Patriots defense stingiest in NFL heading to playoffs

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FOXBOROUGH — The New England defense has turned from a major question mark to a strength as the Patriots steam toward the playoffs.

"It's just y'all that was gassing all of that up," defensive co-captain Dont'a Hightower said Thursday, pointing a finger at the media. "That's what y'all was doing. Y'all was saying that. We knew what we had and the stats speak for themselves."

Tough to argue, especially in recent weeks.

The Patriots, who visit Miami on Sunday looking for their seventh straight win, a 14-2 regular-season record and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, haven't yielded a touchdown in more than nine quarters and haven't allowed a real touchdown drive in the past three games.

They lead the league in allowing 15.7 points per game and have surrendered 17 points or fewer in 10 of their 15 games.

Causing turnovers, a weakness early in the season, has suddenly become a strength; the New York Jets committed four for 24 points last week. Malcolm Butler had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the 41-3 win.

"I think we've improved on a daily basis, really," coach Bill Belichick said. "Going out to the practice field and getting better on a daily basis. We've had some players that are playing quite a bit for us now that either weren't on our team or weren't playing that much at the beginning of the year or in training camp. I think that's come together."

There have been changes. All kinds of changes.

Sacks leader Chandler Jones was traded in the offseason. Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland weeks after being honored as the AFC defensive player of the week. Rookies have come through, linebacker Kyle Van Noy was picked up during the season, defensive linemen Alan Branch and Trey Flowers have been outstanding.

A work in progress?

"Work in progress is one thing, but for people to say that our defense was not good or whatever, that's another thing," Hightower said. "Us making progress, we've absolutely made a lot of progress throughout the year. That's something we've done in the past couple of years that we've got to continue building, especially around Thanksgiving."

Asked if the doubts from the outside have pushed this group, safety Duron Harmon said, "At the beginning of the year, you know, it is what it is. We can't really try to live through people and, like, worrying about what other people do. The critics' job is to critique and we know that, so all we can do is worry about what we're doing and just trying to get better at what we can get better at, and obviously we've gotten it better."

The first time the Patriots played Miami, in the second week of the season, Ryan Tannehill threw for almost 400 yards over the last three quarters of a 31-24 New England win. The past two opponents, the Broncos and Jets, have totaled 410 yards and four interceptions.

Hightower said he "absolutely" believes in the momentum factor.

"Especially when it comes to situational football, and I feel like the reason we've been playing as good as we have is we've taken opportunities to take those momentum swings and use them to our advantage.

"Turnovers have been big. We lacked them earlier in the season. We've had a lot of progress with that, we've had a lot of guys getting to the ball. We had plays (earlier) where the ball's been out and (we've) been late ... lately we've been able to take chances and make plays with that.

"We're going as a defense, we want to be able to cause turnovers, and whenever we've been able to do that and get off the field three-and-out and give the ball back to Tom (Brady)."

NOTES: Brady, nursing an injured thigh, was back at practice Thursday, while rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell missed his second straight day. Butler, a Super Bowl star as a rookie, has three interceptions in the past five games after getting three in his first 38. ... Hightower, asked how feels physically, smiled and said, "It's football season. It's football 'til the fat lady sings." ... WR Michael Floyd on his progress with the team: "It's coming better for me. The more time that I have in the film room and working with some of my teammates, the guys who know the offense, I just learn off of them. If I have any questions out there at any time, they can help me out."


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