Nov 18, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) talks with wide receiver Wes Welker (83) before the start of the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium. (David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE)
Patriots create more turnovers than a pastry shop
With his Dolphins the last thing standing between the Patriots and their 10th division title in a dozen years - as well as the assurance of a 12th consecutive regular-season in which no AFC East team will win more games than New England - reporters asked Miami coach Joe Philbin what separates the Sons of Foxborough from his team and its other also-ran rivals.
"Plus-24 is what I see," he said, simply. And, really, he needed say nothing more.
Plus-24 is the Patriots' turnover margin, and not only is that the best mark in the conference, it's the best mark in football. By a lot. The Ravens are second-best in the AFC at plus-12, while the much-ballyhooed Bears are tied with the Giants for second-best in the NFL at plus-13.
Considering what that does to bail out a defense, to give Tom Brady the ball more often, to swing the momentum in games - it doesn't take a whole lot of intimate analysis to see why New England is 8-3 and on the verge of printing tickets for at least one home playoff game.
"I think Chicago has one more takeaway than them, but I believe, if I'm not mistaken, they're second in the league in takeaways," Philbin said, accurately referring to the Bears' 33-32 advantage at the top. "And then they lead the league with only eight giveaways. That's a great place to start if you want to talk about winning football games in the National Football League. It's a great credit to their players and coaches; these guys do a fantastic job.
"We're minus-10; that's not very good. They're plus-24; that's outstanding. That's a tremendous place to build you're program around."
A big part of the plus-24 is an offense with Brady's wisdom and almost zero tolerance for fumbles; the Patriots have ranked among the AFC's top two teams in terms of protecting the football at the end of all but one season since 2007. But that alone can't make for a division-changing turnover margin, so the Pats defense deserves credit, too, for the way it has made an ability to force mistakes into its hallmark.
There is certainly an element of creating turnovers that is fluky and counts on enemy error - the exemplar for that idea coming on Thanksgiving, when Mark Sanchez fumbled after running into the back of an offensive lineman.
However, that same night, there was nothing fluky about Steve Gregory reading his coverage perfectly to make an interception. Or about Brandon Spikes alertly whacking the exposed ball from Shonn Greene's hands. Or about Devin McCourty forcing a fumble with a big hit on a kickoff. Or about Alfonzo Dennard alertly poking his hand in to knock the ball away from Chaz Schilens.
Four of the five takeaways the Patriots had that night were more the product of good, heady, moment-seizing defense. And taking a broader look at New England's track record, to say otherwise would be suggesting the Pats have had luck and fate on their side for nearly three full seasons now.
This year, the Patriots have forced a turnover in all 11 games, and forced multiple turnovers in every contest except their loss at Baltimore. Going back to last season they have 57 takeaways in their last 22 regular-season tilts, and 104 in 43 games since the start of 2010.
By comparison, the Giants have 103. The Bears have 99. In the AFC, the Jets have 80, the Ravens have 74, the Texans have 65 and the Steelers have 60 - all while propagating reputations that they're ball-hawking, fearsome units.
The Patriots, on the contrary, aren't considered in the class of any of those defenses because only five teams have allowed more yards from scrimmage, because only three teams have allowed more yards through the air, and because they rank in the middle of the pack in points allowed. Though maybe it's time to reevaluate what makes a defense deserving of consideration among the best.
When the Patriots last won a Super Bowl, in 2004, 22 teams yielded an average of less than 340 yards a game; this year, there are 11. That same season, 11 teams held opponents to less than 200 yards passing per game, and 23 kept it to fewer than 225; this year, there are two under 200 and 11 under 225.
To understand how much less those categories now mean in terms of winning, consider that of the eight teams currently leading a division, half are ranked 18th or worse in total yards allowed, and five stand 16th or worse in passing yards surrendered. Four of those are no better than 22nd.
Yet six of the eight rank among their respective conference's top four in turnovers forced, and all eight are in the top half.
That says a good and effective defense these days is one that can force its foe to give up the ball. That's why these teams are winning.
And why the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the East really is as wide as the turnover margin would suggest.
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UNDERRATED: Davone Bess. He's a good slot receiver - who sometimes looks great against the Patriots. In eight games he has more catches (41), yards (526) and touchdowns (4) than he does against any other opponent.
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OVERRATED: Reggie Bush's decline. He's got only one 100-yard performance this season, and went six weeks without even cracking 60. But his explosiveness makes him Miami's most dangerous offensive weapon today.
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KEEP AN EYE ON: Ryan Tannehill's attempted passes. The Dolphins are 0-5 when the rookie quarterback attempts more than 30 passes and 5-1 when he throws it fewer. If the Patriots can influence this by going up early, Tannehill may not be capable of a comeback.
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KEY MATCHUP: Brady vs. Miami's substitutions. The Dolphins rate among the league's best run defenses, but are vulnerable to the pass. Look for Brady to try and trap Miami's personnel by going without a huddle, and exploiting the vulnerable area.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Since the start of the 2001 season, the Patriots are 99-6 in games with a positive turnover margin.
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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.