Halting the New England steamroller
Formula for hope: Hassle Brady, exploit green Pats' D -- and don't make mistakes
'They let other teams screw up for themselves'
"They're making plays in every phase," said Tedy Bruschi, who played in five Super Bowls as a Patriots linebacker, winning three, before joining ESPN as an analyst."Right now they look like -- I don't want to say Super Bowl contenders, because they're obviously that. I feel confident they'll be in [conference] championship weekend." Since losing at Cleveland, the Patriots have won five straight games and are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the league's best record at 11-2. (The Jets beat the Pats in a Week 2 meeting.) The evolving defense has allowed an average of 17.7 points in that span and the offense has averaged 39.2 points, even though three of those teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jets and Bears -- have defenses ranked among the top eight. The Patriots have scored 52 touchdowns -- six more than the next-best team, San Diego. In those five games, Brady has completed 72 percent of his passes for 1,572 yards, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. The two-time Super Bowl MVP leads the NFL with the highest passer rating (109.9), the most touchdowns (29) and the lowest interception percentage (0.9). Trent Dilfer played NFL quarterback for 14 seasons with five teams and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000. In his job as an analyst at ESPN, he has reviewed each of the Patriots' 13 games. "They've captured magic in a bottle this season," Dilfer said. "They used to come at you with four to six different formations. Now, they have so many variations, one tight end, two tight ends, three tight ends. I just broke down the recent Jets game. In their first 27 regular plays -- I excluded three goal-line plays -- they showed 27 different formations and at least a dozen different personnel groupings. "This is what those West Coast [offense] teams always wanted: To come at you with a possession passing game, with a lot of personnel groups. The essence of it is that they want to run the same play over and over again -- they just don't want you to know that they're doing it." One key is keeping Brady off his game -- and off the field. "I think we got over 200 yards rushing against them [actually 230], and the passing was efficient," Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said. "Defensively, you have to disguise against Tom Brady. If you sit back in zone coverage, he's going to kill you. You have to disguise, play man and blitz him." On Nov. 7 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the hosts whipped the Patriots 34-14. Running back Peyton Hillis' 184-yard, 29-carry showing fueled the win; 21 of his totes were between the tackles for 133 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Browns recorded then-season highs in points, first downs (22), total yards (404) and time of possession (38:08). In the nearly 22 minutes the Patriots had the ball, Brady completed 19 of 36 passes for 224 yards and two TDs to rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez. However, he was plagued by several dropped passes. Even though Danny Woodhead rushed for a robust 6.0 yards per carry, he had only nine attempts. The Patriots amassed only 68 rushing yards. "We didn't have the self-inflicted wounds," Cleveland cornerback Brown recalled. "They were having the self-inflicted wounds. They were having negative drives, and they were not communicating and running the correct routes." The Browns were the third team in this calendar year to successfully figure out the Patriots, if you include the Baltimore Ravens' 33-14 rout in Foxborough, Mass., in the 2009 season's playoffs. Clearly, the Patriots are vulnerable. But as Ravens learned in a 23-20 overtime loss in Week 6 this season and the Jets discovered in their Week 13 rematch in Gillette Stadium, those flaws are hard to exploit.
Familiarity breeds defeat
The secret sauce
“The Patriots lead the league with a plus-18 turnover ratio. So, back to our question: How do you beat these Patriots? Dilfer cites the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 rout of the Patriots in 2009, a milestone on coach Sean Payton's march to the Super Bowl XLIV title. "[New Orleans defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams forced Brady to go where he wanted him to go. Through blitzing and coverage schemes, you can see their pattern: We don't want Brady to throw the ball to A. We can live with B. If he makes a mistake trying to go from B to C, we'll get home and hit him. "The whole key is disrupting the starting point. If you can do it, you've thrown off the entire mechanism by which they're successful." Who are the leading candidates? The Ravens, of course, and the Steelers can give New England a game at Gillette Stadium. One scout believes that the Kansas City Chiefs might prove a difficult playoff match. Two potent NFC teams, the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, seem positioned to give the Patriots the most trouble; they appear to be capable of winning a 35-33 game on a neutral field, say, Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas? "It's the only thing these young players have left on their check list," Bruschi said. "Can they win a big regular-season game? Check. Can they come back after a bad loss? Check. Can they win the division? Looks like a check. The last one is, can you win in the playoffs? "If they can do that consistently, they'll be raising another banner." Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker also contributed to this feature.
We don't want Brady to throw the ball to A. We can live with B. If he makes a mistake trying to go from B to C, we'll get home and hit him.” -- ESPN analyst and former NFL QB Trent Dilfer, on a defense's ideal philosophy against Patriots QB Tom Brady
NFL WEEK 15 PREVIEW