With the postseason looming, the Patriots have to feel good about two stats that have continued to show improvement over the second half of the regular season -- the dip in the amount of penalties they’ve taken, as well as the decrease in the number of turnovers they’ve committed.
Through the first four games -- and to a lesser extent, the midway point of the season -- the Patriots were one of the most penalized teams in the league, and were on track to finish with more than 100 penalties for the first time since 2005 when they had 110 flags against them. It would certainly be an anomaly for any Bill Belichick-coached team -- in 2008, New England set a league record for fewest penalties accepted in a 16-game season with 57.
But over the second half of the season, New England has seen a dramatic downturn in penalties. Not counting penalties that were declined or offset, through eight games this season, the Patriots had been flagged for 52 penalties (18th in the league) and 471 yards (12th in the league). Since the team had a season-high nine penalties called against it in a Nov. 13 win over the Jets, New England has been flagged for just 22 penalties over the last six games.
As a result, entering the final week of the regular season, New England has 83 penalties, which is tied for 26th in the league, and 738 yards, 26th in the league. By way of comparison, Oakland leads the league in penalties (155) and penalty yardage lost (1,294). Meanwhile, Green Bay is the least penalized team in the league (70), while Indianapolis has been assessed the fewest amount penalty yards (509).
Individually, safety Sergio Brown leads the team in total penalty yardage assessed. He’s taken four penalties (three defensive pass interference and one unnecessary roughness) for 86 yards. Brown was hit with what was arguably the most costly penalty of the season, a 20-yard defensive pass interference call late in the Giants’ game put the ball on the Patriots’ one-yard line with less than a minute remaining. Three plays later, New York quarterback Eli Manning hit tight end Jake Ballard with the game-winning touchdown pass.
Meanwhile, Logan Mankins has been flagged for a team-high seven penalties, with tight end Rob Gronkowski just behind him with six. The most frequently called penalties on the Patriots this season are offensive holding (19) and false starts (17), and no positional group has had more penalties than the offensive line (23).
On the other end of the spectrum, several starters have had one or two penalties called on them, with the leaders being running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (one penalty for five yards), cornerback Kyle Arrington (one penalty for 35 yards), tight end Aaron Hernandez (two penalties for 10 yards) and wide receive Wes Welker (two penalties for 10 yards).
As for turnovers and takeaways, the Patriots started the year relatively slowly. After eight games, they were tied for 15th in the league, all even in the takeaway department. (They had 10 interceptions and four recovered fumbles, but had also given up 10 picks and four fumbles of their own.)
But like the recent drop in penalties, the second-half turnovers are fewer and farther between, and as a result, the Patriots' takeaway ratio has skyrocketed. With one game left in the regular season, the Patriots are at +14, good for best in the AFC and third-best in the league overall (trailing only San Francisco’s +26 and Green Bay’s +22.)
Over the last three games, the Patriots have certainly made their takeaways count. Jerod Mayo had a last-minute interception to seal the win over Washington. They forced three second-quarter turnovers against Denver that ultimately changed the tone of the game. And on Saturday against the Dolphins, the turning point of the contest came in the third quarter when Miami botched a center/quarterback exchange that led to a fumble, which was immediately scooped up by Vince Wilfork and turned into points by New England.
When it comes to turnovers, one of those players who has taken ball security to heart is quarterback Tom Brady. Through the first eight games, the quarterback had 10 picks and appeared to be well on his way to setting a career-high for interceptions in a season. (He threw 14 in each of the 2002, 2004 and 2005 seasons.) But since then, he’s only thrown one pick, a ball that was picked off in the back of the end zone late in the win over Washington.
It’s a far cry from the Week Three loss to Buffalo, where Brady threw four interceptions in a shocking loss to the Bills.
“I think as a team, we’ve done a much better job of that and that’s very important to us winning games,” Brady said when asked about the turnover margin. “We’ve been getting them on our defense and we haven’t been giving it up much.
“When you turn the ball over four times in a game, it’s damn near impossible to win; it really is, especially if you’re not getting it from the other team. When you put yourself in a hole like that on the road against a team that can score points, you’re going to have a pretty tough time winning. We found that out the hard way. As a quarterback, you’re never going to stop pulling the trigger; you just have to make good decisions with the football. That’s really what it comes down to -- interceptions.”