FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots porous defense is very good at one thing that’s more important than all those yards it’s given up.


No AFC team has done a better job of grabbing interceptions or pouncing on fumbles. And that’s had a much bigger impact than the more than 400 yards the Patriots have allowed per game, the most in the conference.

“That stat is the best correlation to wins and losses that you’ll get,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who recorded the first two interceptions in his four-year career this season. “So, we talk a lot about turnovers.”

Well, it seems to be working. In fact, the Patriots scored on 24 of the drives that followed their 34 turnovers — 23 interceptions and 11 recoveries — and that led to 126 points.

For comparison sake, consider the NFL’s lowest-scoring team, St. Louis. The Rams scored 193 this season … total.


But the Patriots are still trying to get better at it. They returned to practice Wednesday while waiting to find out their opponent in a divisional playoff game on Jan. 14. It will be Cincinnati if the Bengals defeat Houston on Saturday. Otherwise, it will be the winner of Sunday’s Denver-Pittsburgh matchup.

Whoever it is, the Patriots defense will have the same goal.

“When we go out there (the focus) is how quick can we get the ball back to the offense? Can we do it on one play? Can we do it on three plays?” defensive back Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “So that’s always the goal — get the ball back to our offense.

“We know if we can get them the ball, they’ll put some kind of points on the board more times than not.”

The defense has allowed 411.1 yards per game. Only Green Bay, at 411.6, is worse. But both are the No. 1 seeds in their conferences. So, when they need a big defensive play to keep from losing, they usually make it.

“There’s probably a lot of times in the middle of a game,” McCourty said, “going back and forth, someone will step up (and say) ‘we’ve got to make a play.’ Whether that’s getting a turnover, going three-and-out, just something to spring the team.”


One of those plays occurred on Dec. 11 when the Patriots led Washington 34-27, but the Redskins had a third down on the New England 9-yard line with 29 seconds to go. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman dropped back, but his pass was tipped by Washington wide receiver Santana Moss and picked off by Mayo.

“We always talk about finishing the game,” Mayo said, “and to end it like that was great.”

The Patriots lead the AFC with a plus-17 turnover differential, a huge edge over the plus-7 posted by Houston, which is ranked second. More impressively, the defense has 20 turnovers, while the offense has given up just three in the last eight games. The Patriots went unbeaten in that span.

They matched their season high of four interceptions in last Sunday’s 49-21 win over the Buffalo Bills. Sterling Moore, signed as a rookie free agent this season, had two, returning one for a touchdown.

“It just proved that this stage isn’t too big for me and I can go out there and make plays,” he said. “I was always confident in what I can do. It was just reassuring that I can go out there and actually do it.”

How important is turnover differential?

Of the 12 playoff teams, 10 are in the Top 10 in their respective conference. In the AFC, New England, Houston and Baltimore hold three of the top four spots. In the NFC, San Francisco, Green Bay, Detroit and Atlanta are ranked first through fourth.

The Patriots are the highest scoring team in the AFC with 32.1 points per game. So when they take the field after a turnover as the defense is coming off, they simply go to work without stopping to show the defenders much gratitude.

“Slap each other ‘five,’ but not like a ‘thank you’ or anything,” McCourty said. “We see it on their faces and they see it on ours.”

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