One of the most important stories to come out of the Patriots’ season has been the play of New England’s defense over the second half of 2016. Coming into the season, many believed that this unit could be among the league’s best, given the quality of talent on the roster and the fact that many of the players had been in the system for several years.  However, the first half of the season did not work out that way. Lackluster performances against Miami, Buffalo and Seattle left the impression that this year’s unit was similar to one of the last several years: good enough to win with, but wouldn’t win a game on its own.

Since then, it has been a different story. Since November 20, the Patriots defense has allowed just over 12 points per game and has been among the league leaders in sacks, yards allowed and third down efficiency. All of these areas are critically important come playoff time, as getting to the quarterback and limiting opponents’ drives are important when opportunities are limited and the margin for error is razor thin. .

The improvement in play has been due to several factors, most notably increased aggressiveness, better overall execution and the quality of opponents the Patriots have faced. For Matt Patricia’s unit, not facing any elite offenses in the latter half of the year has been both a blessing and a curse. It has allowed the unit to improve their play and experiment with different positions, but it has not tested them at the same level that other playoff defense have been tested.

Trey Flowers has turned into a passing rush force for New England, compiling seven sacks since the end of October. When talking with Dirty Water Sports during training camp, Flowers stressed his increased understanding of the playbook and Patriots defense as factors that would contribute to an improved season. That improvement, along with improved play from Chris Long and Kyle Van Noy, has helped the Patriots finally move on from Chandler Jones and the team has also settled down after the surprising trade of Jamie Collins earlier this season.

Malcolm Butler has also turned into a shutdown corner for New England, the likes of which the Patriots haven’t had since Asante Samuel, Ty Law and (briefly) Darrelle Revis patrolled Gillette Stadium. Butler can take on an opponents number one receiver or completely shut down their number two option and allow the Patriots secondary to use additional assets to shut down an opponents top option. This flexibility allows the Patriots to further confuse offense week to week and has left many of their opponents off balance. New England has also gotten improved play from Logan Ryan, who struggled earlier in the season. Having a solid second corner opposite Butler prevents offenses from completely avoiding Butler to torch someone else.

In years past, the Patriots would rely on Tom Brady and the brilliance of the Patriots offense to carry them to a Super Bowl victory while having their defense play just well enough to win. As we have seen, when the Patriots offense gets shut down, the team has trouble winning low scoring playoff games. It has been nearly a decade, save for 2014, since the Patriots have been able to rely on their defense for postseason success. This January, though, Bill Belichick can finally trust his defense to win him a playoff game.