Personal vendetta: I will never, ever let everyone forget about how, after the Patriots let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner leave town in early 2015 instead of pulling a Steelers and extending their entire Super Bowl team for the next 5 years, New England's secondary was written off as dead on arrival before the 2015 season even started. Cause of death? Brace yourself, it's a classic - "Bill Belichick the GM is killing Bill Belichick the coach".
Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit went as far as to say the New England offense would need to put up "at least 28 points per game" if they wanted "any chance" of repeating as Super Bowl champions. Really.
Meanwhile, back in reality where the rest of us live, with almost the same secondary lineup (with one key addition, which we'll get to in a second), the New England Patriots defensive backs have earned the third-highest Pro Football Focus grades of the regular season. How about that. Only the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants were graded better.
Of course, that also puts the Patriots ahead of, oh, let's see, the Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom, the Denver Broncos No-Fly Zone, the Minnesota Vikings, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Arizona Cardinals, just to name a few to make a point.
Here's what PFF had to say after noting that Malcolm Butler earned the best grade on the team, checking in at 90.8 overall, good enough for 4th among corners:
"The Giants weren't the only team to feature multiple All-Pro selections in the secondary. Devin McCourty continues to be one of the top safeties in the game, earning the highest coverage grade of any at the position this season. Malcolm Butler had a breakout year at cornerback with a combined 16 interceptions and pass breakups, and the third-highest coverage grade among corners. Logan Ryan is still a solid No. 2 cornerback and played much better over the second half of the season. The one real weakness in the secondary has been Patrick Chung, who after earning career-highs in overall and coverage grades last season, ranks 81st of 91 safeties in overall grade in 2016."
Interestingly enough, each and every player they mention is home-grown Patriots talent. Malcolm Butler, obviously, went undrafted and then signed with New England just hoping to make it through camp cuts. McCourty, on the flip side, was a first-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2010 and has Pro Bowl nods at corner and safety. Logan Ryan, who's about to hit free agency on a hot streak unless New England ponies up with a new contract, joined the team in 2013 as a third-round pick. Patrick Chung, even though he's had a down year this year, by his standards, was also a Patriots draft pick -34th overall in the 2009 draft.
Conspicuously absent from any of PFF's analysis (at least in these rankings) is cornerback Eric Rowe, who New England snagged in a trade with Philadelphia back in September. Rowe was on a roll at right cornerback earlier this year before hurting himself against the Rams, and after taking some time to adjust to having to learn a new defense on the fly, the expectation is he'll be ready to roll for the playoffs. Guess he didn't do enough this season for PFF to make a note of it.
It's also worth noting that the Patriots defense was getting roasted as recently as Thanksgiving for allowing boatloads of yardage, even if they weren't allowing a ton of points. The sack numbers were down, they weren't forcing turnovers, and overall they had a really hard time getting off the field, especially on third downs. Heck, PFF notes that in Week 7, New England's secondary was ranked 16th overall in their grading system - the dictionary definition of average.
And while PFF grades aren't the end-all and be-all of how good you are or aren't, the Patriots ended up finishing the year with what's arguably the best defensive unit in the league, depending on which metric you prefer (passing yards, points allowed, overall yards per game, turnovers created, yada yada). It just so works out that their AFC Divisional Round opponent, the Houston Texans, has a boatload of talented skill-position players on offense - see Hopkins, DeAndre, Miller, Lamar, and Fuller, Will - and they still can't put up points. In the AFC South, of all places.
You don't often get a chance to improve your defensive stats against a division champ, especially in the playoffs.
If the Patriots keep playing the way they have since the bye week, there's a good chance that they might.