ended our year last year, this was definitely a personal game for us.  I don't care what anyone says, we wanted to come out here and completely dominate the game.

"We were doubted all year," he added.  "You said we sucked and we heard about their secondary and their defense, so we wanted to go out (here) and prove something."

Little argument there.  The defense proved something, alright.  They proved they can (when needed) get off the field on 3rd down - long a nitpick this season.  They also proved they can make a big play and force a turnover when they need one - another nitpick - unlike earlier in the year.  

ap_16354008576154.jpg

That they did both things in a hostile place where they haven't had much success (1st win in Denver since 2011), does count for something, regardless of the relative abilities of the opponents' offense.  It's also the first career win for TB12 over Denver when the team scored 30 points or less.  

Game balls, all around?  Don't forget the hats and t-shirts, too.

"We're having fun man," Ryan told the Boston Globe.  "We're getting after the quarterback.  We're playing great defense.  Guys are feeding off each other, we're joking a lot.  We're just having fun playing ball right now - it's working."

And having fun, no doubt, getting in the last laugh.

ap_16354008576154.jpg

That they did both things in a hostile place where they haven't had much success (1st win in Denver since 2011), does count for something, regardless of the relative abilities of the opponents' offense.  It's also the first career win for TB12 over Denver when the team scored 30 points or less.  

Game balls, all around?  Don't forget the hats and t-shirts, too.

"We're having fun man," Ryan told the Boston Globe.  "We're getting after the quarterback.  We're playing great defense.  Guys are feeding off each other, we're joking a lot.  We're just having fun playing ball right now - it's working."

And having fun, no doubt, getting in the last laugh.

Slow start, but fast finish

From the way things got started in the Mile-High city, it didn't look like the Patriots' defense would have the kind of day that would keep the Broncos out of the end zone.

There was zero pressure on Siemian early, and Denver rushed for more yards (19) in their first three plays than they had in their entire game last week against Tennessee (18).

Denver produced 56 yards of offense on their nine 1st down plays run in the 1st quarter, yet only had three points to show for the effort on three possessions.  The Patriots' defense, among the top two in the league in "bendability" for much of the season, was playing true to form.

And it got better from there.  On Denver's first five possessions of the 2nd half, all five were three-and-outs.  Was it because the Broncos stunk it up, or because the Pats were improved?  Maybe a little of both.  But the Broncos never did reach the end zone, and that's what mattered most.

TB12 bounces back, too

Slow start, but fast finish

From the way things got started in the Mile-High city, it didn't look like the Patriots' defense would have the kind of day that would keep the Broncos out of the end zone.

There was zero pressure on Siemian early, and Denver rushed for more yards (19) in their first three plays than they had in their entire game last week against Tennessee (18).

Denver produced 56 yards of offense on their nine 1st down plays run in the 1st quarter, yet only had three points to show for the effort on three possessions.  The Patriots' defense, among the top two in the league in "bendability" for much of the season, was playing true to form.

And it got better from there.  On Denver's first five possessions of the 2nd half, all five were three-and-outs.  Was it because the Broncos stunk it up, or because the Pats were improved?  Maybe a little of both.  But the Broncos never did reach the end zone, and that's what mattered most.

TB12 bounces back, too

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Hard to nitpick one of the best to have ever played the game, but that's what we do best around here.  And an 0-for-6 start in the passing game is unusual enough, only because it hadn't happened in 13 years before Tom Brady fired his six blanks against the Broncos.

On a 2nd-and-5 near midfield just before the half, Brady targeted Dion Lewis down the right sideline and misfired, which led to an eventual punt and missed scoring chance.  Wide open in the right flat on that play was Martellus Bennett, and a connection there would have almost certainly meant a scoring chance before halftime.  It's one play in this week's film study TB12 will want to do-over.

Oh T.J., you've done it again

Usually, we spend our time here nitpicking at Patriot mistakes and miscues, but T.J. Ward's takedown of Julian Edelman in the 4th quarter may be a candidate for "Dumb Play of the Year."

On 3rd and three from the Denver 48, with on 3:46 left on the clock and his team just about out of chances, Ward bolted the door shut on any Bronco comeback by slamming Edelman to the turf - after Edelman had already missed catching a short pass from Tom Brady.  He then bounced up and flexed his muscles toward the New England sideline.

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What did Forrest Gump once say so well - "stupid is as stupid does?"  The unnecessary roughness penalty for the WWE-style takedown gave New England a first down at the Denver 33, and even though they didn't score any points from the error, enough of the clock was run out to effectively finish off the Broncos.

Ward has certainly had his moments where the line between "tough play" and "dirty play" are often smudged.  But there was no blurring this line, this time.      

Look in the mirror

There certainly isn't much harmony in the Mile-High City right now, with the defending Super Bowl champs at 8-6 and looking at the strong possibility of not even getting into the postseason tournament this year to defend their title.

So, when head coach Gary Kubiak had to diffuse a reported postgame locker room shout-down and/or skirmish, there was a bit of irony at hand.  According to several witnesses and subsequent reports, when Kubiak asked if anyone wanted to address the team, offensive tackle Russell Okung stepped up.  

Defensive back Aqib Talib strongly objected, apparently not interested in hearing from anyone on the offense - setting off a shouting match that Kubiak had to shut down before anything turned ugly.

Holding the Patriots to 16 points and Brady to an 0-for-6 start, frustrations are understandable.  But when your coach decides to sit on the ball with 1:15 left before the half - with all three timeouts remaining - and with points hard to come by, shouldn't at least some of the shouting, or finger-pointing, be directed at the peace-maker?

Just sayin'.

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is presently in his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice.  Currently serving in several additional media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 28 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

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