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If folks are going to insist the 2021 New England Patriots look eerily like the 2001 team that began a dynasty run to six Super Bowl titles, then we must start not with how quarterback Mac Jones is trying to duplicate the feats of a young Tom Brady but with something more impressive and important to the success of Bill Belichick’s team this season:
How this Patriots defense is on course to be as good and perhaps better than that fateful Patriots championship defense of two decades ago.
That was a hard sentence to write because I witnessed that Patriots defense of yesteryear and comparing a unit from a different generation, competing in a vastly different league and facing a different approach to the game, is a tough assignment.
But let’s try this anyway.
The Patriots today are basking in a 25-0 defensive whipping of the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.
And I know what your initial reaction is because people are prone to be cynical about practically everything these days: You think the Falcons stink. So the shutout was no big deal.
Except the Patriots just dealt Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan his first home shutout ever and only the second of his 14-year career. It’s a career that’s spanned 215 games, so this isn’t a small sample size.
And this wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill shutout but a certifiable butt-whipping kind of shutout that left Ryan bloodied and out of the game so as to protect him from further harm.
The Patriots sacked Ryan four times. He was hit 12 times.
The Patriots, who led or tied for most interceptions in the NFL in 2019 and ’20, took the lead in interceptions this year by adding four this game — one on each of Atlanta’s four possessions in the final quarter.
It’s difficult to discern which Atlanta quarterback got victimized.
Ryan threw two interceptions.
Josh Rosen threw an interception that linebacker Kyle Van Noy returned 35 yards for a touchdown.
And Feleipe Franks threw an interception.
It marked the first time three quarterbacks on the same team threw at least one interception in the same game since 2000.
“I don’t want to brag too much, but I think we got one of the best defenses in the league right now,” New England cornerback J.C. Jackson said afterward. “We got a good pass rush, we got some guys up front who are doing pretty good this season. We got a secondary who’s always been doing pretty good, and we’ve started playing with chemistry.”
Jackson is one man but he isn’t on an island with this thinking. Linebacker Matt Judon was asked about Jackson’s opinion, and at no point did he disagree.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks, as long as we think that,” Judon said. “Y’all do the numbers, ya’ll do that stuff, but we have to play with extreme confidence and we got to go out there and prepare to not let anybody score.”
While that belief raises this Pats D to notable heights this season, it doesn’t make them comparable to the defense which carried the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory against the long ago Greatest Show on Turf offense of the then-St. Louis Rams.
And we obviously don’t know what the next two months have in store for Belichick’s current defense, so making a definitive statement about how this is going to finish is impossible.
But the numbers suggest great things are looming and a comparison to New England’s 2001 defense isn’t outrageous.
The fact is the Patriots right now are second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 16.1 points per game.
The 2001 Patriots finished sixth in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 17 points per game.
And, yes, that’s a comparison of 11 games so far this year versus 16 games in 2001. But consider:
The 2001 Patriots started their season 3-3. And in their next five games they gave up 103 points.
These latter day Patriots started 2-4. And in their next five games they have given up 50 points.
This Patriots defense, you should know, has three interceptions returned for a touchdown. And over the last 26 possessions, this defense has scored 12 points while yielding 6.
So how did a team that allowed 35 points to Dallas on Oct. 17 turn into a quarterback nightmare a month later?
“Playing team defense, communicating, being where you’re supposed to be, guys reading their keys,” Jackson said.
“We catching our stride,” Judon added. “We had a lot of new pieces, pieces coming back, and now we’re just in the rhythm. And I think we’re just all playing with a lot of confidence.
“We communicate. We know where each other is going to be on the field and know how each other plays. We didn’t want to get off to a bad start, but right now we’re in a groove and we’re going to continue to prepare and work like our back is against he wall.”
The Patriots play the Titans and still have two games remaining against the AFC East leading Buffalo Bills in the coming weeks.
“Defense played outstanding, but we got to keep it up,” Jackson said. “It’s going to get scary. Going to be scary.”
The guess here is he meant for New England’s upcoming opponents.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero