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Stats, schmats: Pats are tough

Made it to the big show despite second-worst D

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DAVIE, Fla. -- History tells us you can throw out the statistics when it comes to breaking down the New England Patriots' defence.

Last year, the Patriots finished 31st in total defence, 31st against the pass and 17th against the run and still made it to the Super Bowl. This year, they've improved only slightly -- to 27th overall, 29th against the pass and 12th against the run -- and again are among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.

"We know how well we can play as a defence," said Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, a Boynton Beach native and former University of Miami standout who this past week was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl. "We just have to keep doing what we've been doing, and that's creating turnovers, making negative plays and playing good defence.

"At the end, the biggest stat of them all is winning."

It always seems incongruous that a team coached by Bill Belichick -- who was Bill Parcells' defensive co-ordinator on the New York Giants' championship teams of 1986 and 1990 -- would be so much more proficient on offence than defence, but wide receiver Brian Hartline, whose Dolphins will face the Patriots at Gillette Stadium today, said it's a calculated approach.

"It's kind of bend but don't break," Hartline said. "They give up yards, but then they hold you to field goals. And anytime you hold a team to a field goal, especially with that offense, that's a win for the defense."

Belichick has done his best to address the shortcomings, inserting five new players into the defence this year in rookies Chandler Jones (defensive end), Dont'a Hightower (linebacker) and Alfonzo Dennard (cornerback) as well as veterans Steve Gregory (safety) and Aqib Talib (cornerback).

Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano said what makes the interchangeable parts so effective is that the Patriots change their scheme regularly.

"They get away from their tendencies; they're great in that respect," he said.

Fasano added that New England's defensive players -- such as two-time Pro Bowl choice Jerod Mayo and fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, a former Florida Gator -- shouldn't be underrated.

"They have a good front seven," he said. "You have to play a solid, mistake-free game to be effective against them."

Takeaways, of course, have been the key to the Patriots' success. Their plus-23 turnover ratio -- 39 takeaways and 16 giveaways -- is easily the best in the NFL.

"They are opportunistic," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "They don't have a ton of sacks, but they force quarterbacks into bad decisions."

Added tackle Jonathan Martin, "It's hard to look at numbers and determine how good a defence is. When you watch film, they're one of the better defences we've faced."

Martin and the Dolphins' offensive line caught a break four weeks ago when Jones, a first-round pick in April, and third-year defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, another former Gator, were both out for the Patriots -- Jones with an ankle injury and Cunningham because of a suspension that ended last week. While Cunningham might play sparingly, Martin expects a battle with Jones, who has six sacks and 12 QB hurries.

"He's long, athletic, a good player," Martin said.

Hartline, meanwhile, said Talib, who arrived Nov. 1 in a trade with Tampa Bay, has shored up the secondary.

"They've always had questions about their defensive backs, so having that guy there gives them some confidence," Hartline said.

With New England's defence having allowed fewer than 20 points in four of the last five games, Wilfork said he has seen signs that the unit is coming together at the right time.


-- The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2012 B4

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