Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Just like in the movies
LAST Friday, as they wrapped up their preparations for the Ravens and readied for a trip to Baltimore, the Patriots took two hours to watch Mark Wahlberg's latest movie, "Lone Survivor." In building it into the week's plan before a big test, Bill Belichick hoped his team would take from the real-life tale of a Navy SEAL team "the messages of leadership, perseverance, preparation, and then execution."
A 41-7 throttling of football's reigning champs suggested those messages were received, as the Pats outclassed the Ravens on each of those levels while controlling the contest throughout. But maybe even more important to that result was the message Belichick had spent the rest of the week delivering himself — and that his team spent Sunday showing it had received.
The coach spent the week hammering his team about the importance of getting back to what has become its defensive hallmark in recent seasons, about needing to create more turnovers, and at M&T Stadium their ability to do so proved decisively prescient.
Even discounting the fumble and interception that came against Baltimore's backup quarterback in the final minutes, New England had two other interceptions (both by rookie cornerback Logan Ryan) and had opportunities for a couple of others, finally getting back to the brand of ball-hawking defense that has keyed their success in recent seasons — and will likely be critical again next month as the AFC East champs embark on the postseason.
"It's always important to turn the ball over," Belichick said. "There's no statistic that correlates more to winning than turnovers. Turnovers are huge. Taking care of the ball and getting the ball — that's big."
It's enormous, actually. That was evident over the five games that led up to Sunday, when the Pats forced one turnover or fewer in four of those contests, and a New England defense that had been allowing 20.2 points per game suddenly spiked up a full touchdown, to 27.2 points per tilt.
Thanks largely to their offense, the Patriots still managed to win three of those five games, and as long as Tom Brady is behind center they'll likely find ways to be competitive. But historically the Pats haven't just been competitive when they've been able to give Brady a couple of extra possessions. They've been practically unbeatable.
This season, the Patriots are now 7-1 when they create at least two turnovers in a contest — compared to 4-3 when they create one or none. Last year they were 10-3 when turning over the opponent at least twice, and since the start of the 2010 season they're 38-6 under those circumstances, which equates to an .864 winning percentage that ranks behind only the Packers' .892 rate. League-wide, the winning percentage is .693 over that same span.
Against the AFC, it has been an even more important factor for the Patriots over the past four seasons. Within the conference, they're 31-2 when they manage at least two takeaways, while they're 11-8 when they swipe the ball no more than once.
And it has been almost critical against the better competition. Since the start of 2010, the Patriots have played 28 games against teams that either finished the year with a winning record, or already have eight wins this season. When they've forced two turnovers in those contests, they're 11-4; when they haven't, they're 5-8.
Which is why, with a dangerous Ravens team immediately ahead, and even more rigid opposition looming later, Belichick made it such a focus ahead of Sunday.
"That was our focus during the week," said cornerback Aqib Talib. "We had it hot in the beginning of the year, then it died down, and that was our focus — to get it back hot."
"It just comes down to execution. We got the turnovers (Sunday), and that was the big thing for us," defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich told reporters. "We didn't have the turnovers in the last three or four weeks so that was a point of emphasis. We knew that (Joe) Flacco wouldn't be as mobile as he was in the past (because of a knee injury), so he would just stay in the pocket and throw those deep balls, and we would try and defend those well."
On top of Ryan's two picks, Tavon Wilson's late pick six, and Chandler Jones' end zone recovery of a Tyrod Taylor fumble, safety Devin McCourty also could've intercepted two of Flacco's longer throws. And while there's certainly some element of luck and fortune to causing turnovers, they're ultimately an indication that the defense is executing better than the offense. They're a reward for being in the right place at the right time to pounce on a mistake. And they're proof that a defender was ready to make a play when the opportunity presented itself.
So, in a lot of ways, a turnover is the product of the tenets Belichick was hoping to communicate through Wahlberg's move. They're often a testament to the perseverance evident in sticking with the play, to the preparation required to know where to be, and the execution needed to take advantage.
They don't only take away a chance for the opponent to score, but they also have a way of telling which team is sharper on that day, or in that moment, which is why dating back to the 2001 season that started this run, Belichick's teams are 117-14 (.893) when forcing at least two turnovers. They are 57-43 (.570) when not.
The more turnovers a defense creates, the better its odds of emerging with a positive turnover margin, and over the past 13 seasons the Patriots are 110-6 when they finish a game with more takeaways than giveaways. That includes a 7-0 record this season, as well as a 41-3 mark since 2010 — while their upcoming foe, the Bills, are over that same span just 1-31 when their turnover margin is negative.
So if Belichick's team can take the ball away a couple of more times this coming Sunday, while protecting it themselves, history says they should win. With a win would come a playoff bye. With a bye would come a few days off.
And plenty of time to go to see a movie.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.