Coming off their best defensive effort of the season on Sunday against the Houston Texans, the 2015 New England Patriots possess a legitimate top-ten defense, with three games left on the schedule. Despite already giving up four return touchdowns the Patriots still have the eighth-fewest points allowed at 19.5 per game. The team is also ranked sixth in total yardage allowed, seventh in passing yards allowed, tenth in rushing yards allowed and seventh in first downs allowed.
So how does this outfit compare to last year's Super Bowl winning unit?
This year's team has the better numbers across the board, with the points per game number skewed by the number of return touchdowns allowed. Whereas the Patriots this year already had four balls returned on them - three during that disaster against the Philadelphia Eagles - last year's team only had two. The Brady pick-six in Kansas City and Brandon LaFell's fumble in San Diego.
However, a direct comparison is always bound to have flaws since it doesn't factor in the strength of the competition. The 2014 New England Patriots faced three of the best offenses in the league with the Packers, Broncos and Colts, all of whom were able to put up a lot of points and yards on opposing defenses.
In order to account for that a simple adjustment was made by breaking down the offensive numbers of the Patriots' opponents on a per-game basis without their games against the Patriots and comparing it to the numbers they put up against the Patriots defense (return touchdowns have been deducted).
The numbers reveal that the 2015 defense has been significantly better at preventing opposing teams from moving down the field. Especially the passing defense has impressed, considering the fact that they've been forced to pass defend more this season, holding their opponents 15 yards below their average against the remaining competition. Indeed, the 2015 defense has limited the opposition to 5.7 net yards per attempt on 37.2 pass attempts per game, compared to 6.2 net yards per attempt last year on 35.9 attempts per game.
Where the 2014 defense has performed better, however, is in preventing opposing rushing touchdowns. Against the 2014 Patriots the rushing touchdowns scored by the other teams dropped by nearly 50%, with the longest scoring run being a four yard touchdown by Knowshon Moreno in the first game of the season against the Miami Dolphins. The 2015 unit on the other hand has already allowed four rushing touchdowns that went for more than 15 yards (although three of them have come in the snow without Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins against Denver).
Another area where the 2014 defense has been better is the area of forcing turnovers. The 2014 team caused turnovers on 13.2% of the opposition's drives (good enough for 12th in the league) for a total of 25. This year's edition has struggled holding on to interceptions and fall on fumbles with the result being turnovers on only 10.5% of the opposition's drives (ranked 21st). That, however, makes it all the more impressive that the opposition have only managed to score on 28.1% of their drives. Only the Jets, Broncos and Panthers are better in that department.
Through 13 games the 2015 Patriots defense has proven itself to be arguably the best Patriots defense since the 2007 version that helped the Patriots go 16-0. With the regular season drawing to a close the question now is, can this defense stay/get healthy and carry over the momentum into the playoffs?