Scout's Eye: Hungry Patriots' defense finishes strong

Posted Nov. 14, 2011 @ 10:50 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Forget about stacking three losses. Forget cutting Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco disappearing. On the strong play of its special teams and an unheralded, hardworking defense highlighted by the strong pressure of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, the Patriots ran away with a convincing 37-16 victory on the road Sunday night to take firm control of the AFC East, winning a second time against the Jets this season to kick off what could be an eight-game winning streak to close the season.

Whether Carter was stunting inside or ripping off the edge, he kept working and efforted his way to a franchise-record-4½ sacks, doubling his season output despite being matched against one of the NFL's best pass protectors in Jets OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Anderson consistently brought pressure as well, playing off the intensity of its quiet leader and affording a secondary that was without its two best players for much of the game — S Patrick Chung and CB Devin McCourty — with less time to have to cover.

A week ago, Tracy White was being singled out for giving up the winning touchdown against the Giants. This week, he was part of a linebacking unit better defined by its special teams contributions, — including Rob Ninkovich (two interceptions) and Jeff Tarpinian (in his first career start) — that showed up with a chip on its shoulder and made plays against the run and pass, taking over late in the game. Even recently added CB Sterling Moore and Julian Edelman contributed on defense, as a team that has thrived in an underdog role made a statement under the bright lights of a national stage, holding the Jets to a mere 16 points and pressuring the indecisive Mark Sanchez into a multitude of errors.

National criticism had been heaped upon the Patriots after rare back-to-back losses to the Steelers and Giants, but with a kind, bottom-dwelling schedule featuring Kansas City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo remaining, the Patriots could head into January riding a strong wave of momentum.

• It was a great week for the weakest division in football, with the 49ers, Rams, Cardinals and Seahawks all pulling off narrow wins. Injuries and inconsistency have rattled the quarterback position for all but one team in the division, and Niners QB Alex Smith took another step this week when he showed he could carry the offense after Frank Gore went down with an injury. With Kevin Kolb sitting out injured against his former team, the stronger-armed John Skelton was able to exploit a soft Eagles defense that lost a lead in the fourth quarter for the fifth time this season. The Juan Castillo experiment looks like it will be very short-lived. Cardinals MLB Daryl Washington really has emerged in Arizona, too. Injuries continued to mount for the Rams, who are really benefiting from the addition of Brandon Lloyd. Two fumbled kickoffs from Ravens KR David Reed left him on the bench and robbed momentum against Seattle, but the after-effect of last week's smash-mouth win over Pittsburgh could have played into the Ravens' sluggish performance.

• The all-out effort and behind-the-line presence of Redskins DT Barry Cofield late in the game of a 20-9 loss to Miami noticeably stood out for Washington's defense, one of the few bright notes for a team that has lost its way on offense with key injuries to its pulling guard Kory Lichtensteiger and one-cut back, Tim Hightower. The 'Skins' current five-game skid is tied to underrated, missing pieces on offense.

• When it comes to making plays in the red zone, Cowboys WR Dez Bryant rivals Larry Fitzgerald as one of the game's best in attacking the ball. He climbed the ladder to take the ball away from Bills CB Leodis McKelvin to spark the Cowboys' scoring spree.

• Despite the criticism Mike Smith's decision to go for it on 4th-and-inches in overtime at his own 29 will draw, the odds of Michael Turner being stuffed were slimmer than having to stop Drew Brees. Smith has been one of the best game-day managers on the sideline, and his gut decision should not be second-guessed.

• The Giants targeted 49ers CB Tarell Brown late in the game when Eli Manning was pushing the ball downfield. Brown tends to clutch and grab and was flagged for illegal contact in the fourth quarter and then beaten by Hakeem Nicks to narrow the Niners' lead to seven. As the weakest link on the Niners' defense, Brown can expect opposing defense to continue to attack him downfield.

• The Broncos have not convinced Tim Tebow to give up the opportunity to play quarterback. They simply redesigned the offense to convert him to a runner, wisely playing to his strengths. It has not been pretty, but with a 3-1 record as a starter, he is getting the job done and was able to do so without the services of Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee, both of whom were knocked out of the game early with injuries. Their absence could allow the Jets to really pinch the running game next week. Rex Ryan will force Tebow to beat him with his arm.

• The Texans are not just winning games, they have been winning them very convincingly the past month and can stake a claim as the AFC's most bona fide contender right now. Adding Andre Johnson back in the fold will only embolden one of the league's most complete teams.

• The Bills and Lions started off the season as surprise contenders, but after being drubbed by the Cowboys and Bears respectively, some air has come out of their sails. With plenty of time to throw, Tony Romo picked apart the Bills' secondary for big play after big play. The Bears-Lions contest was the most physical matchup of the weekend, featuring many big hits, including Julius Peppers' fumble-causing, clothesline tackle on Calvin Johnson and another thunderous shot on the receiver from Lance Briggs. The Lions continued working hard to build their reputation as a cheap-shot, dirty defense, with Nick Fairley trying to plant Jay Culter into the turf and Ndamukong Suh ripping off the quarterback's helmet in pursuit. But the Bears did not back down, only playing more aggressively on defense and capitalizing on the finger injury of Matthew Stafford that forced many balls to sail and clearly altered his accuracy and decision making. An opportunistic defense that scored two TDs and the magic of Devin Hester clinched the Bears' victory.