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Can Pats' defense hold up for stretch run? This sim predicts a twist

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Mac Jones is a fine young quarterback. Damien Harris has been very good in the running game. But if the New England Patriots want to make the playoffs in 2021, they'll need their defense to be a difference-maker.

That was the case last Sunday when Adrian Phillips' pick-six helped seal an upset win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Things don't get much easier for New England, though: After Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, the team will face quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen (twice) and Carson Wentz in its next six contests.

The Patriots opted not to upgrade their defense ahead of the NFL trade deadline, standing pat despite recently losing slot cornerback Jonathan Jones to a season-ending injury and trading Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore to Carolina last month.

Curran: Pats' inactivity at the deadline suggests they have what they need

So, is Bill Belichick's confidence in his defense well-placed entering the stretch run?

Our partners at Strat-O-Matic Games simulated New England's final eight games from a defensive perspective, charting how many yards and points the team allows to each remaining opponent as well as individual statistics for defensive players.

The results were discussion-worthy, to say the least.

Patriots results, Weeks 9 through 18

NBC Sports Boston Illustration
Our simulation predicts a 4-game losing streak for the Patriots

Pretty solid effort from the defensive unit overall.

The Patriots' defense allows just over 20 points per game (20.8) over its final eight contests. New England holds its opponent to under 20 points in five of those games and does so twice to the Buffalo Bills, who enter Week 9 with the NFL's top-ranked offense.

 

Unfortunately for the Patriots, their offense goes cold at the worst possible time. Jones and Co. fail to reach 20 points in four consecutive games from Week 12 to Week 16, all of which result in losses.

Those losses prove crucial, as New England finishes the season 9-8 and misses out on a playoff spot due to a tiebreaker.

Team defensive stats, Weeks 9 through 18

NBC Sports Boston Illustration
The defense does a good job of limiting teams finding the end zone, and forcing turnovers.

This is an encouraging defensive body of work against some pretty good competition.

Tannehill is the only QB who tops 300 passing yards against the Patriots, whose secondary proves it's more than serviceable without Gilmore by giving up just 225.6 passing yards per game.

After two straight games without forcing a turnover, New England goes back into playmaking mode beginning in Week 11 by forcing five fumbles and intercepting six passes in its final seven games.

The Patriots' Achilles heel is its run defense, though: The team allows 138.3 yards per game on the ground down the stretch and surrenders 174 rushing yards in a Week 13 loss to the Bills.

Individual defensive stats, Weeks 9 through 18

NBC Sports Illustration
Matthew Judon continues to be one of the best free-agent acquisitions

Matt Judon continues to be a wrecking ball, recording five sacks down the stretch to finish with 13 on the season, third-most in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Andre Tippett (18.5 in 1984 and 16.5 in 1985).

Josh Uche also tallies three more sacks to finish with six on the year, while Phillips records one more interception to edge J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty for the team lead with four.

Final takeaway

If you told us the Patriots would limit five of its next eight opponents to fewer than 20 points, we'd assume they would win those five games and find a way to pick up one or two more victories to secure a playoff berth.

But in Strat-O-Matic's simulation, it's Jones and the offense that doesn't hold up its end of the bargain by wasting several strong defensive performances.

With that in mind ... Maybe it's time for Belichick to consider adding more offensive firepower?