Patriots defense getting healthier, stingier

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Chandler Jones is tackling the quarterback again, Vince Wilfork is stuffing the middle and Darrelle Revis is smothering receivers.

The New England Patriots defense is getting stingier and healthier as the playoffs approach.

Tom Brady and his prolific offense enjoy watching that from the sideline.

''There's pressure to score every time we get the ball and that's what we're trying to do,'' Brady said, ''but it's also a good feeling knowing that if you have to punt, you've got a defense that's not going to give up points too easily.''

The Patriots lead the NFL with 31.6 points per game and have allowed the eighth fewest, 20.0.

They're ranked in the middle of the pack in yards allowed - 16 teams have given up fewer. But they limit the amount of points those yards produce. They gave up 384 yards last Sunday to the Miami Dolphins but won 41-13 to clinch their sixth straight AFC East title.

''The biggest stat was 13 points,'' Wilfork said. ''I don't care how many yards you give up.''

Jones is the Patriots' best pass rusher but missed the previous six games with a hip injury. He returned and had 1 1/2 sacks against Ryan Tannehill.

''I felt great,'' Jones said. ''Just a few months ago I was on crutches. So for me to be out there running with my team, I got a little emotional.''

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower also returned after missing one game with a shoulder injury. He resumed calling defensive signals, a job he's done since two-time Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo went on injured reserve after the sixth game.

''Anytime you get playmakers back, it's always going to help your team,'' Wilfork said.

Against Miami, Hightower was second on the team with eight tackles, Jones had seven and each forced a fumble.

In the second half, the defense has been at its best.

In the last two games, it's allowed no points and a total of 213 yards. In the last five, it's given up just one touchdown and three field goals in the second half, outscoring opponents 82-16.

The competition gets weaker in the next game when the Patriots (11-3) visit the New York Jets (3-11) on Sunday before finishing at home against the Buffalo Bills (8-6).

But with the return of Jones, Hightower and backup defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who had been on injured reserve with a designation to return, the defensive front seven has great depth.

''The more the merrier,'' Revis said.

The secondary also is deep, led by two cornerbacks picked up in the offseason.

Revis has been shutting down receivers all season and Brandon Browner has been hitting them hard at the other spot. Safety Devin McCourty is the steady man in the middle. And the two interceptions against Miami were by safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon.

''They're game-changers,'' Harmon said of those plays. ''They change the mood of the team, the fans, and it's just good to get them.''

The Patriots had at least one interception in six of the last seven games and are fourth in the NFL in turnover differential.

Even 325-pound defensive tackle Wilfork picked off a pass.

''Defensively, all of our players are asked to do a lot of different things,'' defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, ''whether it's play man coverage, play zone coverage, rush the quarterback, stop the run, play in the front, play in the secondary.

''The more that you can do as a player, then, obviously, the more value you can create for yourself and hopefully help us win the game.''

They've been doing more than enough to complement the high-scoring offense.

''If we hold a team to 13 points,'' McCourty said, ''there's a high chance our offense is going to go out there and get 14 or more each game.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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