FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The wins keep coming for the New England Patriots. Yet each one seems to spark doubts about whether they’re as good as their 11-3 record suggests.
There is concern, from former Patriots Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison to some of their current players to nervous fans who have watched opponents shred their defense.
How can a team that’s on track to allow the second-most yards in NFL history have a six-game winning streak and the best record in the AFC? Is it superior coaching, a star quarterback, or just a remarkable run of good fortune?
“Maybe one or two games we can say, ‘Man, that was a pretty good game,’ ” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “The rest of them you can just pinpoint a lot of mistakes. But we were lucky enough to come out with a victory.”
Last Sunday, the Patriots beat the Denver Broncos 41-23 but allowed 252 yards rushing, 167 in the first quarter alone. One week earlier, they beat the Washington Redskins, 34-27, a victory secured only by Jerod Mayo’s interception at the Patriots 5-yard line with 20 seconds left.
And the week before that, they watched a 31-3 lead shrink in the last 11 minutes before they held on to beat the then-winless Indianapolis Colts 31-24.
The Patriots figure to win their remaining regular-season games against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, both currently 5-9. If they do, they’ll have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
But then what? The Patriots lost their opening playoff game in each of the last two years, games in which their best antidote to poor defense, Tom Brady, struggled.
“This Patriot team is a proven regular-season team, but they have a lot to prove in the playoffs, where they have failed miserably the last two years,” Bruschi, a linebacker on the Patriots’ three Super Bowl championship teams, said Monday during an online chat on ESPNBoston.com. “All teams that make the playoffs should be feared by the Patriots, because what I fear the most for the Patriots is them playing the way they’ve played the last two years in the postseason. So it’s not about who they play, it’s about them showing up.”
Right now, it’s about ignoring the critics and just working to get better.
“I don’t really care what everyone else says,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “I’m just trying to focus on each week and playing good football. We have a good record, yes, but we have to continue to play hard until the season (ends) and when the playoffs start we need to continue to improve. So I really don’t listen to anything out there, just shut it all out.”
To be fair, the starting defense has been battered by injuries. Safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes missed the last six games. Cornerback Devin McCourty sat out two. Safety James Ihedigbo has missed parts of several games. And now Andre Carter, New England’s best pass rusher with a team-high 10 sacks, is out for the season after hurting his left quadriceps against the Broncos.
While they’ve allowed the most yards in the NFL, only 13 teams have given up fewer points. They’ve let teams score from inside the 20-yard line just 80 percent of the time, seventh in the league. They lead the AFC with a plus-12 turnover differential. And of their three losses, one came on a last-play field goal, another on a touchdown with 15 seconds left and a third by eight points.
“Our team has played well enough to win 11 games, so that’s good,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We still feel like our best football is in front of us and we keep working hard to try to perform at that level.”
But so far the Patriots have allowed 76 plays of at least 20 yards, more than five per game and 20 more than the single-season franchise high. Overall, they’ve given up an average of 414.4 yards. At that rate, they’d finish with 6,630 total yards, second in NFL history to the Baltimore Colts, who gave up 6,793 yards in 1981 when they went 2-14.
Because of injury or inconsistency, the Patriots have used 16 players in the secondary, including wide receivers Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman. On Wednesday they added a new one, signing seven-year veteran safety Vincent Fuller, who already had been cut this season by Tennessee and Detroit.
“They’ve had a lot of injuries, but (Belichick’s) moved guys around and they’re filling in and getting the job done,” said Redskins receiver Jabar Gaffney, a member of the Patriots team that went 18-0 in the 2007 season before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. “It may not look as pretty, but they still find a way to win.”
It looked downright ugly to Harrison, a hard-hitting safety on the Patriots’ last two championship teams in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
“They should be concerned because that secondary is probably the worst secondary I’ve seen in the last decade,” Harrison, an analyst on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” said after the Redskins completed passes of 51 and 49 yards against it two weeks ago. “It’s been proven the last two years in the playoffs. If Brady’s off just a little bit, they’re vulnerable to lose.”
But the Patriots try to block out the doubters. No one has to tell them what their weaknesses are.
“You listen to other people if you want to, but (we) know what’s going on inside,” said running back Kevin Faulk, a Patriot since 1999. “There’s always room for improvement and if you are to reach what you want to reach, you always want to improve your team, no matter what it is, in every aspect of it.”