If you focus on yards allowed per play, the Patriots had the second-worst defense in the NFL this season. They gave up 5.7 yards per snap, better than only the Buccaneers’ even 6. In total defensive yards allowed, New England was fourth from last. It wasn’t difficult for offenses all around the league to take big chunks against this Pats’ defense.
But by the measures that matter at the end of the day, the Patriots were stingy. They were No. 5 in the league in points allowed per game, at 18.5. And while they gave up the third-most yards per defensive series, (33.5), they allowed 1.6 points per series — the sixth-best mark in the league.
By pretty much any measure, New England is one of the five worst defenses in the league at preventing yards and one of the five best at preventing points. “Bend but don’t break” is a cliche as old as defense itself, but the Patriots are its dictionary definition.
A big part of New England’s defensive success is field position.
The average New England defensive series this season started at the opponent’s 24.3-yard line. That’s the best starting field position average for any defense in the league, and the best for any defense period since the 2015 Seahawks got average starting position at the offense’s 23.8, according to Football Outsiders. (New England was next that year, at the 24.2.)
So the Patriots can afford to bend, and they do. Offenses averaged more plays per drive against the Patriots (6.3) than against anyone except the Falcons. But when you start at the other team’s 24, you can afford to give up 34 yards per series. The average drive against the Patriots ends just shy of New England’s 40, a difficult field goal spot.
The Patriots tighten up considerably when the ball’s in the red zone.
Teams moved the ball inside New England’s 21-yard line 48 times in the regular season, roughly a league-average amount. The Patriots only gave up touchdowns on 44 percent of those possessions, the fourth-best stoppage rate in the league. They gave up 3.9 points per red zone possession, second-best in football after the Chargers at 3.7.
New England has won Super Bowls in the not-distant past by forcing red-zone turnovers. The reason the Patriots had the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs was also a red-zone stop, when they intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone in Week 15.
Another helpful thing: Teams miss field goals against the Patriots.
Lots of them. Opponents made just 22 of 31 field goal tries against them in the regular season, a 71 percent success rate against that was lower than anyone’s except the Rams’ (67.6 percent). Some of that’s undoubtedly luck. And some of it’s probably not, given that the Patriots have a statistical knack for stalling drives on the edge of most kickers’ range. (The exact average end point of a Patriots drive sets up a 58-yarder.)
Anything can happen in a Super Bowl, but the Eagles are probably in good shape in their kicking game. Rookie Jake Elliott was a so-so 26-of-31 on field goals in the regular season, but he thrived on longer kicks, going 17-of-19 from 40 yards and beyond. He’s perfect in the postseason and will be kicking on turf in a roofed stadium. It would be extremely Patriots to benefit from a missed kick, but it’s not likely in this game.
Scoring on New England has to be a total team effort for the Eagles.
That starts with Philadelphia’s own defense. The Eagles could help their offense a lot if they get Tom Brady off the field quickly a few times to create favorable field position. Making Nick Foles go the standard 75 full yards to score on Matt Patricia’s Patriots defense would let the Patriots work out of the same playbook they’ve used all year.
The Eagles might be well equipped to finish drives against New England, though. Philly’s offense scored a touchdown on a league-best 66 percent of red-zone possessions during the regular season. Their 5.3 points per red-zone series were second-most in the league behind Jacksonville. (It turns out it’s helpful to have a short-yardage monster at running back: Leonard Fournette for the Jaguars, LeGarrette Blount for the Eagles.) Eagles red-zone drives will be strength on strength.
There’s little question that the Eagles can move the ball against the Patriots, because almost everyone can move the ball against the Patriots. Whether the Eagles can turn that ball movement into actual points might be the thing that decides the Super Bowl.