FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense put together a forgettable first month, rife with broken coverages and missed assignments. But somewhere along the line, even though they remained among the league's most permissive defenses in terms of yards, they started showing a knack for stopping teams in the red zone.
They finished the season as the No. 5 scoring defense in the NFL, and they were the second-best red-zone defense in the league in terms of points allowed per red-zone trip (3.94).
Though the goal is to never find themselves there in the first place, the Patriots rely on cool heads to help them limit teams to field goals when they end up defending in the shadow of their own end zone.
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"At the end of the day, when you have more points than the other team, you win," Devin McCourty said. "So, defensively, it’s all about not giving up touchdowns. It’s about trying to keep them off the board. We’ve seen in games where we haven’t kind of played the way we want to play throughout the game, but if we were able to play well in the red area, we kept giving ourselves a chance to win the game."
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the turnaround began. It may have been in Tampa, where, on the final play of a 19-14 victory, Jonathan Jones broke up a potential game-winning pass near the goal line. It may have been the following week in New Jersey, when Malcolm Butler's controversial strip of Austin Seferian-Jenkins helped lock up another victory.
Then came an avalanche of red-zone stops where the Patriots weren't just limiting teams to field goals but were stopping them outright with turnovers. There was a failed fourth-and-goal run by the Falcons in Week 7, a Raiders fumble near the goal line in Week 11, a Stephon Gilmore interception of Matt Moore in Week 12, a jaw-droppingly easy Eric Lee pick of Tyrod Taylor in Week 13, Ben Roethlisberger's meltdown at the goal line in Week 15, and a fourth-down sack of Taylor in Week 16 on a play that began at the Patriots six-yard line.
Call those screw-ups on the part of Patriots opponents, but at some point Matt Patricia's and Bill Belichick's defense has to be highlighted as the common denominator.
"Shoot," Eric Rowe said, "we've kinda started saying, 'We may bend, but we're not gonna break.' Even if you do get a touchdown in the red zone, like, 'OK, we're gonna make you go one-for-four. You're not going to make field goals and beat us.'
"When we get down there, everyone's awareness heightens up. We just try to roll with the momentum that we have . . . Even [after a] big play, penalties, they're driving, somehow we get in that 20, we all just heighten up and everybody's confidence goes up. 'We know we need to make this stop and make them kick a field goal because field goals aren't going to beat us.'
"Somehow in the red zone it just . . . no one really needs to say anything to each other, too. We all kind of look at each other and you can tell by body language like, 'We're gonna make this stop.' "
Of course there's more to it than that. The Patriots have certain looks and techniques they like to deploy in the red zone. No. 1 receivers are almost always doubled, and film study helps corners and safeties understand receiver tendencies there. Patriots defensive backs also have to be aware of things like rub routes or pick plays where opposing offenses will try to create some space in an area of the field where there is so little.
"Once you get into the red area, it’s a different game," Belichick said. "It’s a different emphasis. There’s different plays. We have different defenses. The way you defend the field is different because it’s different. It’s changing your mindset to what’s required down there, whichever side of the ball you're on, offense or defense, it doesn’t matter. It’s just things change. They’re different down there. You’ve got to treat them differently."
The Patriots rank fourth in the league in red-zone efficiency when it comes to touchdowns allowed, and in the Divisional Round against the Titans they'll see the 19th-most efficient red-zone offense in football (touchdowns on 52.4 percent of red-zone trips). The Titans went 1-for-2 in their red-zone appearances against the Chiefs in their Wild Card matchup, and in their last three games, they're getting into the end zone on just a quarter of their red-zone drives.
Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, who interviewed with the Cardinals for their open head coaching position, takes the lead role when it comes to defensive game-planning inside the 20s. The math is simple, he tells his players.
"He always says, 'Every time we get a red-area stop, we’re closer to winning the game,' " McCourty said. "To me, that’s happened over and over this year because a good amount of times this year defensively, we haven’t been that good and that showed up. When we needed to play good in the red area and we were able to complement each other, our offense comes in and they have a big drive, and if we give up three, they go get seven, and now the pressure’s back on.
"And then, we get a red-area turnover and then we go score. Now we keep them at zero and get seven. That changes the game. So, I will say that’s something that we do pride ourselves on, the points per game and trying to keep that as low as possible. Hopefully we’ll continue that throughout the playoffs because we’ll definitely need it."