New England's Defense is Historically (Hysterically?) Bad For a Playoff Contender

I’m a sucker. I still have the New England Patriots listed as a Super Bowl Favorite after four weeks, even though the Patriots’ Defense has been really bad. How bad? Well, Chase Stuart sent out this nugget: “2011 Patriots — first team in NFL history to give up 1900 yards in first four games. 2 of 3 tms w/ >1875 yds allowed folded after season.”

If we look at teams that were able to overcome and make the playoffs, only 7 modern teams made the playoffs after giving up more than 400 yards per game through the first four games of the season, with the 1999 Redskins leading the list at 1,741 yards. That is a substantial improvement over where the Patriots are.

So is it hopeless in New England? The Patriots have the best offense in the league, and are currently first in yards and points. Last year, the Patriots were efficient on offense and avoided turnovers, but they are even more explosive this year. As we know, last year’s team didn’t fare well in the playoffs.

I looked up all the playoff teams that were top 3 in both points and yards on offense, but were in the bottom 8 of the league in yards allowed. Bottom 8 would be quite an improvement at this point, but I wanted to see how these extreme teams did in the playoffs.

Nine teams are on the list, and here they are sorted by how badly their defense ranked in yards allowed compared to the rest of the league:

  • 1999 Redskins (10-6, #3 seed): 30th of 31 teams in yards allowed; 2nd in both points and yards on offense
  • 1981 Chargers (10-6, #3 seed): 27th of 28 in yards allowed; 1st in points and 1st in yards on offense
  • 1991 Bills (12-4, #1 seed): 27th of 28 in yards allowed; 2nd in points and 1st in yards on offense
  • 2003 Chiefs (13-3, #2 seed): 29th of 32 in yards allowed; 1st in points and 2nd in yards on offense
  • 2004 Colts (12-4, #3 seed): 29th of 32 in yards allowed; 1st in points and 2nd in yards on offense
  • 1982 Chargers (6-3, #5 seed): 25th of 28 in yards allowed; 1st in points and 1st in yards on offense
  • 2009 Saints (13-3, #1 seed): 25th of 32 in yards allowed; 1st in points and 1st in yards on offense
  • 1995 Lions (10-6, #5 seed): 23rd of 30 in yards allowed; 2nd in points and 1st in yards on offense
  • 1998 49ers (12-4, #4 seed): 23rd of 30 in yards allowed; 3rd in points and 1st in yards on offense

Some not so surprising names on that list, including the Air Coryell Chargers, and the 2003 Chiefs. How did those offensively skewed teams do? Only one of them won a Super Bowl, but the blueprint was just offered two years ago by the Saints. Of course, that Saints team was way ahead of where the Patriots are after four games, ranking 25th in yards and using an opportunistic defense that created turnovers. If we control for seed, though, they don’t fare too badly, though they don’t tend to overachieve too much when they reach the playoffs.

Both #1 seeds reached the Super Bowl, with one winning it. The #2 and #3 seeds performed to seed, with the Chiefs losing a shootout at home, while the 1981 Chargers won one of the most memorable playoff games on the road in Miami, before losing the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati. The Colts and Redskins won at home then lost on the road. The #4 and #5 seeds went a combined 2-3, not an unusual result for those seeds.

Can New England win a Super Bowl with this defense? It would be unprecedented, as the 1991 Bills ranked worse in yards allowed, while the Saints were 8th from the bottom. If they are going to do it, they will need to get some turnovers on defense to mask the big plays allowed, so a few more Vince Wilfork interceptions would help. If there’s a team that can do it, it is this Patriots team, with an offense that looks like it has taken it up a notch from last year when all the parts are healthy.

I also think that Bill Belichick, with his aggressive style and willingness to go for it rather than put it on his defense, is the perfect coach to pull it off, as his teams have routinely limited points compared to their yards allowed, by creating turnovers and performing in the red zone. The Belichick Patriots have ranked higher in points allowed than yards allowed in 10 of 11 previous seasons, and are 20th in points despite all those yards this year.

Still, the Achilles’ heel is open and obvious on this team, and if they fail to win the title after entering as Super Bowl favorites, again, the reason will be that historically, and hysterically bad defense.

[photo via Getty]

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