FOXBORO -- It's a list that's been cited time and again as the Patriots defense rolled into the AFC title game: Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty, Trevor Siemien, Joe Flacco, Jared Goff, Colin Kaepernick.
Those are the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced since their last loss, a Week 10 defeat at the hands of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. None of them ranked in the top 16 in quarterback rating during the regular season. None of them ranked in the top 19 in yards per attempt.
PATRIOTS 33, STEELERS 9
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The Patriots defense finished the season ranked No. 1 in points allowed, and since their last loss, they'd allowed just 12.9 points per game. Still, there were those who wondered if it was a unit that would hold up against Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown on Sunday night.
Not only did Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense hold up. It dominated.
"They held this team to nine points for 50 minutes," Belichick said after the game during the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy. "Pretty good."
The 36-17 victory may have been the defense's best effort of the season due to the competition it faced.
For many, it was a performance that will legitimize the season the unit has had. But for Patriots players, it was a performance that showcased their ability, a performance that might shut up those who cited that list of mediocre (and worse) quarterbacks as an indicator of what they hadn't done this season.
"It's not validation," said corner Eric Rowe. "We hear the reports. 'Not a great quarterback. Not a great offense.' Someone said the Chiefs have a better defense than the Patriots so the Steelers should be able to have their way. We took that chip on our shoulder so that all week we prepared . . . We definitely prepared better than we did last week against the Texans, I know that. We kind of took that chip, and it all just came together tonight."
Even when it wasn't perfect, the Patriots were able to recover quickly. At the end of the first half, they bent but didn't break as they put together a goal-line stand that held the Steelers to a field goal after they had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. They stood firm again in the fourth quarter by recording a turnover on downs with the Steelers deep in Patriots territory.
That "bend-but-don't-break" label that the Patriots defense wears is one they actually wear with pride.
"I kind of like it," safety Duron Harmon said of the description. "It just shows the type of toughness and mental toughness we have. Even when the situation might seem terrible or might seem bad, we have enough mental toughness to come out and make a positive out of it. Right then and there (during the goal-line stand in the second quarter), a lot of people are thinking that's seven points. But that's a four-point turnover basically."
Execution in those critical moments, against an offense that's loaded with Pro Bowl talent, may allow the Patriots to be more widely respected. But they've known what they've had for some time, and so has their quarterback.
He said after Sunday's AFC Championship Game victory that he's based his readiness on how well he's been able to practice against a unit that he knows is right up there with the best he's seen this season on game days.
"There's a lot of noise, always," Brady said when asked about the chip on the defense's collective shoulder. "Sometimes you don't always have it figured out four games into the year. There's a lot of moving parts . . . I practice against those guys every day, and it's hard to complete passes.
"I know if I can complete it against our defense, then we should be fine on Sunday because our guys do a great job in the pass game. So many great pressures they got . . . They got a lot of good schemes. They got a good defense. We got a good defense. To slow down an offense like that was pretty great."