After only five games the national headlines are suggesting the 5-0 New England Patriots have the “BEST DEFENSE EVER!’’ All capital letters of course because that is the world we live in.
Perhaps those words will prove to prophetic but for the moment at least can we pump the brakes a bit on announcing history has been made before it has even been written?
Will the 2019 Patriots’ defense prove to be better than the 1969 Chiefs? Better than the ’85 Bears? Better than the 2000 Ravens or the 1974 and 1976 Steel Curtain Steelers? Maybe so but nothing they’ve done yet should lead to such comparisons. Not that that is stopping many pundits and blowhards from doing so.
We live in the Era of Hyperbole. We live at a time where every guy who has two good games becomes a “future Hall of Famer,’’ and if he has two good seasons he’s a “first-ballot Hall of Famer.’’ If hyperbole was gas America would not never have to worry about an energy crisis.
Five games into the season New England’s defense has been stifling to be sure. It is allowing 6.8 points per game but really only four because it has actually only yielded 20 points (the rest of the scores against New England coming off offensive miscues and special teams faux paus) on its own. That’s four points a game, a number no defense is likely to sustain.
The Patriots’ defense has been dominate in every area. It has yet to allow a touchdown pass, leads the NFL with 11 interceptions and 24 sacks, is giving up a league-low 238.4 yards per game and allows third down conversions an NFL-low 12.7% of the time. It has been a force of total destruction, not just beating opposing offenses but annihilating them.
Despite all those numbers Patriots head coach Bill Belichick typically reacted as if he’d just bitten into a lemon when someone asked him this week if he had created the best defense in the history of the game.
“I'm not really thinking about ranking anything or I don't really care about some defense five years ago, 10 years ago or 15 years ago," Belichick said. "I don't think any of that is really relevant. What's relevant to me is getting ready for the Giants and correcting the things that happened in the Washington game that we need to fix, both on a coaching level and a playing level."
What they have achieved has been monumental to be sure. They are only the seventh team since 1940 to not allow a passing touchdown in the first five games of the season at a time when every passing rule has become more liberal than Bernie Sanders, and they are the first in 28 years to have a third down conversion rate lower than 20. So to say they have opened the season with a bang would be an understatement.
Yet one needs to put their achievements into proper context, context provided by the sad sack opponents they’ve faced to date. What that collection tell us is five games against these slappies does not a season make.
The combined record of their first five opponents is 5-18 with three of the five having failed to yet win a game. Tonight’s opponent, the New York Giants, are themselves 2-3 and being led by a rookie quarterback named Daniel Jones. What does that latter point mean?
Well, Belichick’s teams have won 18 consecutive games facing first or second year quarterbacks. Four of the first six they will have seen, including Jones, fit that category. And did we mention the one top-flight quarterback they went up against, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, had his elbow fall apart a couple weeks after playing them, ending his season and perhaps his career.
None of those realities minimize what the Patriots have done to be fair. But here’s what those defenses they’re being compared to did on their way to winning Super Bowls.
The 1969 Chiefs may be the most underrated defense in NFL history. It finished ranked first in every defensive category, allowing 12.6 points per game, 225.9 yards and producing 47 takeaways, including 32 interceptions. In the postseason, they allowed just 20 points in three playoff games on the way to winning Super Bowl IV.
The 1974 Steelers gave up 13.5 points per game and 219.6 yards yet are ranked behind their ’76 team which failed to win a Super Bowl but gave up only 28 points in the final nine games of the season, including five shutouts.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens gave up only 10.3 points a game and 247.9 yards, leading the league in both categories. It held opponents to 10 points or less 11 times and got even better in the playoffs.
And then there is Da Bears of 1985, a team most believe had the greatest defense ever assembled. Chicago gave up only 12.4 points per game, 258.4 yards and shutout two of three playoff opponents and then destroyed the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl, That’s a playoff point differential of 81 points (91-10).
Certainly what the Patriots’ defense has done to date has been eye opening (unless you were one of their opponents, who mostly had their eyes closed by the third quarter). Nothing they’ve done should be ignored. But it should be noted they did it against Luke Falks, Josh Allen, Colt McCoy, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen and the sore-armed Rothlisberger. New England’s defense held that crew to an overall quarterback rating of 44, which is impressive, but for some of those guys that would be a career high number.
"We have crazy depth," linebacker Dont’a Hightower said this week. “Look at the (linebacker) room alone, we've got guys who can play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end, put John Simon at the nose, I'm at the nose, Jamie (Collins) at the nose, the 3-, the 4-, the 5-(technique). The more you can do, Bill (Belichick) always says. Whenever you're versatile and we're able to communicate and give offenses different looks or different things each and every week because we know it and we're smart enough to make changes on the move.
"We're the boogeymen. All of us, we want to be the engine and the starting force of the defense. We know if we go out and play well, that'll hype every other spot, whether it's in the front seven or the back seven."
All true. This is a talented, deep and stingy defense. It can get after the passer and smother receivers. It is tough against the run and stifling on third down. It is a damn good collection of players with a brilliant coach leading them in Belichick.
We’ll need to wait until the dust settles and teams like the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys and Chiefs have been faced before we can really decide that.