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Patriots' Defense Continues On Historic Pace After Smothering Cowboys' Top-Ranked Offense

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

FOXBORO (CBS) -- Yahhhhhh but who have they played?!?!?!

It was a question/statement/insult that was hurled at the Patriots throughout the first half of this season, as the Patriots stacked up some otherworldly defensive performances against some admittedly inferior opponents. Even though a discerning eye could have seen that Bill Belichick's defense was functioning on a completely separate universe from the rest of the league, the knock on the Patriots' relatively easy schedule remained.

Not anymore.

Though they received a slight boost from the wind and the rain, there is simply no denying the smothering, suffocating performance that the Patriots' defense put forth on a late afternoon game against the Cowboys on Sunday.

The Cowboys entered Sunday's game boasting the league's best offense, averaging 445 yards and 28.6 points per game on the season.

Against the Patriots, the Cowboys mustered just 321 yards and nine measly points.

After averaging 3.4 touchdowns per game in their first 10 contests, the Cowboys failed to find the end zone against the Patriots. They failed to even get close, really, as they made it across the 50-yard line just once on six possessions in the second half and four times on 12 possessions overall.

Dak Prescott entered the game averaging 322.1 passing yards per game, but he was held to just 212 in this one.

The Cowboys entered Sunday boasting the NFL's very best conversion percentage on third downs, at 52.1 percent. Against the Patriots, they went 2-for-13, good for 15.4 percent.

Coming off a game in Detroit where they scored 35 points and gained 509 yards of offense, the Cowboys came crashing down to earth on a dreary day in Foxboro.

As a result, the Patriots have now allowed just 117 points this season. As has been tracked throughout the season, only seven teams have held opponents to less than 200 points in a full season, since the league went to a 16-game regular season in 1978. All seven of those teams allowed more than 117 points through their first 11 games of their respective seasons.

(Side note: Through 11 games, the Patriots have allowed just four passing touchdowns all season long. In a passing era, in a league where the modified rules favor passing offenses above all else, that is utterly absurd.)

(Another side note: Stephon Gilmore's interception on Sunday upped the Patriots' turnover differential to plus-19 on the season, twice as good as any other team this season.)

While the "pace" for points allowed can change with one bad game, the Patriots are nevertheless "on pace" to allow 170 points this season. That would be five more points than the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the team that holds the record for fewest points allowed in a single 16-game season.

1. 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 165
2019 New England Patriots (on pace), 170
2. 1986 Chicago Bears, 187
3. 2000 Tennessee Titans, 191
4. 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 195
5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 196
6. 1978 Denver Broncos, 198
7. 1985 Chicago Bears, 198

Again, the pace is subject to change at any given moment, and a game like the one the Patriots had in Baltimore is liable to throw the "pace" out of whack. Yet the rest of the Patriots' schedule is quite balanced from that perspective, as they'll face the top-10 offenses of Houston and Kansas City, while also facing the Jets, Bills and Bengals.

The Patriots own the fifth-best point differential mark through 11 games in NFL history, which screams off the page when you consider that the Patriots' offense ranks in the middle of the pack. To carry a plus-183 point differential without a top-5 or top-10 offense shines a light on just how dominant the defense has been.

While various factors will likely prevent the Patriots from usurping the 2000 Ravens or '85 and '86 Bears as the greatest defense ever in the mostly meaningless debates and arguments that carry us all through time, there are many factors that lean toward the Patriots belonging in that conversation -- provided they complete this season the way they hope to complete it.

And while a stifling of the NFL's top offense doesn't erase the easier spots on the Patriots' schedule, just look at how opposing offenses have fared against the Patriots compared to how they've fared overall.

Vs. New England: 308 yards, 3 points
OVERALL: 288.5 yards per game, 19.6 points per game

Vs. New England: 184 yards, 0 points
OVERALL: 264.9 yards per game, 14.8 points per game

Vs. New England: 129.5 yards per game, 7 points per game (0 offensive points)
OVERALL: 262.1 yards per game, 18 points per game

Vs. New England: 375 yards, 10 points
OVERALL: 352.7 yards per game, 21 points per game

Vs. New England: 223 yards, 7 points
OVERALL: 253.4 yards per game, 13.1 points per game

Vs. New England: 213 yards, 14 points
OVERALL: 315 yards per game, 19.7 points per game

Vs. New England: 310 yards, 13 points
OVERALL: 354.2 yards per game, 21.2 points per game

Vs. New England: 372 yards, 37 points
OVERALL: 428.6 yards per game, 34.1 points per game

Vs. New England: 255 yards, 10 points
OVERALL: 338.4 yards per game, 22.1 points per game

Vs. New England: 321 yards, 9 points
OVERALL: 433.4 yards per game, 26.8 points per game

In their 11 games, just once has an opponent scored more than their season average in points. On average, teams are scoring 10 fewer points against the Patriots than they are on the season -- and that includes their games against the Patriots. Those numbers also include the points allowed by the Patriots' offense and special teams, which account for four of the 13 touchdowns (more than 30 percent) allowed by New England this season.

What's more, with Jason McCourty missing Sunday's game vs. the Cowboys, it marked the fifth time the Patriots have been without a key defensive starter this season. (Dont'a Hightower missed the Buffalo game, Patrick Chung missed the Philadelphia and Washington games, and Kyle Van Noy missed the Pittsburgh game.) Outside of a bad start in Baltimore on a Sunday night, not much has gotten in the way of the Patriots' defense this season.

Of course, work remains. Traveling to Houston in prime time will present an opportunity to put forth a better showing than that Baltimore game, and hosting Kansas City in Week 14 will present one of the toughest challenges of the whole season. After that, it'll be how the Patriots perform in January -- and, perhaps, in February -- that will ultimately determine the way this season goes down in the record books.

But as it stands now, with nearly 70 percent of their season behind them, a historic finish remains within the grasp of the 2019 Patriots.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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