INDIANAPOLIS - Few facets of any Bill Belichick coached football team came under the scrutiny that his current defense has in the 2011 season. Even fewer showed the kind of toughness the unit displayed throughout the year.
The group suffered through the barbs that came its way as it spent virtually the entire NFL season languishing at the bottom of the league's defensive rankings. Last in pass defense, last in total yards and a less-than-stellar 17th in run defense. Even those who chose to ignore the rankings and point to the points allowed had to settled for an utterly mediocre 15th in that department.
By the end of season New England managed to "climb" to 31st in the first two categories, but the questions remained about the group's championship potential.
But throughout all the criticism the Patriots remained unified, and the playoffs brought about a different story. Admittedly they received plenty of help from a pair of teams with limited offenses in Denver and Baltimore, but there was no denying the fact that New England played its best defense of the season when it mattered most.
"I can't pinpoint yes or no but I'll tell you one thing is each week we work toward getting better," captain Vince Wilfork said when asked if he and his mates were playing their best at the right time.
"Every week we've done that. This defense came a long way. I'm not saying it's perfect; I'm not saying it's the best defense in the league. But this defense makes plays when we need to make plays. We stop people when we need stops. We get the ball back to our offense when we need to. That's not just one person; it's 11 people taking the field understanding certain situations, getting the plays and executing to the fullest. I don't think we're the best but at the same time we make it count when we need to."
In the Patriots two playoff games things were much different from the regular season. The Broncos managed just 252 yards of total offense, the fewest New England allowed in any game all year. Against the Ravens, the story was more about Wilfork's assertion of timeliness as the Patriots made all the big plays when they had to.
"I feel we're playing well. We won't know until after this game. I can't speak on the defense as a whole but we just need to play well," Patrick Chung said. "We played two pretty good games. This is the last game so everything is going to be put out there."
The return of Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes, who each missed seven games to injury before coming back in Week 17, played a role in the improvement. The defense also received great leadership from both the coaches and Wilfork, who seemed to assert himself during the middle of the season following the departure of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth.
Matt Patricia, the unit's de facto coordinator and safety coach, believes Wilfork's presence was a huge part of the team's success, but quickly pointed out that he wasn't alone.
"Obviously, Vince is a great player, and I think he leads by an extremely strong example," Patricia said. "Everyone tends to follow those guys that are out in front, so whether it is Vince, Jerod [Mayo] or whoever it is leading the defense we have strong voices. Vince is a tremendous player, a tremendous leader and we are very fortunate and lucky to have him."
Patricia did wonders with the defense, particularly a secondary that saw some strange combinations down the stretch. At various times the Patriots featured defensive backfields that included the likes of Antwaun Molden, Nate Jones, James Ihedigbo, Sterling Moore and even offensive players such as Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater.
Despite having to make do with less-than-ideal circumstances, he credits the players for their toughness and ability to work through the struggles while maintaining the group never got caught up in the numbers.
"I don't really think we focus on rankings or any of that," Patricia said. "All we are worried about is going out and trying to do the best that we can, and go out and try to win each week. I think the rest of it doesn't matter to us. Everyone is out there trying to do their job, and just trying to execute everything that we are trying to do.
"So you give all of the credit to the players, obviously, because those are the guys that work hard every day. We are just pleased with anybody that had to step in, take a roll and do whatever it is that they had to do. They did a great job."