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Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

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Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots keep winning despite a defense that keeps struggling.

They're missing tackles, giving receivers plenty of space and allowing long gains. Coach Bill Belichick, admired for his defensive brilliance, hasn't figured out how to get his players to correct all that so they won't need to make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.

``There are a lot of things that we can do a lot better,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday, ``just starting with the fundamentals. Tackling, going out there executing the plays that the coaches call and going out there and getting off of the field on third down are things that we have to improve on.''

It took an interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty with 23 seconds left to secure a 37-31 win over the struggling Bills on Sunday. That was less of an outstanding play by McCourty, who caught a ball thrown right to him, than it was a poor one by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and intended receiver T.J. Graham, who took the blame for it.

Just three week earlier, the Patriots got another turnover on their opponent's last offensive play and escaped with a 29-26 overtime win against the New York Jets. That time, Mark Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked and Rob Ninkovich recovered, ending the game.

But in the third game of the season, the defense couldn't stop the Baltimore Ravens when they got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:55 left. They made it all the way to the Patriots 9 before Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens a 31-30 win.

``We're lucky that (Sunday) we were not really at our best but still able to win and make enough plays to win. We've also been in a couple games kind of like that that we didn't win,'' Belichick said. ``You hate to leave it to come down to one play like that, have a little more control of the game than that. That's the National Football League, too. There are an awful lot of games that come down to that one possession, one play.''

The defense has been saved by its knack for forcing turnovers at critical times. It leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is first in the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries. One of the Patriots' two recoveries against Buffalo came at their 1-yard line with the score 34-24 and 9:35 left in the game.

Still, they allowed one of the weakest teams in the NFL to run up big numbers.

The Bills set a club record with 35 first downs. They also gained a season-high 481 yards. Their previous best? Also against the Patriots, 438 yards in a 52-28 loss in the fourth game of the season.

The Patriots have allowed the eighth-most yards in the league, 382.1 per game. They may not think about that when they're just trying to make a play, but McCourty is concerned.

``We worry about that,'' he said.

Thanks largely to their prolific offense - they lead the NFL with 430.3 yards and 33.2 points per game - the Patriots are 6-3, the only winning record in the AFC East.

``We can always get better and do things a little differently,'' defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. ``There are some scheme and fundamental things we'd like to clean up, but we got away with a `W' to be 6-3. You've got to be proud of that.''

Their performances against some of the NFL's weaker quarterbacks are nothing to rave above.

Fitzpatrick, Sanchez and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw for their highest yardage totals this season against the Patriots. Joe Flacco, a better passer for one of the top teams, did that with the Ravens.

The Patriots also have been vulnerable to the big play. They've allowed 44 completions of more than 20 yards, nearly five a game. Fitzpatrick had five of those on Sunday.

New England expects cornerback Aqib Talib, obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to improve the defense when he plays his first game with the Patriots next Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. While the Patriots were playing the Bills, he completed his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

He'll practice with the Patriots for the first time on Wednesday.

``It will be a big week for us, a big game versus the Colts,'' McCourty said. ``Just to get another guy out there that you know is a good player, it will be exciting.''

The defense certainly can use the help after Sunday's struggles.

``We had two or three sacks in the game. Guys were out there playing physical,'' Mayo said. ``Those are some of the things that you can take away and build on. But, at the same time, it's hard to look at those things when you give up 30-something points in a game.''

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

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To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

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Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

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Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

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Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.