FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This is the time of year when the New England Patriots traditionally pull away from their AFC East brethren.
In November and December, they are almost unbeatable, especially at Gillette Stadium, where they have compiled a 35-8 record after Halloween since it opened in the 2002 season.
If they have any hope of repeating past success, the Patriots know exactly what they have to do the rest of the season: play better in the secondary.
Entering Sunday’s home game against the Buffalo Bills at 1 p.m., the Patriots rank 28th in the NFL this year in pass defense, allowing 281.1 yards per game.
Even more astounding is the number of big passing plays they have allowed this year. Quarterbacks have completed 38 passes of over 20 yards against the Patriots this year, eight going for touchdowns.
And this week they’re facing a quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who torched them for 350 yards and four touchdowns (all 20 yards or more) in a New England victory on Sept. 30.
“That’s our focus,” said Vince Wilfork, the Patriots’ dominating defensive tackle. “The times we give up big plays, we are not on the same page and our focus level is not where it needs to be. That’s one of the areas we need to get better and I think going forward, we’re going to have to get better in that area.
“If we don’t, we’re going to continue to have problems. But I think the guys are working hard to fix those problems. In the past few weeks, we’ve kind of moved in the right direction with that, so hopefully it will continue this week.”
The secondary did look better in New England’s last victory, 45-7 over St. Louis in London, giving up just three long passing plays.
And help appears to be on the way.
Safety Steve Gregory said his hip has healed and he is ready to play again this week after missing four weeks. No word on safety Patrick Chung, who has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.
And there is the curious acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay in a trade. A talented but off-the-field troubled cornerback, he’s eligible to join the Patriots next Monday after serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
With 18 career interceptions since he was the 20th pick of the 2008 draft by the Buccaneers, he gives the Patriots as close to a lock-down cornerback they’ve had since Ty Law.
As is their policy to only talk about the players who are on the team, no one on the Patriots wanted to talk about Talib this week.
“We’ll see when he gets here,” said Gregory. “Right now our focus is on Buffalo.”
Even though he hasn’t played in a month, Gregory knows what the Patriots have to do.
“The biggest thing is just grow from the mistakes we’ve made, eliminate the big plays, that’s No. 1,” he said. “To be a successful secondary you can’t give up big plays in the passing game. And that’s one thing that we need to focus on and try to eliminate.”
One source of hope has been the play of Devin McCourty at safety. Normally a cornerback, he stepped over to the middle of the field to add some experience when Gregory and Chung went down. He played a little there last year, and was a safety in high school and his first two years of college.
Bill Belichick said McCourty has done much to stablize the secondary.
“I would say he’s pretty good at everything,” said Belichick. “He’s a good tackler, he’s fast, he’s instinctive. He has a good feel for the game wherever you put him in terms of leverage, angles, decisions. That kind of thing. He’s smart.”
McCourty, who has two interceptions, nine pass defenses and is third on the team in tackles (39), looks more comfortable at safety than at the corner, perhaps because he sees the game differently.
“As a corner you see guys individually,” he said. “Even in zone coverage, you see the quarterback and you see what’s in your zone. At safety, you see the whole field so you see all the guys and what they’re doing and where they’re going.”
The Patriots have given no indication where he will play Sunday or in the future. Talib’s presence could let them leave McCourty at safety. Or they could pair the two on the corners.
Gregory said no matter where McCourty plays, he’ll be a force.
“Dev’s a great athlete,” said Gregory. “He understands football, he’s a smart football player, he understands what we’re trying to do on defense.”
McCourty simply says he’ll play “whatever they tell me to play.” His only concern right now is that the Patriots get things right.
“We’ve had some up-and-down moments this year so our focus is on consistency and playing well as a team,” he said. “If we can do that, we’ll be all right.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: