Across this proud nation and overseas, there are people who love the NFL but hate the New England Patriots. Many of them.
And they are being pushed toward the final circle of football hell.
Halfway through the 2019 season, the franchise that’s retired arguments over greatest quarterback, head coach and dynasty in league history, the only team to ever have a 16-0 regular season is coming to collect another all-time title.
Greatest. Defense. Evah.
There is pushback. But how an NFL franchise plays defense is a point of pride for a community. It’s got to be personal from Chicago to Pittsburgh, Baltimore to Miami, Minnesota to Atlanta to Tampa Bay.
Pointing out that the Patriots are poised to push the ’85 Bears, Steel Curtain Steelers, 2000 Ravens, Killer B’s, Purple People Eaters, ’77 Falcons or ’02 Bucs down the list? It’s an insult to the family.
Then there’s the, “In my day …” arguments, one of which was lodged on Tuesday by Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter.
“I’ve played against the legendary ‘85 Bears after they were just coming out of it,” Carter began, taking some liberties with the notion of “playing against” since 1986 was his first year in the NFL.
Continuing, he said, “I played against 2000 Baltimore (edit: he did not; he was on the Vikings). I played against the New York Football Giants and Lawrence Taylor (edit: he actually did this). Some of the greatest defenses that we’ve ever seen. The [Patriots] don’t have one guy within their front seven that would draw a double-team or bring fear. Now, when you bring scheme, the combination coverages, the way they come at you with a variety of blitzes, that makes this defense, yes, a special defense. But you will see over the course of this schedule this is not a legendary defense. You can run on this defense …”
There was more but you get the gist. Carter’s argument is that a defense is only as great as its star power. Smarts, execution, coaching? Those are going to count against you.
This will be a hurdle the Patriots may never clear. Almost every Steeler defender that strapped on a helmet in the late ‘70s got enshrined in Canton. The Giants that Carter mentioned or the defenses that Carter played with in Philadelphia early in his career? Exalted. And the coaching and competition those teams faced in the 80s and 90s was no joke.
The Patriots so far? Well, that’s the biggest trouble. They’ve played a laughable collection of teams.
This week’s Sunday Night Football matchup on NBC against — coincidentally — the Ravens is the most legitimate test they’ve faced.
“The level of the competition the first eight weeks of the season, they haven’t played anybody,” said Rodney Harrison on a Wednesday conference call with the NBC SNF crew. “Now they’re into the meat and bones of the schedule with Baltimore, Philly, Houston, Kansas City, Dallas, that will tell how good a defense they really are. To put them in the all-time great category after eight weeks after the garbage they’ve faced? I mean, we can say they’re playing extremely well but let’s wait for the next month."
The Patriots have faced four first-year head coaches and six quarterbacks in their first or second seasons. The eight teams they’ve played have combined for 15 wins. The combined .259 winning percentage of their opponents is the lowest strength of schedule in the league this season by far.
The great defenses of the past — like those Bears — were dealing with an NFC loaded with head coaches like Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells. There were real-live, seasoned NFL quarterbacks the Ravens faced like Steve McNair and Mark Brunell.
NUMBERS NEVER SEEN
And yet … the avalanche of outlandish defensive statistics the Patriots are compiling may well bury the need for debate. Even if all that stuff about the Patriots playing stiffs is true, the dismantlings are so complete that context is going to be overwhelmed by the raw numbers.
If the point is to prevent points and the Patriots are on their way to doing it better than any team ever did in a 16-game season, where’s the debate?
Through eight games, the Patriots as a team have allowed 61 points. But 21 of those came on returns (a pick-six, fumble return and a muffed punt). So, the defense has only allowed 40 points. They are allowing 5 PPG.
By comparison, the 2000 Ravens set the record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 151 (there were two pick-sixes on the Baltimore offense). That’s an average of 9.5 PPG. Through eight weeks, those Ravens allowed 82 points. That’s a little more than 10 PPG.
If the Patriots allow 110 points (13.75 PPG) or fewer over their final eight games, they will set the record.
Through eight games, opposing offenses have launched 99 drives (not including end-of-half kneel-downs). Eight have finished with points. Four have ended with touchdowns.
The Patriots have ended six opponents’ drives with touchdowns of their own (two pick-sixes, two punt block TDs, two scoop-and-scores).
The Patriots defense is more likely to score a touchdown at the end of an opponent’s drive than the opposing offense.
Opposing offenses are 15-for-96 on third down (15.6 percent). The Vikings last year led the NFL at 30 percent opponent conversions. Minnesota’s 25.25 in 2017 was the lowest of the century.
The Patriots have 31 sacks and 19 interceptions and are allowing 234 YPG. The Ravens in 2019 led the NFL in YPG allowed with 292.9. The 2000 Ravens allowed 247 YPG.
The Patriots have allowed one red-zone touchdown in the first half of the season. They’ve only allowed seven drives inside their 20.
The reflex response to all this will understandably be, “They. Haven’t. Played. Anybody.” Fair. Somewhat. An injured Ben Roethlisberger, a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen combo, Luke Falk, Josh Allen, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield is not exactly a gauntlet of greats. Although six of them are first-round selections, they’ve all — Roethlisberger included — looked like tee-ballers hitting against Aroldis Chapman.
But you can’t dismiss the Patriots bundling of those players without examining how they’ve performed against the rest of the league so far.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell did that.
Expected performance of quarterbacks playing against the rest of the league through eight games would still stink: 6.4 YPA, 1,744 yards, six TDs, eight picks and a 74.5 rating. But against the Patriots it’s 5.1 YPA, 1,403 yards, two TDs, nine picks and a 40.6 rating.
It’s also fair to point out that the last time they did “play somebody,” it was the best the NFC had to offer in Super Bowl 53.
The Rams were 3 for 13 on third down, didn’t score a touchdown, didn’t get in the red zone, gained 260 yards, punted nine times and their quarterback, Jared Goff, was 19 for 38 with a pick.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE ’00 RAVENS?
The 2019 Patriots defense will be poked, prodded, scrutinized and examined for flaws to disprove its place in the historical hierarchy. There will be a resistance to proclaiming them the “greatest” and I suppose that’s fair since A) the season’s only half-over and B) declarations like that need time to marinate. But they’ll also get every -oscopy you can think of because, in 2019, we have the time and resources to do it. Everyone didn’t have the internet at their disposal in 2000. Nobody did in 1985.
But we got it now.
So let’s look at the personnel of that defense. Ray Lewis, Sam Adams and Rod Woodson were the only Ravens selected for the Pro Bowl. Lewis was the only All-Pro.
The most impactful players aside from them were linebacker Jamie Sharper (72 tackles, 5 forced fumbles), defensive end Rob Burnett (10.5 sacks, 5 fumble recoveries), corner Duane Starks (6 picks), linebacker Peter Boulware (7 sacks), defensive end Tony Siragusa and defensive end Michael McCrary (12 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks). Like this year’s Patriots, it was a great mix of young and old and balanced with very good players at every level.
What did the 2000 Ravens’ opponents look like? Not great, Bob. Here they were with a spotlight on the quarterbacks they faced.
GAME 1: Ravens 16, at Steelers 0. Kent Graham was 17-for-38 for 199 yards for the Steelers. The Steelers carried 18 times for 30 yards. They crossed midfield twice and got to the Ravens' 2 late in the game but turned it over on downs.
GAME 2: At Ravens 39, Jaguars 36. Mark Brunell was 28-for-50 for 386 yards with three TDs and two picks. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith went for 291 yards and three TDs. That’s the seventh-highest single-game total in NFL history. 👀
GAME 3: At Dolphins 19, Ravens 6. Jay Fiedler goes 11-for-16 for 160 with a TD and a pick. Lamar Smith and old-ass Thurman Thomas combined for 88 yards on 25 carries.
GAME 4: At Ravens 37, Bengals 0. Akili Smith got knocked out after one completion, giving way to Scott Mitchell who was 14-for-23 for 97 and two picks. Corey Dillon carried 12 times for 9 yards. The Bengals as a team somehow carried 16 times for 4 yards.
GAME 5: Ravens 12, at Browns 0. Tim Couch was 20-for-35 for 203 yards and three picks. Old buddy David Patten had seven catches for 113. Current Eagles coach Doug Pederson came on late and threw a pass for a 4-yard gain.
GAME 6: Ravens 15, at Jaguars 10. Much better this time. Brunell was 18-for-28 for 167 yards with three sacks and two picks. Folks will want to highlight Brunell as an upper-tier quarterback the Ravens had to deal with. And he was a good NFL player. In this game, he fumbled four snaps and got benched. The Ravens had a streak of 140 scoreless minutes.
GAME 7: At Redskins 10, Ravens 3. Brad Johnson was fine — 18-for-27 for 158 with a pick — and Stephen Davis ran for 91 on 21 carries.
GAME 8; Titans 14, at Ravens 6. Bad football to watch. Steve McNair was 11-for-21 for 101 with a pick and the game’s only TD. The only second-half scoring was a pick-six by Tennessee’s Randall Godfrey.
GAME 9: Steelers 9, at Ravens 6. Kordell Stewart was 9-for-18 for 133 yards and Jerome Bettis ran 18 for 65.
GAME 10: Ravens 27, at Bengals 7. Akili Smith went 15-for-27 for 137. Corey Dillon had 16 carries for 23 yards. Bleak day in Cincy.
GAME 11: Ravens 24, at Titans 23. McNair went 21-for-34 for 228 and 2 TDs. The Titans were 16 for 62 on the ground.
GAME 12: At Ravens 27, Cowboys 0. End-of-the-line dynasty Cowboys. Troy Aikman was 19-for-33 for 188 and 3 picks. That was his last season. Emmitt Smith carried 11 times for 48 yards.
GAME 13: At Ravens 44, Browns 7. Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn combine to go 13-for-25 for 138 with six sacks and a pick. Cleveland manages 28 yards on 17 carries. I mean, we are into some bad quarterbacks here.
GAME 14: At Ravens 24, Chargers 3. Ryan Leaf goes 9-for-23 for 78 yards.
GAME 15: Ravens 13, at Cardinals 7. Jake Plummer goes 23-for-43 for 266 with a touchdown and two picks.
GAME 16: At Ravens 34, Jets 20. Al Groh has his guys get after it! Vinny Testaverde goes 36-for-69 for 481 yards with 2 TDs and 3 picks.
The Ravens won four playoff games that season, knocking off Gus Frerotte, McNair, Rich Gannon and Kerry Collins. Sniff all you want at the level of offenses, quarterbacks and coaches the Patriots have seen so far. That collection the Ravens saw was every bit as bad.
Meanwhile, in an era when the defense could get away with far more contact, Jimmy Smith went for 291 yards and Testaverde threw for almost 500?
The Patriots defense has miles to go before it sleeps. This week, it’s got the No. 1 rushing offense in football to deal with (201 YPG) in Baltimore. After the bye, they’ll see the No. 1 offense in YPG (Dallas), and the fourth- and fifth-best offenses in YPG (Houston, Kansas City). The Eagles are in this stretch too. They are second in the NFL in third-down conversions and sixth in red-zone conversions.
Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson are Pro Bowl-level and above players. John Harbaugh, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, Bill O’Brien and Jason Garrett have all been at it for a long time and four of the five are “offensive-minded coaches.”
“The next few games will determine [their greatness],” Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said on that NBC conference call. “If they keep this up all year and do it to every quarterback and every offense they face then you’ll have to put them in that category. I say we just wait a little bit and slow down and see how they do. They’ve just blanketed [the young quarterbacks] they’ve faced. Let’s see a little bit. They’re fantastic. Their secondary is great, they have the ability to play different styles, I like a lot of things about ‘em but we have to slow down on the all-time great to see how this season turns out.
If the Patriots are going to lay claim to the title of "Greatest Defense Ever," they will earn it over the next five games. Until then, call them the “statistically stingiest."
By a lot.
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