Linebacker Dont’a Hightower enjoys the banter among Patriots defensive players about their individual stats. “It’s bragging rights,” he says. “It makes the games funner. I think it brings a lot more camaraderie and brings us closer together.” Nick Wass/Associated Press

Bill Belichick always says stats are for losers. If you’re a team and play like a team, there is no truer mantra.

And while the New England Patriots believe in the message from their coach, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a little fun with numbers.

Members of the team’s dominant defensive unit use sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and every other defensive statistic to push each other to greater heights.

It’s a friendly competition between the players. Since none of the opposing offenses have put up much of a fight, why not challenge each other?

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said everyone enjoys their little side battles and competitions, wanting to one-up the next guy.

Safety Devin McCourty has four interceptions. Linebacker Jamie Collins has three, followed by Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson with two. Collins is just ahead of Jason McCourty on team tackles and leads Kyle Van Noy in sacks. Those numbers allow for good competitive banter between the players.

“We feed off of each other,” Hightower said. “If somebody is making a play, like (Jason McCourty) got a pick (against Washington), I know when I get on the bus, I’m going to hear a tweet like I’ve got to get another pick. We compete. It’s a great group, not just in the linebacker room but the defense. We all want to compete. (Patrick) Chung and (Terrence) Brooks are competing with us on sacks. We’re trying to get more picks, more forced fumbles. It’s a great defense.”

It started as a game between the linebackers. It started with the Boogeymen, as they are now known. But with the McCourty brothers, it’s expanded to the corners and safeties, and beyond. The result has the Patriots leading the league in sacks (25) and interceptions (14).

“We go back and forth. It’s bragging rights,” Hightower said. “It helps the practices go by. It makes the games funner. I think it brings a lot more camaraderie and brings us closer together.”

With Van Noy getting a fumble return for a touchdown Thursday night against the Giants, and Chase Winovich picking up a blocked field goal and taking it to the house, there’s more material for the linebacker room to chew on.

It’s interesting to note that many past Patriot defenses, the great ones anyway, played similar games and had similar in-house battles within the group, with the same kind of friendly wagering.

Rodney Harrison, on the championship teams from 2003 and 2004, said those Patriots defenses, at that time the best in the NFL, also kept score of who was making plays.

“You’re spot on with that. Any time I played on a great defense, the challenge was to stop an opposing defense. But, behind that was, you always had bets, and challenges, and stuff like that with your teammates,” said Harrison, now an NBC analyst.

“Who can get the first turnover, who can cause more fumbles, who can get more interceptions? When you have a great defense, it’s no longer you’re just preparing for the opposing team, Buffalo, Washington, or whoever it might be. You want to win the turnover battle. So it almost becomes a competition within a competition. It makes it fun.”

Willie McGinest, who was also in town Thursday night with NFL Network for the game against the Giants, recalled how the defenses he played on with Harrison were fiercely competitive and pushed each other in a similar manner. That was part of the secret to their success.

“We did the same thing. It was really competitive. Guys pushed each other. It was a fun thing but also a challenging thing. But it wasn’t just on-the-field stuff, it was off the field, too,” said McGinest

“It was workouts, it was making sure everyone was taking care of their bodies from drinking water, to massages, it was hydrating, whatever you can think of … who’s watched film, who got there the earliest, every single thing you could think of, we competed at. And I just think it took our competitive natures, and what we did on the field to a whole ‘nother level. And I think these guys are doing the same thing, too.”

Harrison, who enjoyed a halftime ceremony Thursday night acknowledging his recent induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame, said not every defensive unit can create the types of in-house challenges the Patriots now enjoy. It’s not for all defenses.

“You have to have a special defense to do that. Most of the defenses out here aren’t very good,” said Harrison. “They’re totally focused in on stopping opposing offenses. When you have a really great defense, you have to find creative ways of challenging yourself. That’s one of the main ways.”

Bottom line?

Whatever these Patriots’ defenders are doing, it works. They shouldn’t change a thing. They held the Giants to one touchdown and collected three more sacks, three more picks and a fumble return. Opponents are only converting 14 percent on third down.

“These guys work extremely hard. These guys are asked to do a lot of different things. The challenges are there and they take pride in it,” said McGinest

“When you have the physical reward or evidence that everything you’re doing is paying off, the turnovers, the sacks, the interceptions, the tackles for losses, whatever, all the statistics, when people start to compare you to the 2000 Ravens, and the ’85 Bears, and the 2002 Buccaneers … it’s pretty impressive. It’s a compliment to what they’re doing on the field and how they’re doing it.”

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