As they enter the bye week, the New England Patriots sit atop the AFC after reeling off seven-straight wins. It was a dramatic resurgence after the team missed the playoffs last season and then started off 2021 with a 2-4 record. But despite the apparent slow start, the Patriots were within striking distance in every loss they posted through the first six games.
The difference over the last two months? A dramatic increase in takeaways and reduction in giveaways, coupled with the emergence of clutch playmaking from the defense. While the offense has done their part, it's been the defense that has led the way, as they've shot to the top of the league in most important statistics, including points allowed (1st), yards allowed (3rd), third-down defense (6th) and red zone defense (2nd). Football Outsiders' DVOA metric shows similar indications, with the Patriots defense coming in second overall, second against the pass and seventh against the run.
But as you dig into the details, they paint a broader picture of a defense that is not only dominating but coming up with their biggest plays in the biggest moments.
Let's take a quick look at how things unfolded early in the season, and how some key defensive stops and plays have made a major difference over the last seven games.
|Week 1 vs. MIA: 17-16 LOSS||Jonathan Jones interception sets up potential game-winning drive but Harris fumbles. Miami takes over with 3:31 left and runs out the clock.|
|Week 2 at NYJ: 25-6 WIN||Early intereceptions set the tone and NE rolls.|
|Week 3 vs. NO: 28-13 LOSS||NE closes to 21-13 in 4th, Defense allows 13 play, 75-yard TD drive to seal Saints win.|
|Week 4 vs. TB: 19-17 LOSS||NE takes 17-16 lead with 4:34 left, defense allows seven-play, 45-yard field goal drive to re-take lead. Folk misses 56-yard FG to seal loss.|
|Week 5 at HOU: 25-22 WIN||Down 22-9 early in the third quarter, defense kicks into gear forcing three punts and a missed field goal the rest of the game.|
|Week 6 vs. DAL: 35-29 LOSS (OT)||Up 29-26, defense allows nine-play, 40-yard game-tying drive to send the game to OT, then allows seven-play, 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive in OT.|
New England's poor ball security helped contribute to some of the losses, with Harris' fumble against Miami costing points and Mac Jones' pick-sixes against the Saints and Cowboys quickly changing the complexion of the games. Through the first six games, the Patriots had 11 giveaways to eight takeaways, with four of the takeaways all coming against the Jets, leaving a total of just three takeaways in the four losses with none against the Saints or Bucs.
Houston represented a turning point of sorts, and though the defense would give up a ton of yards and points to the potent Cowboys, they showed flashes of what they were capable of. That's when the defense really started to kick into gear.
|Week 7 vs. NYJ: 54-13 WIN||Fast 14-0 start leads to a blowout.|
|Week 8 at LAC: 27-24 WIN||Adrian Phillips pick-six in 4th quarter gives NE the lead, defense forces a punt on next possession. STs recover onsides kick to seal win.|
|Week 9 at CAR: 24-6 WIN||J.C. Jackson pick-six blows game open in 4th quarter, followed by two more interception and a downs stop.|
|Week 10 vs. CLE: 45-7 WIN||Up 24-7 at halftime, defense forces two punts and two downs turnovers in four second-half possessions.|
|Week 11 at ATL: 25-0 WIN||A close 13-0 game at halftime, Pats pull away in the second half forcing two punts, one downs stop, then grabbing four-straight interceptions.|
|Week 12 vs. TEN: 36-13 WIN||A 19-13 game at halftime, defense hits the cycle in the second half, forcing two fumbles, one punt, one downs stop and grabbing an interception.|
|Week 13 at BUF: 14-10 WIN||Red zone defense gets two stops on the final two drives to seal the victory.|
What jumps off the page about the defense's performance over the seven-game win streak is just how good they've been in the second half where they've allowed a total of just two touchdowns and two field goals, and a 5.1 percent takeaway rate that leads the league by a wide margin. Their 11 interceptions are four more than second-place Dallas'.
However, this week's win over the Bills stands out for its own reasons as New England couldn't rely on a bevy of turnovers and had to make some key stops, the kind of stops they did not get earlier in the season against Miami, Tampa or Dallas.
Going forward, the takeaways are the x-factor, as those can quickly change the dynamic of any game and have been a big reason why the Patriots have been able to pull away in the second half of many games and not had to sweat things out until the end like they did against Buffalo. But takeaways can be fickle and dry up in a hurry, especially against the best teams in the playoffs and that's why the overall team defensive play is the most promising piece of the Patriots' playoff hopes.