BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – "Do you still think we suck?"
It was earlier this week, the week leading up to Super Bowl LII. New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy was in the middle of another in an unending string of media appearances before the big game, and he'd apparently been asked a lot about how the Patriots' defense had morphed throughout the season from something that was struggling into something that became, if not spectacular, then certainly incredibly efficient. So he asked a reporter pretty bluntly if he still thought the Patriots defense sucked.
Because four weeks into the season, it really wasn't much of a question: The Patriots defense did suck.
On the NFL's opening night, the Kansas City Chiefs hung 42 points on the Patriots, upsetting the defending Super Bowl champs. During the next two weeks, the Patriots won, but their defense was less than inspiring, giving up 20 to the New Orleans Saints and then 33 to the Houston Texans. On Oct. 1, in Week 4, the Patriots lost to Carolina Panthers, 33-30. At this point it was completely reasonable to wonder whether these Patriots had lost their mojo. Four games into the season, the Patriots were sitting at 2-2 and allowing 32 points per game. To put that in perspective, the worst scoring defense in the NFL this season was the Texans, and they allowed 27.3 points per game.
And then, after Week 4, everything changed. The Patriots went from the worst scoring defense in the NFL to the best. During the final 12 games of the regular season, the Patriots defense allowed a league-low 14 points per contest; despite that awful start, the team finished fifth in the league in points allowed over the entire season, averaging only 18.5 points per game.
"We brought a lot of guys together and understood where we were having trouble with communication, playing physical, simple things like that," said Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers. "Everybody just bought in. You had a lot of new guys early on, still trying to find their role, still trying to grasp the defense. Once you get a lot of guys buy into the work ethic and how hard we work on the little things, the communication and the fundamentals. (It's) us communicating before the snap, just the chemistry."
Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising that the Patriots defense turned from ugly to great. Because throughout this dynastic 16-year run since the Patriots' first Super Bowl victory (over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI), they have had one of the most consistent runs of defensive dominance in NFL history.
Only three times in those 16 years has the Patriots scoring defense ranked outside the league's 10 best. Twice the Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL's regular season; they won Super Bowls after both of those regular seasons (2003 and 2016). Twice the Patriots allowed the second-fewest points in the league; they won a Super Bowl after one of those seasons (2004). A Patriots defense has never allowed more than 21.6 points per game over a regular season since 2002, the year after their first Super Bowl in the Belichick era; just this season, more than half of NFL team defenses allowed more points than the worst Patriots scoring defense in 17 seasons.
"Just keep 'em out of the end zone," Patriots safety Patrick Chung said of their simple core philosophy. "For us it's just if you get down there, you leave with three points. Or zero. That's our mentality. … If you can't score, you can't win. People are going to score. It's the National Football League. But if we can not let that happen a bunch, even if we give up yards, it's going to be really hard for our opponent to win."
It's the product of a very real version of every coaching cliché: A group of guys playing as an 11-man unit, not 11 individuals crashing all over the field.
"We understand it's going to take all 11 guys on that field," Flowers said. "We don't have a lot of selfish players, where they do well but they hurt the team – (where) you try to overmake a play but now you're leaving a big gap for somebody else to fill. A lot of guys that handle ourselves fundamentally, pride ourselves on playing physical, playing fast, tackling well, doing all the little things right. We understand it's going to take all 11 of us."
When we think of this Patriots dynasty as the greatest of all time – and apologies to fans of the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it's no longer even a question – the thoughts tend to go toward the brilliance of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and how that relationship has been the single key. And that's true. But I'm not sure, based purely on skill set, that Brady is a demonstrably better quarterback than, say, Aaron Rodgers. And yet Rodgers' run with the Packers has been stunted through an inconsistent at best, and often awful, defense, while Brady's run with the Patriots has been propped up by the longest run of consistent defense in NFL history. It's the most underrated part of this Patriots run. Perhaps it will end with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who has worked with Patriots defensive players for more than a decade, departing the franchise.
"I put myself in that underrated category, and I like it that way," Van Noy said. "I feel like our whole defense is underrated. Everyone talks about the offense, but I feel like you could name every player on our defense and say they're underrated or not talked about."
Kevin Steimle contributed to this report.