One seed, two seed, three seed, four seed, whatever – it doesn’t, nor should it, matter where the New England Patriots finish in the AFC pecking order at the end of the season. Great defense trumps everything. Great defense by the Patriots upended Pittsburgh back in 2004 when the Steelers finished as the No. 1 seed with a 15-1 record, only to lose the conference title game in humiliating fashion, 41-27, highlighted by Rodney Harrison’s interception return for a touchdown, one of three picks against Ben
In fact, great defense has been the key to every championship during the Bill Belichick era, regardless of the venue. Great defense sparked the dismantling of “The Greatest Show On Turf” in 2001 when the Patriots mauled and massacred the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, a game in which Ty Law’s interception return for a touchdown set the tone.
Great defense also brought the Patriots back to the Super Bowl two years later when they shut out three separate opponents en route to the second of their three titles under Belichick, but not before forcing five turnovers against the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship.
It’s not hard to figure out the theme at play here. The Patriots might scratch and claw their way to the No. 1 seed this year before the end of the regular season, but they’ll only go as far as defensive backs Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis take them.
If the Patriots finish the journey and win their fourth Super Bowl title – and first in 10 years – the offseason acquisitions of Browner and Revis will go down as two of the five best free-agent signings of Belichick’s tenure. It’ll be hard to top the 2003 acquisition of Rodney Harrison in terms of overall success, but there are parallels between that signing and the signing of Revis and Browner.
All three added a new element of toughness to a defense that had been pushed around for far too long. When Harrison arrived in 2003, the Patriots were coming off a season in which they ranked 31st in run defense and missed the playoffs. The veteran safety sent a message to the entire team that summer in training camp, flattening Kevin Faulk during team drills. A brawl ensued, but he got his point across, and the Patriots went on to win 14 games, lead the league in defense and beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.
While Revis and Browner didn’t spark any fights in training camp this summer, they’ve undoubtedly made an impact on a defense that finished 25th or worse in each of the last four years. On the field, they’re menacing figures, with Revis capable of shutting down any top-flight receiver in the league and the 6-foot-4 Browner roaming the secondary as an enforcer of sorts, so much so that Chargers’ tight end
Ladarius Green couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball before Browner leveled him in last weekend’s win at San Diego. The mere sight of Browner closing in on you is enough to make any sure-handed receiver lose his wits.
But it’s about more than what they do on the field. They’ve also shown a tremendous amount of maturity and accountability, always available to the press before and after games, win or lose. That might not mean much on the surface, but there’s something to be said for a player who willingly faces the music and the kind of example that sets for younger players.
Back in 2006 after the Patriots suffered a humiliating shutout loss to the Dolphins in a game in which the offensive line crumbled and Tom Brady got sacked five times, most of the players shuffled out of the visitors’ locker room before the press arrived.
The only lineman who stood in front of the firing squad and answered questions was Stephen Neal, who was far from the only culprit that afternoon. No player would ever admit it, but it can’t be fun being hung out to dry by the rest of your teammates and being forced to answer to what went wrong following such an ugly loss.
That doesn’t happen with this year’s team. Whether he limits his counterpart to a pair of measly catches or gets torched for two touchdowns, Revis is in front of his locker, accountable for his and the rest of his teammates’ actions. It’s about more than just fulfilling your obligations. It’s about leadership, and this year’s group has the intangibles we’ve come to expect from a championship-caliber team, among
them leadership, toughness and accountability.
Whether they’re the No. 1 seed with a first-round bye and homefield advantage or a No. 3 forced to play on Wild Card Weekend, the Patriots will only go as far as their defense takes them. It’s not science. It’s history. This has always been the case during the Belichick era and this season is no different.
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