Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

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Curran: Pats defense pulls its weight

FOXBORO The spin put forth and I was spinning too was that the Patriots would go as far as Tom Brady would take them.

Their defense? A liability. Something to be overcome.

But on Saturday night, with the football world and Tebownians everywhere watching, the Patriots executed their defensive plan to perfection. Bottling up the Denver running game, holding the Broncos to five plays or fewer on eight of their 13 drives, the Patriots oft-lamented group made it so Brady only had to score 11 with his offense to win.

They scored 45 just for good measure. And the New England defense could exhale and answer questions for once about what went right.

Those guys up front did a great job, said linebacker Jerod Mayo when asked the key to the performance against Tebow. I cant even lie to you. Those guys up front did an excellent job. Vince (Wilfork), Gerard Warren, (Brandon) Deaderick, Kyle Love. They let us run through and let us make plays, man, helluva game.

Admittedly, the Broncos were bringing in an offense from the football stone ages. But it was good enough for them to have won 7 of 8 at one point before the Patriots beat them 41-23. And it exploited an undermanned Steelers defense last week in the Wild Card round.

And the New England defense hadnt shown enough for anyone to feel secure theyd shut anyone down, no matter how much of an anachronism they were.

But in the cold and the wind of a January night in Massachusetts, Denver got nothing done. Their lone touchdown drive was a 24-yard excursion off a Brady interception in the second quarter.

I asked Wilfork how it felt for the defense to pull its oar as hard as the offense and Brady have all year.

If he plays well then everyone else plays well, said Wilfork. When he has an off-day, we try to rally around him as a team to help Tom and the offense. We arent going to get 20-30 points all the time. It doesnt happen like that. Our job as the defense is to stop the opponent. Whatever we score, make them score less. Thats the mind-frame we have. We dont want to depend on offense to score 30 points just thinking that each week is going to be like that. We arent going to set ourselves up for failure.

But it had shaped up that way. To believe theyd play this well was to take on faith the idea that, at some point, theyd coalesce as a unit.

Faith is something Wilfork and other defenders have had all year in the face of porous performances and disheartening statistics.

All year we had confidence, said Wilfork. I remember talking a long time ago, at the beginning of the season, about the confidence I had in this team and this defense from what I can see we can do. The main thing is guys believe. There is not a week that we come in here and guys dont believe what we are capable of doing as a defense. It can take us a long way. I think that with a performance like tonight, in the postseason, everything is elevated. We dont want to be good; we want to be great, especially at this time.

You want to be able to make the game changing plays and great situational plays, Wilfork continued. All that comes in, but this team wont go away.

The biggest game-changing defensive play ended Denvers first possession. After moving from their own 24 to the Patriots 37, Rob Ninkovich got around the edge and strip-sacked Tebow. Brandon Spikes who had a terrific performance recovered. And the Patriots scored to go up 14-0.

In other games, picks and turnovers came like found money. Right place at the right time stuff, it seemed like. This was a playmakers play.

There were other flashy plays too five sacks of Tebow. But the guts of this game was simply keeping Tebow and the Denver running game contained.

We stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained, not letting the ball outside, said Ninkovich. When youre out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, but you know that hes got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team. So youve just got to be disciplined in your responsibilities in the defense. Just playing good team defense all together and great communication, it starts with that.

No defensive player was biting on the vindication storyline.

In one ear and out the other, Ninkovich said when asked if it was nice to get a chance to shut people up. As a defensive player, I couldnt listen to that. Anything outside of here. People can say what they want but at the end of the day its about wins and losses and we were able to get 13. During the year we had our ups and our downs and we were still able to put an eight-game winning streak together.

And advance to the AFC Championship.

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Mayock: Under-the-radar tight ends, defensive backs could interest Patriots

Until the tidal wave of free-agent moves comes crashing down in March, it's not exactly clear what anyone's needs are in this year's draft. But that won't keep us from guessing with the NFL Scouting Combine taking place this week in Indy.

From a Patriots perspective, they may need a tight end to provide some Rob Gronkowski insurance, especially if Martellus Bennett leaves town for the highest bidder. Defensively, they might be looking at big bodies up front or linebackers. They could also choose to dip into one of the deeper position groups in this year's class -- defensive back -- if they're taking a strict best-player-available approach. 

No matter which spots they're thinking about in this year's draft, the Patriots have a pretty well-defined set of likes and dislikes when it comes to prospect traits. That's what allows someone like NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock -- who held a marathon two-hour conference call with reporters from around the country on Monday -- to make an educated guess on the types of players Bill Belichick will be thinking about in late April. 

At tight end, Mayock thinks Alabama's OJ Howard is a perfect match for New England. He can catch. He can block. He's an athlete. He came up in Nick Saban's program. The only problem is there seems to be very little chance Howard is available at pick No. 32. 

The good news for the Patriots? It's such a deep tight end class, Mayock rattled off a handful of other names who could potentially find themselves in a huddle looking at Tom Brady in 2017. 

"As you drop down and look at the other tight ends after [Howard], there's some really good pass-catching tight ends that would be more like an [Aaron] Hernandez," Mayock said. "You start talking about David Njoku of Miami, he's an absolute freak, and he's also tough enough to learn how to block. Again, I don't know if he gets to the Patriots [at No. 32].

"Evan Engram and Gerald Everett are the two guys that are kind of the move wide receiver tight end. They can play in the slot. Jake Butt had an ACL at Michigan at the end of his season, but he's one of those in-line blockers. Tough guy. Good enough athletically to catch the ball short and intermediate.

"This is a great tight end class. You can get second and third-round tight ends that make a lot of sense. I think down the road a little bit, Michael Roberts from Toledo is a big guy that needs to block better, but he's got some pass catching skills. New England's going to have their choice of a bunch of different tight ends in this draft and get them in the first three rounds."

Defensive back is another area where the Patriots may be able to wait to find an impact player, Mayock suggested. One of the first names that popped into Mayock's mind when it comes to what intrigues Belichick was a safety who played his college ball in the area.

"I think a guy that would have to be interesting to New England is Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut," he said. "Six-foot-4, 219 [pounds], and he's probably going to run sub 4.5 [40-yard dash]. If he runs in that range, I think teams are going to start looking at him as a corner and a safety.

"The reason I think New England, with Matt Patricia, I think they're the best matchup group in the league. Look what they did with Eric Rowe from the Eagles, what they did with [Kyle] Van Noy -- two guys that were kind of cast-offs. They brought them there for matchup reasons. That's what they do. I look at Melifonwu, he looks like a guy that could cover a tight end one week and go out wide and cover a big wideout the next week. I think he'd be interesting.

"[Another] a really good football player that nobody talks about is Lorenzo Jerome of Saint Francis. And what he runs this week is going to be important. But I think he can play both safety positions, and he's really, really a good football player. Like him a lot . . .

"Other names: Des King, who is a corner from Iowa that I think is going to be a nickel or safety, and I think New England always has success moving those guys around a little bit . . . I like Des King; I like Kevin King from Washington who is a corner that can play some free safety; and I like Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado, who (is a corner that) I think might be better off as a safety."

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