Is this Patriots defense fool’s gold?

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For eight weeks, the 2019 Patriots defense was considered to be one of the best in NFL history. ”Are the New England Patriots the best defense of all time?,” CBS' Will Brinson led a piece dated October 24, 2019. The Patriots were 7-0 at the time, and were three days away from surrendering only 13 points to Baker Mayfield and the Browns en route to an 8-0 record.

From there, everything fell apart.

It’s not that the defense was bad. The collapse of the 2019 Patriots had more to do with the absence of complementary football from the equation due to the offense literally not being able to run a play for pretty much the entire season, including Tom Brady’s final pass as a Patriot.

But in Week 9, Lamar Jackson exposed the defense. Jackson and the Ravens were the first true competition the Patriots faced all season. The previous quarterbacks they lined up against were past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick (the first time…), Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Luke Falk, the 2019 editions of Josh Allen and Mayfield, Matt Barkley, Colt McCoy, and Daniel Jones. There’s no need to dig further than just the names of the quarterbacks. They were all bad quarterbacks for the point in the season they faced the Patriots, and for the most part were on bad teams.

Had it not been for a monsoon a few weeks later against the Cowboys, maybe the defense would have been challenged a bit more. Still, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes made it known in the coming weeks that there was quite a bit of fool’s gold associated with that defense. The exclamation point came in the game the legends still speak of: the Week 17 Ryan Fitzpatrick/Devante Parker game that lost the Patriots the first round bye.

Could the 2021 edition of the Patriots defense likewise have a bit of fool’s gold in their pockets?

The takes associated with this defense are nowhere near as out of control as they were in 2019. This is mostly due to the team’s slow start as a whole and having allowed a ton of yards to the Buccaneers and Cowboys. The stretch of Panthers, Chargers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans turned out to not be as daunting as it appeared earlier in the season largely due to the absence of stars like Nick Chubb, and almost every notable wide receiver.

Leaning on Football Outsiders’ offensive line DVOA rankings, half of the Patriots’ opponents so far this season are in the bottom half of the league by pass protection. The Buccaneers and Cowboys rightfully sit near the top, as do the Chargers -- a team that has developed serious offensive line issues as the season has gone on and whose offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, is being exposed week after week for the Drew Brees-Sean Payton leeching charlatan he is. Atlanta is right in the middle, but no Calvin Ridley or Cordarrelle Patterson didn’t do them any favors.

Adding in a second metric as to not rely too heavily on only one, ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate stat puts every Patriots opponent aside from the Browns, Saints, Cowboys, and Buccaneers in the bottom half of the league as well -- this is because this metric doesn’t take quarterback fault into the equation. The Patriots have drawn a few quarterbacks, namely Zach Wilson, Mayfield and Darnold, who either hold onto the ball way too long or run right into sacks.

Taking the same approach to 2021 as we did to 2019 ignores the context needed to truly describe the level of competition the Patriots defense has been up against this season. Matt Ryan is a good quarterback, but Matt Ryan with no running game, weapons, offensive line, or defense is not.

So the truth here is somewhere in the middle. The defense hasn’t really been overtly challenged since the early parts of the season when they were ramping up anyways. That is true, but it’s also true that they’ve been playing much better -- New England's defense is first in DAVE, another Football Outsiders metric that weighs recent performance more heavily, but has also faced the third-easiest schedule of opposing offenses to this point in the season.

Regardless of if you agree or disagree or don’t care, we’re about to find out the truth. The Bills and Colts are two teams who have elite play callers, quarterbacks who are playing well, legit offensive weapons who are healthy, offensive lines that are healthy and playing well, and defenses that are humming (well, when Tremaine Edmunds is on the field in Buffalo’s case).

If the defense continues it’s scorched earth tour of the NFL against teams like the Bills, Colts, and the Bills again, then we’ll know for sure there’s no fool’s gold here.