It's Not About The Statistics
S James Sanders, the veteran leader. (AP)
S James Sanders, the veteran leader. (AP)

Posted Dec 18, 2010

New England has a much better defense than the stats might suggest. The unit may rank near the bottom of the league in the most common statistic -- total yards - but there's more to a good defense than that. The Patriots know it, and it's one reason why their 11-2 record shouldn't be such a surprise to everyone.

Some of the numbers are ghastly, such as the yardage they've allowed or the number of points per game they've given up this year. Then there's the number the entire defense hangs its hat on -- turnover differential.

The New England Patriots lead the league in this category at plus-18, which means they've forced far more turnovers than they've allowed this season. That's been the key to surviving despite allowing a significant number of yards on a weekly basis.

The Patriots force turnovers at key points in the game and they take exceptional care of the ball on the offensive end, often making their opponent pay the price for being so careless. They surged ahead of Philadelphia in the turnover margin category by forcing four turnovers in last week's 36-7 win over Chicago.

"That's something we're proud of," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "We preach it every day in practice. Guys make plays all the time in practice, and I'm telling you, it sounds like I'm saying it a lot, but practice ... you can't get enough practice.

"The more you do in practice, the more plays you make in practice, the more consistent you are in practice, then you have a good chance of being that consistent on game day and it's been working for us."

Most of the Patriots' turnovers have come on interceptions. They're second in the league with 20, just two shy of the Eagles. Conversely, they've only turned the ball over nine times while scoring 105 points off their opponents' turnovers.

The Patriots' offense also set a record during the team's recent five-game win streak by not committing a turnover in any of those games.

"Running to the ball has a lot to do with it and also just having awareness where the ball is at certain times," tight end Rob Ninkovich said in regard to forcing turnovers. "There's always a high emphasis on it with every team because it's such a big factor in the game -- turnovers are a big deal."

No Jets Atitude Here

Everything is coming up roses so far for the Patriots in December, but, as always, the team is cautiously optimistic about its chances to capture a fourth Super Bowl ring under Bill Belichick -- so cautious, in fact, that the players refuse to discuss it.

"Coach always puts it best to us; he says everything that's happened this year has just provided us with an opportunity," quarterback Tom Brady said. "There is nothing set in stone. Yeah, we're in a good position, but we can be in a bad position really quickly in a span of two or three weeks.

"So, I think we've always focused on the challenge this week, and I think that's served us pretty well. Green Bay is a hell of a challenge for us. (They're) a very talented team in all three phases of the game and a very dangerous team. They played well last year. They're playing well this year. (They have a) great quarterback, great offensive scheme, great receivers, and a hell of a defense."

In other words, the Patriots haven't done anything yet (other than clinch a playoff spot), so the focus remains on winning each week to avoid any of the "unforeseen" scenarios that people talk about when measuring how close a team is to reaching its ultimate goal.

The good news is the calendar has switched to December, which is historically one of New England's most successful months. Add a little snow, and the Patriots are unbeatable -- 10-0, to be exact, since Belichick took over 10 years ago.

"I didn't even know that," Belichick said. "That's great. We'll get the snow-making machines out there; start firing it up. I wasn't even aware of it. Those aren't the kind of records I keep track of.

"Look, our team has to be ready to play in whatever the elements are every week. They practice in them. They play in them. They're the ones that are out there trying to throw, catch, kick in those conditions, tackle, block, whatever it is. We've got some good football players. Those guys prepare for not only the opponent they have to play, but also the conditions they have to play in, whether it's 90 degrees against Cincinnati or zero against Chicago. That's their job and they do a good job of it. They're the ones that deserve the credit. They're out there playing."

The concept of playing hard regardless of the elements might as well translate to playing hard regardless of where the team sits, because there's no chance the Patriots are taking their foot off the pedal despite the fact they're soaring while the Jets are sinking.

The Patriots have already wrapped up a playoff spot, but the division race is still not over yet. Thanks to their performance in recent weeks, they control their own destiny and can avoid the tedious task of scoreboard watching by taking care of business from here on out, starting with Sunday against the Packers.

The biggest key, according to Brady, is accountability. Even when the team is playing well, Belichick points out the minor mistakes and makes sure everyone realizes what needs to be done in order to achieve the ultimate goal of consistency on a weekly basis.

"When we don't do things right, he lets us know. There is nobody that's off the hook," Brady said. "He holds us accountable on every single play and every single day. When we come into a meeting at 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and he's got questions, 50 questions about the team that we're going to play.

"We haven't had a meeting about the Packers or the Bears, but he's got questions. And basically, he's trying to make sure that on Monday and Tuesday, we're doing what we need to do to be prepared for Wednesday morning. It's pretty embarrassing if everybody is getting their questions right that he's asking them and then he asks you, and you really don't know the answer. I think that's why everyone respects him so much. He coaches an 11-year veteran quarterback just the same way that he teaches a rookie tight end."

SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 4-4. The Packers won the only postseason meeting between the two teams with a 35-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXI. The last time the Packers played in Gillette Stadium, they beat New England, 28-10, with Brett Favre as their starting quarterback.

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