Young Patriots defense must learn to close out the close ones

If Sunday night’s Patriots loss to the Ravens felt familiar there’s good reason. Since the start of the 2011 season the Patriots have been in 10 games that were decided by one score or less, and in those games their record is 4-6, with the majority of the six losses being decided on the final drive.

Here’s how those ten games break down:

Of the four wins, two should be credited to the Patriots offense. Against Dallas in 2011 Tom Brady led the offense on a touchdown drive that stole the game from the Cowboys, and against Miami the Pats offense was able to hold on to the ball long enough to run out the clock to seal a 27-24 win.

Of the other two wins both have credit going to special teams. I’d chalk the AFC Championship game to a failure by the other teams special teams, or at best a success of the Pats special teams. Either way, the Pats defense didn’t do much to stop the Ravens on the final possession, and had Sterling Moore not knocked the ball from Lee Evans’ grasp it would’ve been a decisive defensive failure.

The other win came against Indianapolis in 2011 and it was a Pats-recovered onside kick that preserved the tighter-than-it-should’ve-been victory over the Manning-less Colts.

That brings us to the six losses. One goes to special teams failure (missed field goal two weeks ago against the Cardinals) and one goes to offensive failure (a Patriots safety that killed any chance of a comeback against the Steelers in 2011).

But the other four of them were defensive failures on the final possession of the game, just like we saw Sunday night. And let’s remember the Patriots have only lost six games total since the start of the 2011 season. That’s right, four of the six came on what amounted to the final drive by the opposition.

In order they were:

2011:  Bills 34, Patriots 31 - Defense allows 17 points in the 4th quarter including an 8-play, 70-yard drive for the game winning field goal as time expires.

2011: Giants 24, Patriots 21 - Defense allows 14 points in the 4th quarter including a 9-play, 64-yard touchdown to effectively end the game.

Super Bowl 46: Giants 21, Patriots 17 - Defense allows a 9-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that left only 57 seconds on the clock, ultimately giving the Giants another Lombardi Trophy.

And finally our newest entry from last night…

2012: Ravens 31, Patriots 30 - Defense allows 10 points in the final 7 minutes, including an 8-play, 92 yard touchdown drive and a 7-play, 70-yard drive for the game winning field goal as time expired.

As you can see all four of these games feature frighteningly similar endings with the Pats defense allowing long drives late in the fourth quarter that sealed the loss. Of course the offense can shoulder some of the blame too, but as soon as the Patriots failed to convert their final third down against the Ravens, history made it pretty clear how the game was going to end.

If the Patriots are ever going to win another Super Bowl their defense is going to have to learn how to close out games again. We can only imagine what might’ve happened against the Eagles in Super Bowl 39 if it was our current defense out there. Instead of a Rodney Harrison interception we might be looking at Donovan McNabb raising the Lombardi.

What it comes down to is playmakers making plays when it’s all on the line. This is still a young defense and this is the final step in their maturation. As we saw on Sunday night they are so close. If McCourty or Arrington just holds on to one of those interceptions the Patriots likely win the game. They’re not far off, but the question is can they turn that last corner this season?

The only time in 2011 the Patriots defense got a stop when they needed one most was when Jerod Mayo intercepted Rex Grossman to seal a 34-27 win over the Redskins. And that was after the Redskins had drove 71 yards and looked poised to tie the game from the 9-yard line.

The last time before that the Patriots defense closed out a game was Peyton Manning’s final time facing the Pats as a Colt in 2010. Wow, it’s been a while.

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