NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots’ season got off to a shaky start, as the team was 3-3 through their first six games. Since then, however, the Patriots have been on a roll. They have won their past five consecutive games, by an average margin of victory of 22.4 points per game.
The Patriots have been as dominant as any team in the National Football League over that span, and are making a case for being the AFC’s best team. While it is too soon to state that at this point, we can pinpoint five reasons why the Patriots have won their last five contests.
1. NFL’s best offense
The Patriots lead the National Football League in total yards per game and points scored per game. With their performances over their past five games, it is no longer close.
The Patriots have averaged 435.8 offensive yards per game, 22.9 yards better than the Detroit Lions, the only other team in the league with more than 400 per game. At 37.0 points per game, the Patriots have 6.9 more per game than the Denver Broncos, the only other team above 30 points per game.
Over the past five games, the Patriots’ offense has been very balanced, putting up at least 230 passing yards and 115 rushing yards in each contest. Scoring-wise, the Patriots have absolutely poured it on their opponents over the past five games, with a whopping average of 43.8 points per game.
The Patriots can win games by outscoring their opponents to a greater extent than any other team in the league can. They are able to do this thanks to one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks in Tom Brady, a tremendous assortment of playmakers and an offensive line that has been steadier and stronger than most expected.
Even without their biggest playmaker, tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots put up 475 yards of offense Thursday against the New York Jets. They were able to do that because of the many other playmakers they have, including wide receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, tight end Aaron Hernandez and running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
The Patriots offense has been dominant through the first 11 games of their season, and to this point, no opposing defense has found a way to shut them down over the course of a game.
2. Dominating the turnover battle
More often than not, the team that turns the ball over most will lose a football game. With the way the Patriots are playing football this season, that plays tremendously in their favor.
The Patriots not only lead the league with 32 takeaways, but they also lead the league in fewest giveaways with only eight.
While the Patriots have given up a lot of yards on defense, especially through the air, they have a knack for making big plays to win games. The Patriots are tied for fourth NFL-wide with 14 interceptions, while their 18 fumble recoveries are seven better than any other team in the league.
Offensively, the Patriots are more smart and disciplined than they are explosive in their dominance. Brady has only been intercepted for a league-low three interceptions (among quarterbacks who have started all of their team’s game), while the Patriots have also only lost five fumbles.
Over the past five games, the Patriots have been especially good in the turnover category, with 16 takeaways and only two giveaways.
Their takeaways have played a huge role in sparking many of their victories. In their most recent game against the Jets, the Patriots scored two fumble return touchdowns. In the previous game against the Indianapolis Colts, they scored on two interception returns. Against Buffalo, an interception by safety Devin McCourty sealed victory, while a fumble forced and recovered by defensive end Rob Ninkovich ended their first matchup with the Jets in overtime.
On the other end of the equation, not turning the ball over has helped the Patriots win the field-position battle, and has prevented their opponents from winning the game by taking advantage of mistakes.
3. Secondary stabilization
Through the first six games of the season, the New England Patriots’ secondary was all over the place, and giving up big passing plays late in game directly cost them two of their three early losses (to the Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks).
In their past five games, however, the Patriots have seen steady improvement from their secondary, and the weakness of their team is starting to make big plays to win games.
On Thursday against the Jets, the Patriots’ secondary played their best game of the season yet, and seem to have finally found a starting lineup that works on the back end of their defense: Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, with McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety.
The stabilization of the secondary all started in their first matchup with the New York Jets, when the Patriots decided to move McCourty to safety with both of their regular starters out due to injury. Moving the team’s best defensive back away from the cornerback spot was risky, but McCourty has been excellent inside, and seems to be a perfect fit to keep playing the position long-term for New England.
Moving McCourty inside, however, left the Patriots without a true No. 1 cornerback. Trading a fourth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Talib at the trade deadline solved that problem. Talib has been a steadying force in the Patriots’ secondary in his first two games with the team, and has made an immediate impact, including a 59-yard interception return touchdown against the Colts.
Across from Talib, Dennard is quickly emerging as a very good cornerback in his own right. Dennard, a seventh-round pick in the 2012 draft, has certainly made his share of rookie mistakes, but has locked down opposing receivers for the most part. Of any player in the Patriots’ secondary, Dennard is proving to possibly be the best at making plays on the football, and had an interception return touchdown of his own against the Colts.
Free safety Steve Gregory missed a four-game stretch, including the first two games of their five-game winning streak, with a hip injury, but has been solid in the lineup upon his return. He had his breakout performance as a Patriot on Thursday, coming up with three takeaways including a fumble return touchdown, proving he belongs in the starting lineup.
Now that the Patriots are healthy in the secondary, it appears that they can be a very solid unit if they stay that way. They have a solid starting four, while cornerback Kyle Arrington has looked comfortable as the nickel cornerback after struggling into a starting role, and safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson may be able to be playmakers in limited roles, even though both struggled in pass coverage when they were in the starting lineup at times.
The Patriots’ secondary will continue to be an area of concern, but if they stay healthy and continue to play well, the Patriots have no major weakness on their roster.