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christopher l. gasper

Breaking down the breakdown in the Patriots defense

Bills tight end Dawson Knox (right) beat Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson for a big gainer in the wild-card game.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Bill Belichick bucked the trend in the NFL to return the Patriots to the playoffs. In a league infatuated with offense, he built a defense-first outfit, zigging when everyone else is zagging. It worked until it clearly didn’t.

The defense was the bedrock of this edition of the Patriots. But it turned into The Boogeymen 2.0. This defense buckled, cracked, crumbled, and let down its creator down the stretch of the season and in a blowout playoff loss to the Bills. Now, Belichick has to pick up the pieces.

Paradoxically, the defense was both the driver of the Patriots’ success and the source of its downfall. It powered the team’s seven-game winning streak, but the defensive downturn after the bye heralded the end of the Patriots’ season. It raises the question of whether relying on defense first is a viable path to contention any longer in the NFL. That’s the biggest question facing the Patriots this offseason as they chart a path forward.

With a defensive unit getting long in the tooth and featuring foundational players with uncertain futures in Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower, it’s time to put Mac Jones in the driver’s seat. In Mac We Trust should be both the motto and the team-building blueprint for the Patriots.

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The postmortem on the defense is gruesome; the numbers after the bye when the team dropped four of its final five games, including the battering by the Bills, are revealing:

The Patriots allowed 30 points per game over their final five, including the postseason. That was 31st in the NFL during that span; only the Panthers were worse at 30.5. Only the Steelers and Bengals allowed more first downs than the Patriots’ 106.

By the fourth quarter of the wild-card loss to Buffalo, the Patriots' defense -- including Deatrich Wise, Jr. and Davon Godchaux -- was gassed.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Not all of the points surrendered by the Patriots land at the defense’s doorstep. Against Indianapolis — the game that triggered the late-season slide — a blocked punt haunted the Patriots in a 27-17 loss. In the regular-season finale at Miami, Jones threw a pick-6 and the final play of the game was a botched lateral that resulted in a Dolphins touchdown to cap a 33-24 setback.

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However, even removing those 20 points, the defense still allowed 26 points per game over the final five. The season average for the Patriots was 17.8, second best in the NFL.

Twenty-six points per game is a pertinent number because the Patriots didn’t win a game all season in which the opposition scored 25 points or more. The most they allowed in a victory was 24 to the Chargers. That’s a tough row to hoe in the modern NFL.

“The season did definitely change after the bye week,” said safety Adrian Phillips. “The main thing from the defensive side was that we weren’t dominating like we were pre-bye week. It’s up to us to get that figured out.”

Phillips was adamant that there was nothing schematic teams did to the Patriots following the bye that represented a silver bullet. The defense just didn’t execute.

The easiest answer isn’t in X’s and O’s. It’s water seeking its level.

During their winning streak, the parsimonious Patriots yielded a meager 10.3 points per game. Playing that type of defense for the entirety of the rest of the season wasn’t a fair or reasonable expectation for an aging unit battling injuries in an expanded season.

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The Patriots routinely missed the opponents’ star players and biggest threats during the seven-game magical mystery tour. The defense turned out to be closer to the Mac-led offense than we thought: It required a certain set of favorable game conditions to operate at peak effectiveness.

What got disguised during the barrage of blowouts was that the team’s run defense was not improved enough.

It was an up-and-down year for Dont”a Hightower and the New England defense.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Allowing a Miami club that came in ranked second to last in rushing to gain 195 yards and average 4.5 yards per rush was telling.

Over the final five weeks, the Patriots ranked 30th in yards allowed per carry (5.06) and 31st in yards per game (157.8).

This continued a theme from last season when linebackers Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and interior linemen Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux weren’t in Patriots uniforms.

The Patriots finished 25th in yards per rush allowed (4.53) — as they gave up 2,103 yards on 464 carries in both 2020 and 2021.

Most surprising about the downturn was that the Patriots’ pass defense became suddenly susceptible. Don’t blame it on the loss of slot corner Jonathan Jones. He suffered his season-ending shoulder injury against Dallas, the final game before the seven-game winning streak.

The Patriots seemed to be a step slow because of the general wear and tear from the pumped-up regular season. Impact pass rusher Matthew Judon failed to register a sack in five games post-bye, attenuated by a rib injury. The Patriots generated just four sacks, tying for 29th and the fewest of any team that played five games between Week 15 and wild-card weekend.

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Without a pass rush and predictability in play-calling from trailing opponents, holes were poked in the Patriots’ pass defense, even with one of the league’s top cornerbacks in J.C. Jackson.

Josh Allen’s five-touchdown-pass tour de force meant only the Cardinals allowed more touchdown passes than the Patriots (11) since Dec. 18.

This defense contained a lot of the same key parts as the 2019 defense that fell off but with two more years on their NFL odometers.

“I don’t think it was the fact that we had veteran guys or guys just ran out of gas,” said Phillips. “I think it was just more of just making the plays . . . The plays were there.

“Before the bye week, we were making plays that were there, and after the bye week we didn’t.”

So, the question facing the greatest defensive mind in the modern game after his defense faltered for the second time in three years is: What does he base this offseason on?

What does the future hold for Bill Belichick and the New England defense?Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Does he feel his defense hews closer to the unit that dominated during a seven-game stretch or the one that collapsed like the Roman Empire after it?

Winning with defense is already a narrow path — made narrower every year by rules engineered to favor the offense. That path is like a rickety wooden suspension bridge between two cliffs. You take it knowing the danger.

It’s a path that saw the Patriots plummet to their demise.

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Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.