Three games into the 2013 NFL season and the New England Patriots have yet to suffer a loss, joining a club of which only five other teams can claim membership; the Denver Broncos play tonight and might very well join that club. Yet, the Patriots have been one of the least dominant undefeated teams in terms of scoring differential. In their three wins, they have only outscored their opponents by 25 points, seventh-highest in the league, and it was not until Sunday's 20-point victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the Patriots looked like a team whose undefeated record was legitimate.
The large margin of victory for the Patriots was a result of a couple of the things the team has managed to do very well this season: winning the field position battle and playing stifling defense against incompetent offenses. On Sunday, the Patriots offense started their average possession on their own 31-yard line, ten yards better than the Buccaneers, who had to start their average possession from their 21-yard line.
With fewer yards to go and a shorter field to work with, the Patriots offense had an easier team putting points on the board. It was not an advantage the Patriots had in the first quarter, though, which might explain some of the struggles they had in that period. In the first quarter, the Patriots started their three possessions with an average field position on their 22-yard line. Still, poor, or at least not advantageous, field position cannot entirely excuse the fact that the Patriots only gained 31 net yards on 12 plays during those drives.
The Patriots got rolling in the second quarter as their improved field position and offensive efficiency, helped along by Buccaneers miscues, combined to allow them to score 17 points before halftime. On the first drive of the second quarter, the Patriots drove 66 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. They followed that up on the second touchdown drive by gaining 62 net yards in 10 plays, with almost half of the net yards coming off a Buccaneers defensive pass interference penalty. For the field goal drive right before the half, the Patriots only needed to gain eight yards in three plays before Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 53-yard field goal.
The offense's second-quarter exploits were enough to win the contest. There were some extended drives in the second half, but the Patriots got precious few points off them, six points in total, and they mostly served to take time off the clock.
In scoring their points, the offense has the defense to thank because it was the defense that continually set up the offense for success. On the three scoring drives in the second quarter, the defense turned the Buccaneers over and gave the offense a relatively short field. For the two touchdown drives, the defense turned the Buccaneers over on downs at the Patriots' 34-yard line and 38-yard line. The last-second field goal before the half was only possible because of an Aqib Talib interception of Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman.
Not content with their impressive first-half achievements, the Patriots defense also turned the Buccaneers over on downs in two second-half possessions.
Overall, the defense limited the Buccaneers to converting 5 of 14 third downs and kept them from converting a single one of the four times Buccaneers' went for it on fourth down. When the Patriots defense needed stops in the most crucial situations, the unit regularly rose to the challenge and stopped Buccaneers drives.
The game was another example of the defense powering the Patriots to victory and masking some of the deficiencies of the offense. The Patriots offense was not as terrible on Sunday as they had been in the previous two games, but the unit still managed to gain just 5.0 yards per play. Also, Brady and his receiving corps did not rewrite the record books even if there were signs of improvement; Brady still gained only 5.2 net yards per pass play and did throw an interception as the passing offense tries to hold on until Brady's preferred passing targets return from injury.
As pleased as the Patriots must be with their undefeated record, they will soon run out of opponents who field either inexperienced or terrible quarterbacks. It will not be until the Patriots have completed the next three weeks of their season, which include facing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, that we will really be able to flesh out the true picture of the Patriots. Until then, all we know is that the Patriots have beaten the weak teams on their schedule they are supposed to beat.