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Matt Burke: Patriots defense will finally face some big boy QBs

Dont'a Hightower tries to bring down Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in September Getty Images

Statistically and remarkably, the Patriots have not faced a top 10 quarterback this season.

That will change in a hurry. One could easily make the case that the four quarterbacks remaining in the NFL playoffs are, not coincidentally, the four best QBs in football.

Matt Ryan and Tom Brady were the top two QBs in terms of passer rating this season, Aaron Rodgers is simply playing better than any QB in pro football history right now, and Ben Roethlisberger has had nine multiple touchdown throwing games this season.

So, we’re about to find out whether or not this Patriots defense is the fraud unit that some people believe them to be.

For the record, I think they’re a slightly above-average bunch in today’s NFL. In other words, if Roethlisberger is “held” to a 300-yard, two touchdown passing day this Sunday, I’ll consider that a win for the Patriots.

Now, the Patriots’ defense can only play the schedule in front of them, and it seems like we’re in a down cycle in terms of truly elite QBs, so we can’t hammer them too hard because of lack of competition this season. But we absolutely can be healthy skeptical about a unit that consistently makes Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Dan Marino.

Here is a list of the QBs the Patriots have beaten this season: Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Charlie Whitehurst, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Colin Kaepernick, Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian and Matt Moore.

Now that is one giant sea of crap.

Flacco is the only one out of that group that you could make the case for when it comes to being an elite talent (and that’s a bit of a stretch). In a big Monday night game against the Pats a month ago, Flacco set a Ravens franchise record for completions with 37. He finished the night with a decent 92.1 passer rating with two touchdowns and a pick.

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In the Patriots’ only real loss this season (I’m not counting that odd Brady-less Buffalo game in Week 4) they fell to a QB who is often elite. Russell Wilson came into Foxboro in mid-November and hung 31 points on the Pats, shredding their “D” to the tune of 348 passing yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He finished the night with a highly impressive 124.6 passer rating – statistically his third best game of the 2016 season.

So, the sample size of the Patriots vs. top-of-the-line QBs this season is microscopic – but the data is worrisome nonetheless. Despite an ugly performance against the Chiefs on Sunday night (20-of-31 for 224 yards, zero TDs, one INT, 72.5 passer rating), it’s easy to imagine the 34-year-old Roethlisberger bouncing back against the Pats with a monster passing day.

The last time “Big Ben” faced the Pats was opening night of last season, and he hit on 26-of-38 passes for 351 yards, a TD and a pick. He finished with a strong 95.4 passer rating while completing nine of his passes to Antonio Brown for 133 yards. The Pats won the game, 28-21, but Roethlisberger made it clear that he can put his team in position to win at Gillette Stadium.

Bill Belichick defenses are famous for taking away the opposing team’s strength. Right now, the Steelers’ strength actually does not lie in its passing game, as running Le’Veon Bell is averaging an absurd 146.5 rushing yards per game since mid-November. So, as crazy as it might seem – the Patriots might say to themselves, “Let’s take away Bell, and see if Roethlisberger can beat us.”

Unlike the majority of the rest of the QBs the Patriots have faced this season, Roethlisberger is up for those type of challenges.

 

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