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Jerry Sullivan: History's on the side of Patriots' defense

HOUSTON − They've heard the criticism. How could they avoid it? It's been out there all season, a refrain for New England haters everywhere to embrace.

Sure, the Patriots' defense is good. They've allowed the fewest points in the NFL. But who have they played? We'll find out how overrated they really are when they run into that Falcons offense on Sunday in the Super Bowl.

"Yeah, I've heard it," said linebacker Dont'a Hightower. "I don't care. It doesn't bother me and it doesn't bother us. We're just going to go out and execute our game plan. We're in this game for a reason.

"We don't make the schedule," Hightower said. "We just go out and play. Great game plan, week in and week out, no matter who the quarterback is."

It's true that the schedule was kind to them this season. The Pats didn't face a quarterback who ended the year rated in the top 10. The QBs who started against them included Landry Jones, Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff, Trevor Siemian, Charlie Whitehurst, Ryan Fitzpatrick (twice), Matt Moore and Colin Kaepernick.

Yes, two games against Tyrod Taylor represented an above-average test for the New England defense this season.

So heading into Super Bowl LI on Sunday evening, the doubts remain, even after the Pats shut down Ben Roethlisberger (the NFL's 11th-rated QB) and the high-powered Steelers in the AFC title game. Le'veon Bell got hurt in the game, so it comes with an asterisk.

But the Pats players seem supremely confident about their chances. Perhaps that's because they know their history − not just their own, but the recent tattered history of highly ranked offenses in the NFL's ultimate game.

Atlanta scored 540 points in the regular season, the eighth-highest total in league history. The Falcons put up another 80 in their two playoff wins. But even a historically potent attack is no guarantee of success in the Super Bowl.

Over the past 15 seasons, 10 teams that ranked in the top three in the NFL in scoring reached the Super Bowl. Six of them led the league. But in the big game, those teams were 1-9. Those 10 teams came in averaging 31 points a game and slipped 17 a game in the Bowl, fully two touchdowns below their normal output.

That goes back to the Pats team that shocked the Rams, the "Greatest Show On Turf," in the Super Bowl, 20-17. Bill Belichick was the coach behind that upset. Buffalo fans recall that he was the defensive coordinator for the Giants team that solved the seemingly unstoppable Bills no-huddle in Super Bowl XXV.

The Hooded genius is still at it all these years later. The Falcons are a formidable offense, but it has to give them pause to know they'll be facing a coach whose teams are famous for allowing fewer points than their overall defensive stats would suggest.

The Pats were eighth in yards allowed this season, but first in fewest points. It's not a new phenomenon. In 14 of the last 16 seasons, the Patriots have ranked higher in scoring defense than overall defense. Three times, they finished in the bottom 10 in yards allowed and top 10 in fewest points.

Some of that is a product of Tom Brady and the offense, but it's clear that Belichick's defenses bend but rise up when opponents get near the goal line.

"First of all, it's the players doing a great job in those situations where we're trying to eliminate points," said Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator. "To us, the most important thing is the score, the points and to be able to win the game.

"So turnovers, points, those are the two biggest stats for us. We have to make sure we're trying to eliminate those opportunities for opponents. It's a big point of emphasis for us, from early in the season."

The Patriots also have a way of improving during the season. The idea isn't to peak in the first month, but later in the year. It's about a team concept, not stars. The Pats gave up the fewest points in 10 years despite trading their two top defenders, Chandler Jones in the summer and Jamie Collins in midseason.

"Obviously, the expert opinions are not correct," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who was suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for a banned substance. "I have said every year at the beginning of the year that we want to be better towards the end."

The skeptics were howling after the Pats lost at home to the Seahawks, 31-24, on Nov. 13. See what happens when they play an elite quarterback? They have won nine straight since. During that span, they have allowed just 13.3 points a game and 74 yards rushing per contest.

They silenced some of the doubters with their convincing win over the Steelers in the title game. Now they have a more daunting task, trying to contain Matt Ryan, the presumptive league MVP, and a Falcons offense that has two talented running backs and a slew of dangerous receivers, including Julio Jones.

"They have so many different weapons," said Patricia, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering. "It's not any one thing. It's them as a group. The way they're able to play as a singular unit, that's the thing that's unbelievable.

"Their efficiency, the tempo, the way they keep gaining ground − five yards, six yards, 20 yards − that's what is most impressive. The timing and rhythm of the offense is what makes their offense so difficult to stop."

No one is better at disrupting the timing and rhythm of an offense than Belichick. He has solved some of the best offenses and quarterbacks in history. Earlier this week, he was talking about how a Super Bowl is different from other games, how the time stretches out and a team has to compensate.

The Falcons have been saying it's just another game. But Belichick, who will be competing in his 10th Super Bowl, seven as a head coach, knows how difficult it can be, especially for a potent offense. He's lost a couple Super Bowls himself with offenses ranked at or near the top of the NFL.

Belichick's challenge on Sunday is to control the tempo, take Alanta out of its usual offensive rhythm, and hold them 10 points below their average. History says it would be unwise to bet against him.

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