Watch CBS News

After Suffocating Eagles, Patriots' Defense Should Reopen All-Time Greatest Discussions

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- You know, for a little while late Sunday afternoon, the folks who have been cupping their hands together to shout "THE FRAUDS HAVE BEEN EXPOSED" had their time to shine. After the Eagles mounted a 16-play touchdown drive that chewed up 9:33 of game time and felt like it took roughly thrice as long in real time, it looked like the Patriots had indeed been taken fully down to earth.

After the debacle in Baltimore in Week 9, it appeared to be a good day for those who had argued that the Patriots' defensive dominance was due only to their terrible schedule. Against "real" teams, that greatness could not be found.

Alas, football games are 60 minutes. And after that painstaking touchdown drive (that kinda/sorta/almost ended with a Jonathan Jones interception), the Eagles did not score again.

They never even really came close.

Over their final 10 possessions of the game, the Eagles crossed midfield just once. That lone trip across the 50-yard line ended with a turnover on downs, with Carson Wentz throwing incomplete to Nelson Agholor from the New England 26-yard line. It was Philadelphia's only whiff of the end zone over the course of the final 40 minutes of the game.

The second-half shutout led to the Patriots holding the Eagles to just those 10 points. The Eagles entered Sunday's game averaging 25 points per game and 27 points per game at home, and their 10 points is tied for their lowest single-game output this season. (They scored 10 at Dallas in Week 7.)

Being without Alshon Jeffery didn't help, being without Jordan Howard was a problem, and the early loss of Lane Johnson to a concussion was a major issue as well. But the bottom line is that the Eagles had their worst offensive day of the season on Sunday against the Patriots. They were held to a season-low 255 yards, and Carson Wentz (50 percent passing, 5.4 yards per attempt, 1 TD, 0 INTs) posted his second-worst passer rating of the season. The Patriots made two interceptions, with one wiped away by replay and one wiped away by penalty, and another pick slipped through Jamie Collins' fingers.

It was a much-needed showing from the defense that no doubt spent two weeks stewing about the mess in Baltimore, when the Ravens put up 37 points and 372 yards. And it also should work to revive some of those "greatest defense of all time" conversations.

Should is the key word there, because it certainly won't. There's something about the current pace of sports analysis that heavily warps conversations to favor the events of the past while downplaying events that are playing out in real time. In this particular case, most of America has been so busy pointing out the weakness of the Patriots' schedule that they've overlooked:

--The defenses considered the greatest of all time also played plenty of cupcakes,
--The defenses considered the greatest of all time also had a clunker or two on their resumes, and
--The defenses considered the greatest of all time played in era when it was actually legal to play defense.

That last one is perhaps the biggest. In 2019, teams are averaging 22.5 points per game. In 2000, that number was 20.7. In 1985, it was 21.5.

Thanks in part to rules that favor passing offenses, with a boost from kickers' field goal ranges expanding, the frequency at which teams score has skyrocketed since the 2000 Ravens played. In 2000, NFL offenses scored on 30.2 percent of their drives. This year, teams are scoring on 35.2 percent of their drives.

That alone should make folks realize that regardless of their opponents, the Patriots' defense is pulling off some sort of time traveling trick. Playing this type of defense has not been possible for some time.

And after Sunday's showing, we can bring back the tally of where the Patriots stand in relation to those 2000 Ravens, who hold the NFL's record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season with 165.

2000 Ravens: 105
2019 Patriots: 108

That, of course, includes all the points allowed by the team, not just by the defense. In the Patriots' case, they've allowed four touchdowns on offense and special teams. With a pick-six, two fumble returns for TDs, and a muffed punt for a TD, the 28 of those 108 points (or 26 percent) were not allowed by the defense. The Ravens allowed one pick-six through first 10 games in 2000.

2000 Ravens: 98
2019 Patriots: 80

Now of course, raw numbers don't tell the whole story. You could, can, and should still argue that the 2000 Ravens were either the greatest or second-greatest defense of all time. That's because we know how their season ended.

This comparison should, though, serve as a reminder of exactly where the Patriots stand. And if they manage to allow fewer than 200 points in the season, they'll become just the eighth team to ever do that.

Finishing the season ahead of the 2000 Ravens is still possible ... but it would require an unbelievable finish. To end the year with 165 points allowed, the Patriots would have to allow just 9.5 points per game in their final six contests. Considering they'll face the Cowboys, Chiefs and Texans (teams that rank fourth, fifth, and 10th in points scored, respectively), that is going to be a near-impossible task.

Buuuut, at the same time, facing the Bengals (30th) in Cincinnati while hosting the Bills (20th) and Dolphins (31st) to end the season should help balance that out.

Currently, the Patriots are allowing 10.8 points per game. That's almost five full point better than the next best team, as San Francisco ranks second at 15.5. The 2000 Ravens allowed 10.3 points per game, which was just 1.6 points per game better than Tennessee that year.

If we're trying to forecast the end of the season, we should probably do some rough math. The Cowboys, Chiefs and Texans together score roughly 27 points per game. Against the best defense in the NFL, that number's going to be lower. Let's meet in the middle and say that those three teams will score an average of 19 points per game.

The Bengals, Bills and Dolphins together score roughly 17 points per game. The Bills scored 10 at home against New England. The Dolphins scored zero at home against New England. They're likely to fare just as poorly, if not worse when playing in Foxboro. Let's say that those three teams will average nine points per game.

Again, we're estimating, but those numbers would put the Patriots at 192 points allowed for the season. Here's where that would rank all time, plus where they would rank all time if they're able to finish the year with their pace for current points allowed.

1. 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 165
2019 New England Patriots (on pace), 170
2. 1986 Chicago Bears, 187
3. 2000 Tennessee Titans, 191
2019 New England Patriots (estimated), 192
4. 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 195
5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 196
6. 1978 Denver Broncos, 198
7. 1985 Chicago Bears, 198

You'll notice that just two of those seven teams played post-Y2K, and the most recent team on the list played back when Tom Brady was a first-year starter and the upstart Patriots were America's darlings.

The Legion of Boom Seahawks allowed 231 points in 2013 and 254 points in 2014. When the Broncos' defense carried the team to a title in 2015, they did so after allowing 296 points in the regular season. The famed 2006 Bears, who made the Super Bowl despite not having a quarterback, allowed 255 points in the regular season. Rex Ryan's Jets were pretty good in 2009, when they allowed 236 points in the regular season. The '08 Steelers won a Super Bowl on defense, after allowing 223 points in the regular season. The less-heralded 2006 Ravens came close to coming in under the 200-point mark, as they allowed 201 points that year.

These Patriots have the chance to become the first team in 17 years to allow fewer than 200 points in a full season. And in an era where playing defense is almost outlawed entirely, finishing anywhere in that mix will be a remarkable achievement in and of itself.

It will ultimately only really matter if they ride it all the way to a Super Bowl title. There aren't many parades thrown these days for the 2000 Titans, '78 Broncos or '86 Bears. But the point is, from a raw data perspective, the Patriots are back on that historic track. And after a drastic reawakening in the second quarter in Philadelphia, the possibility to actually pull it off is back on.

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

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.