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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Brady's strong back carries Pats D

If the New England Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl this season, it's going to require Tom Brady's heaviest lift ever.

The current Patriots defense is worse than any of the defenses that helped Brady to his previous five Super Bowl rings.

This isn't to say the New England defense is bad. It's respectable. New England stands sixth in the NFL in points allowed, which is by far the most important defensive metric. But the Pats' defense is not good by historical championship standards.

The Patriots are 29th in yards allowed, yielding 377 a game. The worst yardage total allowed by any Super Bowl winner ever was 376 by the 2011 New York Giants.

And the Pats' defense has taken a step back from last year's championship team, which was No. 1 in points allowed and No. 8 in yards allowed (at 326 a game).

"It puts more pressure on the offense, it does," said Scott Zolak, former Pats QB and current Pats radio analyst. "But considering where they were the first four weeks, being sixth in points is phenomenal."

"I wouldn't use the word worse," said Hall-of-Famer Bill Polian, who worked the Pats win over Pittsburgh Sunday for ESPN. "That connotates that it's bad. It's not a bad defense. It's not as good as some they've had in the past."

Bill Belichick's defenses historically bend but don't break. Yet there's a big difference between the front-seven talent this year and last year. The Pats' best linebacker, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year. He was outstanding last season. The Pats miss the superb ability of retired Rob Ninkovich to set the edge against the run. Quality veteran edge rusher Jabaal Sheard and depth player Chris Long have moved on.

Trey Flowers is a legitimate rush man. He has 6.5 sacks. But there is no real threat opposite him.

"The difference is the fact they don't have any natural speed rushers off the edge," Polian said. "They have power rushers. Flowers can crush the pocket if he's playing against a weak offensive tackle. But they don't have Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, those kinds of rushers. You could see that Sunday in Pittsburgh. They did a wonderful job of compressing the pocket. But they couldn't sack Big Ben unless he held the ball forever. That's the difference."

"I think the concern is always pass rush," Zolak said. "But the question is who do you face? Are you facing Alex Smith or Blake Bortles? Ultimately, we all feel here in New England that you're going to see Pittsburgh Part II down the road. That's going to be the big one, how do you get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger?"

It's hard – but not impossible – to win a Super Bowl with a leaky defense.

Only eight of 51 Super Bowl champions had defenses that ranked outside the top 12 in the NFL in yards allowed.

It's worth noting Brady almost pulled off an even heavier lift in the 2011 season, when the Pats lost in the final minute of the Super Bowl to the Giants.

The Pats that year were 31st in yards allowed at 411 a game and 15th in points allowed.

That 2011 Giants team had the worst Super Bowl-winning defense ever. It ranked 25th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed. How did the Giants do it?

They had an excellent offense that peaked late in the season and they had kryptonite against Brady: a great pass rush. The Giants' defense ranked tied for second in sacks that season and fifth in takeaways. So the Big Blue defense was a bit better than its points and yardage numbers indicated. The current Patriots have neither of those assets.

Of course, Brady and Belichick absolve a lot of football sins.

"They have guys on defense who take coaching and understand schemes," Zolak said. "They stay in zones, stay in lanes, and that's how they beat Pittsburgh."

Only four out of 51 times has a team won the Super Bowl with a defense ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in points allowed.

Besides the '11 Giants, those teams were: the 2006 Colts (23rd), the 2009 Saints (20th) and the 2007 Giants (17th). The Colts had Peyton Manning's high-flying offense and a defense that got healthy late. The Saints had Drew Brees' No. 1-ranked offense and a defense that ranked No. 2 in takeaways. The Giants had an offense that got hot and the No. 1 pass rush in the league.

The 30,000-foot view: Belichick needs just two more regular-season wins to tie Tom Landry for third all-time at 250. It's doubtful the 65-year-old Belichick will catch No. 2 George Halas (318) or No. 1 Don Shula (328). Belichick is third in wins counting playoffs at 274, and he's 50 behind No. 2 Halas (324). This is Belichick's 16th playoff season. The record is 19 by Shula. . . . A win Sunday gives the Pats eight straight 12-win seasons, the most ever for a franchise since the merger in 1970. The Colts had seven straight from 2003-09.

Game-breaker: The Bills held Pats speedster Brandin Cooks to just two catches for 17 yards three weeks ago. Cooks is second in the NFL in catches of 40-plus yards (7) and is fifth among starting receivers in yards per catch (17.0).

Weak link: Run defense. The Patriots are 29th in the NFL in rush yards allowed at 122 a game despite facing the fifth fewest rush attempts in the league (24.8 a game). Why isn't it a crippling weakness? Because the Pats are fourth in the NFL in scoring and they're often playing with a lead. So teams are forced into catch-up mode and can't eat up clock with a patient running game. Balanced offenses, like Pittsburgh and New Orleans, pose big problems for the Pats. Pittsburgh held the ball for 35:07 last week.

Great Gronk: Rob Gronkowski has 26 100-yard games, second most ever by a tight end to Tony Gonzalez's 31. Gronkowski has 75 TDs in his first 100 games. Only four other players have done that (Jerry Rice, Don Hutson, Randy Moss and Lance Alworth). Conventional wisdom says you can't play Cover 2 against Gronkowski because he's so big in the middle of the field. But teams have to mix coverages against Brady. So the Bills did play some Cover 2 against the Pats three weeks ago.

"I think Rob's seen a lot of different coverages, seen a lot of different looks, ways that people try to defend him," Belichick said Wednesday. "I think as any player like that sees more of those things, he learns how to deal with them. Here's how I deal with this situation and here's how I deal with that situation. This works. This doesn't. . . . I think Rob has seen every different way you can cover him from an inside or an outside position, based on his style of play."

Stat for the road: Brady has 42 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, fourth most ever. The top three: Peyton Manning (54), Dan Marino (47), Brett Favre (43). The Bills have 24 since Brady took over in 2001. Tyrod Taylor has three. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards each had four, tops during The Drought.

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