The New England Patriots have discovered the secret to success on defense. While they might not be dominant in the same way the Jaguars, Vikings and Ravens are, the Pats have something very much in common with the top-tier NFL defenses.

They’ve mastered the red zone.

The Patriots allow teams to advance into the money area easy enough, then are stingy from there. Currently, the defense is the league’s seventh-best inside the red zone in terms of keeping teams out of the end zone.

Looking a little further into the stats, the Patriots also own the best total red zone scoring percentage, with points of any type occurring at a rate of 68.6 percent.

So the defense is winning the space game down close. Given how atrocious the defense was during the first four games, when the Pats allowed an average of 32 points per game, that’s saying something.

Maybe the Pats still make some people nervous because opposing offenses are able to move the ball and gain plenty of yards. The Patriots’ No. 28 total defense ranking (375.7 yards per game) is evidence of that, but when push comes to shove, they pass the eye test in the red zone.

Coach Bill Belichick talked about an improvement in tackling and fundamentals. But there’s a lot more involved in the red area, where the space closes in on opposing offenses. It’s situational football, and if you want to put a finger on why the Patriots defense has gotten better since Week 5 – beyond clamping down on the breakdowns and miscommunication – look no further than the red zone.

“I think what happens in the red area is obviously there’s a huge sense of urgency,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “They’re closer, it’s condensed space, everything happens a little bit faster. So that standpoint of it needs to be at an extremely high level. Some of that comes with experience. Some of it comes just with being familiar in the situation and getting used to kind of being in those sort of situations that come up.

“Other times, again, these offenses are extremely difficult so that every week it’s something that is a problem, something that you’ve got to deal with and something that you’ve got to maybe problem solve as it comes up.”

In Sunday’s 23-3 win at Buffalo, the Patriots were 2 for 2 in stopping the Bills from scoring in the red zone.

On the opening drive, the Tyrod Taylor-led offense of Buffalo set itself up for a potential score on first-and-goal at the 6. Then the Pats threw up the roadblock.

As Taylor dropped back, defensive lineman Alan Branch basically maneuvered his blocker into the quarterback just as he let the ball go. That altered the flight of the ball just enough to allow Eric Lee to pick off the pass at the goal line.

That was the fifth takeaway on the season for the Patriots in the red zone, tying them with the Jets for the NFL lead in that category.

On a second red-zone attempt in the fourth, Nathan Peterman – who took the reins from the injured Taylor – curiously kept going after cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Three times Peterman tried and three times he failed, as Gilmore stood his ground on each attempt aimed toward Zay Jones in the end zone until the Bills turned it over on downs.

Some skeptics have suggested the Patriots haven’t exactly played many super-powered offenses. But the defensive climb has included wins against two current top-10 offenses in the Los Angeles Chargers (No. 9) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 8).

So it’s been a mix. NFL Network analyst Heath Evans believes there just aren’t that many great red-zone quarterbacks. And beyond that, Belichick and Patricia are great at taking away what teams like to do in the short space.

“(They) dial something up that removes that area of comfort, whether it’s a player or a concept,” Evans said. “Do they like to work the middle of the field in the red zone? Fine, they’ll crowd the middle of the field. Do they like to use the tight end? Well, they’ll remove the tight end. They’re just so good at it.”

It’s December, the Patriots have won eight straight games and have solved the red zone.

For their bend-but-don’t break defense, that’s what it’s all about.