Patriots Quietly Sneaking Up On Teams

Randy Moss is gone, Fred Taylor has been out for weeks and the defense ranks in the bottom 10% of the league, yet the Patriots keep winning. New England has quietly moved into a first place tie in the AFC. Do they have what it takes to stay there?

Though some of the team's statistics don't yet show defined growth, New England's defense has made significant strides in recent weeks.

The young, developing defense has been a big factor in each of the Patriots last two victories -- over the Chargers and Ravens -- as part of the team's overall four-game winning streak.

Sunday in San Diego that included four first-half takeaways that not only gave Tom Brady & Co. extra possessions and field position, but gave the offense time to work through its own early-game struggles. Brady had just 11 net yards passing in the first half against the Chargers, but the Patriots still went to halftime leading 13-3 thanks largely to the defense.

"What offense?," Brady said of the first-half effort after the win, before going on to praise a defense that includes eight first-year New England starters, including six rookies or second-year players. "It feels good to win, see the defense play the way they did, get those turnovers."

The defense, not surprisingly, felt pretty good with the 23-20 win. The effort came after the overtime victory against the Ravens in which the defense forced Baltimore to punt five straight times to close the game, affording the New England offense the chance to kick both a game-tying and game-winning field goal.

"Overall, we came out and played well," said Vince Wilfork, co-captain of the defense. "We played how we wanted to play. We were physical. We were aggressive. We caused turnovers, created turnovers, and kept our offense in good field position for the most part. This was another team win."

It gave New England a four-game winning streak, pushed the team into a first-place tie atop the AFC East with the idle Jets and was its second win on the road this season, a place New England struggled mightily a year ago.

And in many ways it was a very young, inexperienced defense leading the way.

"We've got a lot of young players, but they're working hard," coach Bill Belichick said.

It wasn't perfect. Philip Rivers put up over 300 passing yards and had his team in place to attempt a game-tying field goal in the final seconds, but it was a road victory against a pretty veteran Chargers team. It was another step in the growing process.

"It shows that we are a mentally tough team. We played in a hostile environment. They have a lot of good players on their team, even though they had some down. We made the plays at the end that we needed to make to win the game," safety James Sanders said.

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