Jan 19, 2012

The New England Patriots have Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. They have Wes Welker, an uncanny wide receiver who led the NFL in catches.

They have a pair of tight ends — Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — who are all but changing the way their position is played, particularly in tandem. And they have a resume — the top seed in the AFC, eight straight wins to close out the regular season, a 45-10 annihilation of Denver to open the playoffs — that would suggest they should be the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Yet even as the Patriots racked up victories, the players on the other side of the ball have heard how they would, ultimately, be the team’s demise, how a fourth Super Bowl title would be out of reach because the defense simply couldn’t defend.

“In one ear, out the other,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “I can’t listen to that. … Everybody can say what they want, but at the end of the day, it’s about the wins and the losses, and we were able to get 13.”

After the destruction of Denver, the Patriots have 14 victories overall as they head into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. They have put together those results despite a defense that, should New England reach the Super Bowl, would have to be considered historically bad, at least from a statistical standpoint.

The Patriots gave up 411.1 yards per game this season, more than they have allowed in any season in franchise history — by more than 35 yards a game. Only one team, Green Bay, gave up more, and the top-seeded Packers were bounced from the NFC playoffs by the New York Giants in large part because they couldn’t stop quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.

Take a wider view, though, and what the Patriots are doing becomes even more unlikely. If they beat Baltimore — with Brady coming off a performance in which he tossed six touchdown passes against the Broncos, New England is a heavy favorite; the Patriots will become the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl after giving up more than 400 yards per game in the regular season.

What’s more, it’s not even close. The current owners of that Super Bowl record are the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who allowed 357.8 yards per game during the regular season. Of the 90 teams to appear in a Super Bowl, 60 — a full two-thirds — gave up fewer than 300 yards per game. These Patriots, should they beat Baltimore, would become a striking anomaly.

Thus has risen, from Presque Isle, Maine to Provincetown, Mass. and everywhere in between, the idea that New England’s offense must constantly bail out the defense.

The defense rejects that notion.

“We aren’t going to get 20-30 points all the time,” veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “It doesn’t happen like that. Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them score less. That’s the mind-frame we have.”

The way the Patriots defenders can tell the story as they prepare to face the Ravens: They’re peaking at the right time. Against Denver, with overmatched quarterback Tim Tebow completing just nine passes, they allowed a season-low 252 yards. It was precisely the kind of performance the defense had been talking about for weeks, 60 solid minutes that included a forced turnover and solid play on third down.

“I know people are probably laughing at us [because] we’re saying it every week, but it feels like it’s paying off,” said defensive back Devin McCourty. “We just stick at it and keep doing it, keep getting better, keep coming to practice with that same attitude and just let it show on game day.”

There is also the matter of returning personnel. The Patriots played the Broncos with a slew of players — linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, defensive backs McCourty and Patrick Chung among them — back in the lineup, together, after missing time with injuries.

“We’ve gotten better throughout the course of the year,” Coach Bill Belichick said.

All of it has the defense convinced — as they preached about their own abilities and improvements — that they would be proven right in the end. Sunday, when they play for the right to become one of the most unusual Super Bowl participants ever, will tell.

“I remember talking a long time ago, at the beginning of the season, about the confidence I had in this team and this defense from what I can see we can do,” Wilfork said. “The main thing is: Guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys don’t believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way.”
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