TAMPA, Fla. — Stats can lie. The numbers say the New England Patriots’ defense was dreadful yet again Thursday night despite their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Patriots allowed 409 total yards and 334 through the air to quarterback Jameis Winston. But the Patriots’ defense actually looked much improved Thursday night in their 19-14 win on a short week coming off of a demoralizing loss to the Carolina Panthers. They weren’t atrocious, and that’s a start for a defense that was bad, lousy, terrible, and any other unflattering adjective you can think of against the Panthers.

The Patriots’ defense proved yet again it can bend but not break. They proved they can limit an offense to field goal attempts (that were missed Thursday night) rather than touchdowns. They proved they can finish a game by not allowing the opposition to march down the field and get into the end zone to win. They proved they can limit big plays both on the ground and through the air. They proved they can win football games.

So, what changed? The Patriots had four days between their loss to the Panthers and Thursday night’s win. What transpired that took them from abhorrent to maybe, possibly average?

Defensive captain Duron Harmon said it started with the Patriots’ mindset.

“Honestly, I think our backs were just against the wall,” Harmon said. “We had one choice, either to get better or stay the same. I think all the competitors we have on defense, we knew it wasn’t enough. We knew we were literally costing our team. Our offense was putting up points, and we were just not stopping them. We were letting them score and just letting the offense go back and back and forth. We can’t be a team like that. I just think with our backs against the wall, everybody really looked in the mirror this week, came back ready, focused and wanted to play better, and we did.”

And despite Bill Belichick’s typical “ignore the noise” mantra, the Patriots knew what was being said about them in those four days between games.

“Hey man, just know, what y’all say, we see it,” Harmon said. “We see it. Social media is crazy nowadays. We see it. But we can’t control it, man. What y’all were saying was right. It was right. And we knew it. We knew we had to play better, and we’re going to try to continue to build off this win, get a nice little weekend off and then get ready for the Jets next week.”

The Patriots’ defense even received praise from one of the NFL’s harshest critics, Belichick.

“I thought defensively, we responded well to a good offensive unit with a lot of good skill players, a good offensive team. I thought we played really competitively,” Belichick said.

“They had 100 yards that first half, but they moved the ball some. We made some plays, and they made some plays, but there were a lot fewer points. You got a chance to win giving up 14 points when we couldn’t score much. It was one of those games where you got to do what you got to do to win, and we did enough to do that.”

Now the Patriots have 10 days to prepare for the New York Jets. Stringing together two straight improved defensive performances would go a long way in earning back trust from fans that the Patriots’ defense can be solid in 2017.

Thumbnail photo via Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports Images