INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Long plays, loose coverage and lingering injuries turned the New England Patriots’ defense into one of the most generous in the NFL.
Now the puzzle of misshapen pieces seems to be fitting together at the right time.
“I hope so,” said cornerback Devin McCourty, who spent time at safety while coach Bill Belichick searched for the right combination. “This is the time we have to peak. Hopefully, on defense we can continue the way we’ve been playing and take it up another notch because we have to.”
The Patriots reached Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New York Giants by beating Denver 45-10 and Baltimore 23-20 while allowing a total of 650 yards. That works out to averages of 15 points and 325 yards. During the regular season the Patriots gave up 21.4 points and 411.1 yards, second most in the league per game.
The big gainers went down, too. After allowing 70 completions of more than 20 yards, nearly four per game in the regular season, they gave up just four in their two playoff games.
So what’s changed?
“We haven’t had the same group of guys on the field on the defensive side of the ball for three consecutive weeks all year,” linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo said. “I think this might be the first time, so the communication is picking up. The guys are really coming through.”
Starters Patrick Chung at safety and Brandon Spikes at linebacker were sidelined for seven weeks before returning for the final regular-season game. McCourty and Mayo missed two games each. And defensive end Andre Carter, the Patriots’ top sacker, suffered a season-ending injury to his left quadriceps in the 14th game.
He made more use of a 4-3 alignment than a 3-4 and used wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater in the secondary. He abandoned the Slater experiment early, but Edelman is still there, working hard at his new spot and becoming a target for quarterbacks.
He struggled against slot receiver Anquan Boldin late in the AFC championship game. Giants receiver Mario Manningham saw that and viewed it as an invitation to enjoy himself at the Super Bowl.
He accepted it with delight and a dig.
“I hope he’s out there when we play them,” Manningham said in the buildup to the Super Bowl. “It’s a different stage. This ain’t the regular season. That ain’t your real position, so we’re trying to expose you.”
He toned that down a bit Tuesday on media day.
“I respect him as a player. I understand that he’s a good player,” Manningham said. “He plays wide receiver and defensive back. I don’t take anything from him, but he plays offense.”
The super-competitive Edelman brushed it all aside. He has more important concerns while getting ready for the biggest game of his life.
“I am not really worried about what Mario Manningham is saying right now,” he said. “I am more focused on doing my job, and that is preparing right now. We will see if that opportunity comes ahead of us in the game.”
The Patriots were 5-3 after losing to the Giants 24-20 on Nov. 6. Since then, they’ve allowed 400 yards just four times.
“They went on a 10-game win streak after we played them last and they’re playing extremely well,” New York tight end Jake Ballard said. “I’ve been telling everybody they’re the most underrated defense in the league. And everybody’s like, ‘So, you guys are going to kill them
“I’m like, ‘They’re a good team. They’re very underrated. Their front seven is good and their defensive backs are covering very well.’”
Vince Wilfork was chosen for his third straight Pro Bowl. Spikes intercepted Joe Flacco’s pass in the fourth quarter of the AFC title game.
And cornerback Sterling Moore — the poster boy for the shuffling in the secondary — signed as a free agent before being cut and then signed again. Against the Ravens, he stripped Lee Evans of a potential winning catch in the final minute in the right corner of the end zone.
But there were still defensive problems.
“It wasn’t perfect,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington, who actually has played every game this season. “It’s hard to play a perfect game, but we’re perfectionists.”
At least there were improvements.
“That’s the key,” added Arrington, who tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions this season. “You just want to get hot at the right time as the Giants have. They got hot at the right time and I think we peaked as well at the right time. We started to get all our guys back defensively and that’s huge for us.”
It’s not much for the statistics. The Patriots still finished next to last in the league by allowing 293.9 yards passing per game.
But Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks doesn’t pay attention to that.
“I think we can take advantage of certain things in certain situations,” he said, “but you can’t say they’re underrated, because they’re in the Super Bowl.”