FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Defense wins championships.
In New England, that statement has been debatable. When you have Tom Brady, the offense will always be the focus. The future Hall-of-Famer has defied the odds for so long that you expect him to find a way, anyway, in the playoffs.
Following an inconsistent 2018 season, by Patriots offensive standards, if this team is going to make a long playoff run, they’ll need to be picked up by their defensive unit. It’s a scenario that many defensive players dream of – stepping up when the stakes are highest. They’ll get their chance in this weekend’s AFC divisional round against a talented Los Angeles Chargers team.
For players like Trey Flowers, the hope is that the defense will rise to the challenge.
“Actually, over the bye, I had a dream about kind of setting the edge,” Flowers said. “I didn’t set the edge, and I woke up. It was a nightmare. It turned into a nightmare. It’s just one of those things, you defiantly look forward to it. You go through a whole season and prepare yourself for this position.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Patriots leaned on their defense. Of course, it’s been so long that nobody would fault if you forgotten.
In the early portion of this Patriots dynasty, those first Super Bowls came with defenses loaded with names like Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel. The first Patriots championship happened with a defense that would hold all three playoff opponents under 20 points.
During the second Super Bowl run, the Patriots offense was ranked 12th in points, but the defense led the league in points allowed. Of course, that came in a time where defenses could play physical and Brady was known as the ‘Comeback Kid.’ A lot has changed since then, but the Patriots know they’ll need to play complimentary football.
You might not look at the names on this Patriots defense and compare them to the ’01, ’03 or ’04 teams, but players in this locker room feel like they’ve been overlooked.
“I feel collectively I’ve done better than people realize,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “And I feel like [Dont’a Hightower]’s done better than people realize and Trey. I feel like the whole defense collectively. Obviously, there’s games that didn’t go as well as we hopes for, but collectively you look back on the season, a lot of guys play better than what people think.”
This season, when the Patriots hold an opponent to 20 or fewer points, they’re 8-1. When an opponent scores 30 or more, the Pats were 2-3. People might focus on losses like Jackson, Detroit, Tennessee and Miami to point to the defensive downfalls. However, over the final six weeks, the Patriots held five opponents to under 18 points. This season, the defense took on Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger and held both those offenses to 17 points.
Of course, recognition isn’t why this group of defensive players line up.
“There’s a lot of guys that come in and work hard. They put the team first,” Flowers said. “A lot of guys that are not selfish, don’t worry about individual awards or individual accolades. It’s all about the team. We’ve got a lot of guys that buy in. it’s all about the team... I think that’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on, keep getting better week in and week out. We come to a time like this, end of the season, playoffs, playing our best football.”
With a talented offense coming up, those kinds of performances will be needed. Phillip Rivers is a good quarterback with talented weapons. It won’t be easy to slow them down, but it’ll be necessary. The Brady-led offense looked off for most of the season. You can point to several reasons - Rob Gronkowski's level of play, Brady's knee injury, the lack of offensive weapons, etc. – but whatever the case is, this year’s defense will certainly need to play well.
The time for the Patriots defense to take the lead is now.
“It’s what you play for – to be in this position,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore. “You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Added Van Noy: “The best is yet to come.”