“Once you start doing good things week in and week out,” said Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery, “you start to conquer teams.”
Presumably, the Patriots will face better quarterbacks in the postseason than Petty or his replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Or Kessler, Goff or Siemian. Or Brock Osweiler, Colin Kaepernick or Landry Jones, some of the others who have succumbed to New England this season.
Of the 10 highest-scoring teams besides themselves, the Patriots have faced two — Buffalo and Pittsburgh, which played that day without its star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. That is not their fault, but the mediocrity of their opposition — such as the Jets, who through three quarters Saturday had four completions and four turnovers — suggests that the Patriots have not been sufficiently tested.
Earlier in the week, the Jets’ offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, said that New England had “probably” the smartest defense the Jets had played this season. Asked to elaborate, Gailey highlighted the Patriots players’ interchangeability — how so many of them can line up in different positions — and, by extension, their depth.
The Patriots dumped two productive players, the Pro Bowl linebackers Chandler Jones (in March) and Jamie Collins (in October), in decisions that benefited the team’s long-term viability and salary-cap flexibility but initially elicited skepticism.
“I thought they traded away their opportunity to go to the Super Bowl,” the ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said in a telephone interview. “I was like, ‘They could be in trouble.’ And at first, they were very vanilla, like they were searching. But over the last six weeks, that defense is drastically improved.”
The improvement, beginning after a Week 10 home loss to Seattle, coincided with two critical developments: a stretch against three of the lowest-scoring teams in the league — San Francisco, the Jets and Los Angeles — and the continued progress, and integration, of players like linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin; defensive lineman Vincent Valentine; and cornerback Eric Rowe, who intercepted Fitzpatrick in the second quarter.
Last Sunday in the high altitude of Denver, where New England had lost its three previous games, including last season’s A.F.C. championship, the Patriots smothered the Broncos in a 16-3 victory. Watching that game, Hoge found himself in an unfamiliar position: He had never heard of one of the Patriots’ starting linebackers, No. 52, the rookie Elandon Roberts, who on Saturday forced a fumble.
“You really can’t pick a guy,” Jets Coach Todd Bowles said earlier in the week, “because they have different guys to make plays.”
Hoge said the team that should pose the greatest challenge to New England in the A.F.C. is Pittsburgh, which can clinch its division Sunday by beating Baltimore. Powered by Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and a cast of receiving options headlined by Antonio Brown, the Steelers can stress every level of New England’s defense. The Patriots’ smart stunt packages offset their modest pass rush, but a savvy, sturdy offensive line — such as the Steelers’ — can neutralize them.
Depending on how the matchups unfold, the Patriots might not even have to face Pittsburgh until the A.F.C. championship game, if at all. With Tom Brady, dazzling still at age 39, New England holds a perpetual edge at quarterback.
But despite Brady’s three Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Awards, none of the climactic moments in those games — Adam Vinatieri’s two late field goals against St. Louis and Carolina, Butler’s goal-line interception against Seattle — involved the quarterback, which is an instructive point.
Brady, as ever, might position the Patriots for glory. But he might need a little help at the end.