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Thanks to a secondary led by lockdown corner Darrelle Revis, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick finally have a defense that can help them win a fourth Super Bowl ring

By Jenny Vrentas
December 31, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Back in March, two months after losing to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots made their pitch to Darrelle Revis. The cornerback had options, plus his preferences, to sort through. But the Patriots simply had a plan: acquire the missing pieces that, for a ninth straight year, halted their quest to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

“That was somewhat the focal point of signing back Vince Wilfork; bringing in Brandon Browner, bringing in me, bringing in Brandon LaFell,” Revis said in the Patriots’ locker room last Sunday. “Every year there’s changes in the NFL, and that’s how you look at it—who picked the right players that can fit.”

The Patriots, who earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed before losing to the Bills in Week 17, are among the NFL’s best chameleons. They do it on a weekly basis, changing their identity and game plan based on how they match up with their opponent. And they also do it with their roster, moving the pieces around Tom Brady and Bill Belichick every year without the whole puzzle falling apart.

So why was this year’s reshuffle significant? It led to one of the main questions defining the upcoming playoffs: Can anyone knock off the defending champion Seahawks, and is this Patriots team capable of ending the franchise’s decade-long championship drought?

The upgrades to the Patriots’ defense helped create a secondary that can now withstand the aerial attacks like the one the Broncos used to knock New England out of last year’s playoffs. Revis and Browner like to play bump-and-run coverage, and neither shies away from contact in run support. Midseason moves such as trading for the Titans Akeem Ayers compensated for the loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo to a season-ending injury and defensive end Chandler Jones’ six-week absence with a hip injury. The result? The most balanced Patriots team in at least five years.

The Patriots had a top 10 offense from 2010 to 2013, but a defense that ranked among the league’s bottom eight. This year’s team ranks No. 11 in offense and No. 13th in defense, based on yards per game. Among the most balanced teams in the Brady era: The 2007 team that went undefeated in the regular season (first in offense, fourth in defense), the 2004 Super Bowl XXXIX team (seventh in offense, ninth in defense) and this one.

So when Revis offers up what sounds like a clichéd response—that the offense can pick up the defense, and that the defense can do the same for the offense—there’s actually something to it. Especially since the offense’s torrid midseason pace hit a speed bump toward the end of the regular season. In their last five games (3-2), the Patriots averaged 22.2 points per game, compared to 39.6 points per game during an earlier seven-game winning streak.

Not that Super Bowl champions are determined by balance or any kind of formula. But the last four years resulted in a divisional round loss, two conference championship losses and a loss in Super Bowl XLVI. In the locker room after Week 17, Jonathan Casillas, the special-teamer sent from Tampa Bay to New England at the trade deadline, counted on his fingers the years since the last Patriots crown.

“That does seem kind of crazy because it has been in our era,” Casillas said. “We’ve been fans of football before we were professionals. We’ve seen it. We saw Tom Brady do it. It really doesn’t seem that long ago. And then you start thinking, 2004, wow—it’s been 10 years.”

Only Brady and Wilfork are left from that team. At least one of their former teammates, Ty Law, has said on Comcast SportsNet’s postgame show that this is the best Patriots defense since ’04. Heading into a playoff run that will determine whether or not the Pats found those missing pieces, Revis, a longtime mentee of Law’s from his high school days in Aliquippa, Pa., thought he should hear more about that comparison.

“I definitely have to talk him,” Revis said. “Maybe he can give me some pointers on how tough they were and how aggressive they were as a D.”

The Patriots’ plan is on track: they’re a No. 1 seed with first-round bye, and the AFC’s road to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium. But they need the comparisons to the 2004 defense to continue.

“That was a great defense, and they did what they had to do to win a Super Bowl,” safety Devin McCourty says. “We’ve given ourselves a chance, but now it’s all about how you play in the playoffs.”

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