FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s official: The New England Patriots have a great defense.
No eye test can say otherwise after a good Pittsburgh Steelers offense with a great quarterback came to Gillette Stadium for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, and the Patriots allowed just 2.7 yards per carry and an 83.1 passer rating in a 36-17 New England win.
The Patriots had the NFL’s top scoring defense this season, so none of this should come as a big surprise, but even as the game was on the horizon, pundits still said New England’s defense hadn’t proven itself against a great quarterback all season.
“They gotta write something,” cornerback Logan Ryan said. “I thought it was creative.”
The criticism, or doubt, had merit. The list of quarterbacks the Patriots faced this season read like a list of future career backups.
But the Patriots forced Ben Roethlisberger to go 31-of-47 passing for 314 yards and one touchdown with one interception as they earned the right to go to Super Bowl LI. And it’s at least worth mentioning that 100 of those yards and Roethlisberger’s 30-yard TD pass came after the game already was well decided late in the fourth quarter.
When the game still was on the line, the Patriots made two goal-line stands, forcing a field goal to end the second half and a turnover on downs early in the fourth quarter.
“We came up with the big ones,” Ryan said. “Those guys made their plays, though. They made some tough catches and had some great concepts. They have a great quarterback who extended plays, but we responded in the third and fourth quarters like we needed to.
“We knew there was going to be a point in the game where we needed to put a nail in the coffin in a sense, and I think we were able to do that.”
One would argue the Patriots put a nail in the coffin with a forced fumble and recovery late in the third quarter and then kept hammering new, unnecessary nails in that coffin with the turnover on downs and an interception early in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots also held Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell to six carries for 20 yards before he departed with a thigh injury. Perhaps the contest would have been closer if the Patriots’ defense didn’t knock him out of the game, but New England allowed DeAngelo Williams to gain just 34 yards on 14 carries. The Patriots’ run defense has been consistent all season, and it was a strength Sunday night.
The Patriots also fared well in points allowed all season, but there were times midway through the season when the defense didn’t look Super Bowl-worthy. But they evolved over time after unexpectedly trading linebacker Jamie Collins, who was considered one of their best players.
“This group is just really, really special,” safety Duron Harmon said. “You look back to the year we had, we had some guys that started the year gone, traded, all of that, whatever. Somehow we just found a way to stick together, and we found out how to play together as a unit, and it really has helped us over the last couple of months.”
Now the unit has a chance to prove itself against another great quarterback in two weeks, as the Patriots travel to Houston to play Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Thumbnail photo via James Lang/USA TODAY Sports Images