After recording 12.5 sacks over a 12-game span, Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon has failed to register a sack over the last four games AP Photo/Stew Milne

Defense wins championships.

Well, not if said defense can’t deliver stops at the key points in games.

If the New England Patriots have any hope of beating the Bills on Saturday night in their wild card matchup in frosty Buffalo, they must make those pivotal stops. They have to be that kind of clutch defense, especially considering Bill Belichick built his 2021 unit to be the cornerstone of the team.

Sure, the 17.8 points per game average allowed is noteworthy. But not if the defense is falling short when it counts, and losing on the scoreboard.

Bend-but-don’t-break is fine. That’s been a tried and true formula for many Belichick-coached teams. But breaking at the worst possible time won’t cut it, especially now.

“I wish there was a switch or magic pill that we could just take, but there is no magic pill. We just have to play better in those critical situations,” said linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. “And that’s definitely been something that’s been frustrating for us all year.

“When you look at it from the beginning of the season until now, it’s been frustrating giving up some of those drives and not being able to get the ball back to our offense. We’re trying to figure it out.”

Frustrating is one way of putting it. Back-breaking is another.

There’s at least a half-dozen examples where a defensive stop in the fourth quarter might have changed the Patriots’ fate, possibly netting a few more wins.

But Mac Jones and the offense haven’t been able to complete any comeback, because in many instances, they either couldn’t get the ball back, or the defense bent to the point of allowing a game-clinching score.

It happened Week 1 against Miami. It happened again with the Dolphins in Week 18, with several other notable cases — Tampa, Dallas, at Indy, Buffalo — in between.

Whether it’s Dak Prescott hitting CeeDee Lamb with a 24-yard pass down the seam from the Dallas 45 to set up a game-tying field goal with 24 seconds left, Indy’s Jonathan Taylor breaking off a 67-yard touchdown run to put the game away late in the fourth quarter, or Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa scrambling for 11 yards on a third-and-8 late in the game last week, the defense can’t clinch wins.

While credit does go to the respective teams making those plays, the Patriots defense was supposed to be better. It’s been hyped since the start of the year to be the alpha unit on the team. Only, that’s not how it’s played out for Belichick’s bread-and-butter unit.

But the slate is clean now. The Patriots are on to the postseason. The Bills are on tap. There’s still time for this group to deliver, much like it did during the seven-game win streak.

There’s still time for Matthew Judon to get back to being a force and disruptor coming off the edge. It has to start with him. He’s the tone-setter for the unit.

Of late, he’s disappeared from the stat sheet. After an amazing run, producing 12.5 sacks in 12 games from Week 2 on, he’s gone cold. In the last four games, he’s failed to register a sack.

Judon was asked this week about possibly having some lingering effects from a rib injury he suffered Week 13 in Buffalo. He wouldn’t use it as an excuse for the change in his production.

“It’s football. So you just kinda get over it, deal with it and learn how to adapt,” he said. “But with 17 games, my whole body is sore.”

Let’s just say with the wild card round on deck, Belichick didn’t give Judon the most money he’s ever handed over to a defensive player just for him to be a wallflower, and in some instances a liability, in the big games.

As it is, the secondary looks like it might be thin with starting corner Jalen Mills being added to the COVID-19 reserve list Tuesday.

More to the point: If the Patriots can’t generate a pass rush, if they can’t hound Josh Allen even a little, it doesn’t matter who’s back there, whether its the current group, or a fleet of Stephon Gilmores. Allen will pick them apart.

Judon, for one, believes the defense will make a stand.

“We know what type of team we have. We know what we’re capable of,” he said. “We just gotta out there and show it.”

For the defense, it’s about making plays. The Patriots simply haven’t made enough of them during the critical junctures to get off the field and give the ball back to the offense.

During the most recent game with the Bills, Allen & Co. converted on 6-of-12 third down chances, while making 3-of-4 fourth down attempts.

The Bills did not have to punt once during their 33-21 win over the Pats.

“Both of the games we played, it’s come down to a couple of plays here and there that decided the game no matter what the starts were for either team … it’s a few plays in the red area,” said defensive captain Devin McCourty. “They made a fourth-and-two conversion that was a big play in the (second) game. So it’s going to be that type of game, and it’s going to be a game that we gotta be prepared to play 60 minutes … it’s going to be a battle of wills all night.”

If the Patriots have any hope of beating Buffalo, the defense has to win that fight.

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