The New England Patriots are on a six-game winning streak and stand alone in first place in the AFC East. After handling the Tennessee Titans with ease on Sunday, they moved up to the AFC’s second seed. New England continues to look like legitimate contenders for champions of not only the AFC East but the entire conference.
Much of the focus on the Patriots’ recent success has been framed around Mac Jones and his performance this year. It’s true that with every game he plays, he further cements himself as the best rookie quarterback from the 2021 class. But this win streak has been more of a testament to the incredible lockdown performances of the New England defensive unit.
They had been holding opponents to limited point totals all season—they’ve allowed the fewest points per game (15.8) of any team in the NFL—but their performance during this active win streak has been on another level. In their last six games, only the Los Angeles Chargers have scored more than 14 points. As they marched up the AFC playoff picture to the conference’s No. 2 seed over that stretch, New England outscored their opponents by 148 points.
Without question, the two leading faces of this season’s Patriots defense are defensive back J.C. Jackson and defensive end Matt Judon. Both have climbed their way into top spots on the league’s leaderboards of some important defensive categories, and their play is what has kept so many of these recent games non-competitive.
Jackson’s nickname is Mr. INT and he’s been living up to that moniker this year, especially in the last six games. After two picks against the New York Jets in Week 2, he went on a bit of a dry spell, not recording an interception in four straight games. As it turned out, all he needed was a rematch with New York in Week 7 to get him going again.
Since that game—which included an interception of Mike White—Jackson has had four picks in five weeks, one of which he returned for six points. His seven interceptions this season put him in second on the 2021 season leaderboard behind Trevon Diggs (8), whose torrid pace of creating turnovers has slowed in recent weeks. Jackson has also started creating takeaways in other ways, forcing a fumble for the first time this season against Tennessee on Sunday. To add a cherry on top, the fourth-year veteran is also the league leader in passes defended with 16, three more than any other player.
Up front, few have been as dominant this year as Judon. This is his first year with the Patriots after a very solid five years with the Baltimore Ravens. New England’s decision to bring him into the fold has already paid off quite nicely. Judon ranks third in the NFL with his 11.5 sacks in 12 games, a number that also gives him the third-most in sacks through a season’s first 12 games in Patriots history. He’s also the second-most disruptive player in the league with his 39 QB pressures trailing only Myles Garrett’s 43, and he’s tied for fifth in tackles for a loss with 12.
The Patriots have been a dominant team by nearly every measure on defense in 2021. They’re leading the league in scoring defense and interceptions (19). They have the second-best turnover margin (+10) in the NFL behind the Indianapolis Colts (+12), and only Buffalo and Indianapolis are generating more takeaways per game. Largely thanks to Jackson and Judon’s play, New England will enter Week 13 as No. 2 in both overall defense and pass defense in DVOA. They trail only this week’s opponent in those categories: the division rival Bills.