The Patriots have been graded on a higher scale than the rest of the NFL due to their success in the early part of the 2000s.
For proof, take into account that Bill Belichick fielded a question at his weekly press conference at Gillette Stadium Wednesday that began with, “Bill, it’s been nearly 10 years since you won the Super Bowl.” There aren’t any other head coaches in the league, possibly in all of sports, who have to deal with such prefaces. Despite Belichick’s Pats posting a fabulous regular season mark of 110-34 since 2005, easily the best in the NFL during that frame, New England is certainly close to becoming the 1990s Atlanta Braves in the eyes of their critics.
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So why have the Patriots seemingly lost their chutzpah in the postseason? The answer has a lot to do with what has long been considered a strength of any Belichick-coached team: the defense. In the playoffs of 2005, 2006 and 2007, the Rodney Harrison-Tedy Bruschi-Richard Seymour –led defenses appeared to simply be old. The 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 defensive units could best be labeled as transition groups, as a rotating cast of characters like Albert Haynesworth, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Adalius Thomas, Leigh Bodden, Brandon Meriweather, Jonathan Wilhite and Kyle Love never stuck.
But at the start of the 2013 season, Belichick appeared to have his most stacked defensive unit since the championship days of 2003 and 2004. Vince Wilfork would be the anchor up front. Jerod Mayo would lead the linebackers. And Aqib Talib would be the shutdown corner the team had lacked since Ty Law, or at least Asante Samuel, was running around in the backfield.
The blueprint we saw in late August quickly had to be scrapped, however. Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week 4 in Atlanta. Mayo shredded a pec muscle in a Week 6 win over the Saints. And Talib looked hobbled for the second half of the regular season.
As it stands now, though, the 2013 Pats defense has proven to be one of the more resilient groups of Belichick’s 14-year run in Foxboro, highlighted by last Saturday’s four interception night against the NFL’s next big thing, Andrew Luck. Alfonzo Dennard picked off Luck twice, linebacker Dont’a Hightower grabbed one Luck throw and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins had his breakout performance while intercepting the Colts QB early in the fourth quarter, all but ending Indy’s hopes for a comeback.
“If you just watch, (Collins) has been getting better week-by-week,” safety Devin McCourty told the AP. “I think he has a lot more big games in him and we’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
McCourty, a 2010 first round pick out of Rutgers, has regained the high level of play he displayed in his rookie campaign and has become the Pats most reliable force in the secondary. Fellow Rutgers defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon have also had their moments this season, with Talib, corner Kyle Arrington and safety Steve Gregory also coming up big throughout the season.
Not so surprisingly, the big pants left behind by Wilfork have been the toughest to fill, but tackles Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga have drawn enough attention for defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to shine.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS