BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- The New England Patriots boast the quintessential bend-but-don't-break defense in the NFL. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia employed a D in 2017 that gave up 366 yards per game, 29th in the NFL, but allowed just 18.5 points per game, fifth fewest.
Ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl LII matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Patriots defenders said their ability to seemingly flip a switch in the red zone comes from a mentality built over the season.
"Obviously we don't want to give up all those yards," corner Eric Rowe said. "That just sucks in the first place. But when we get down to the red zone it's like we all understand that if we can just hold them to three points, they're not going to beat us kicking field goals. Everyone's alertness goes up. Sometimes no one even says anything. Everyone's body language just tightens up."
Owning an offense run by Tom Brady certainly aids the defense's confidence that the offense can score if they do give up points. Those points, however, have been hard to come by for opposing offenses. In their last 14 games, New England has allowed 21 or more points just twice.
Since Week 5, the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring defense and sacks -- 14.4 PPG allowed, 45 sacks (including playoffs). New England clamped down on quarterbacks over those tilts, allowing just 6.9 yards per pass and an 84.6 QB rating.
"I just think it's a lot of being on the same page and understanding next play if it doesn't go as well as you want it to," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "Just that mentality to not let them in the end zone. We do a good job of it."
Rowe said the Patriots don't do anything different in the red zone to slow offenses.
"Nothing special that you wouldn't see other teams do, either man or zone, and double-team their best player," he said. "So I think just kind of the way we execute it."
Taking away what the Eagles do best will be a challenge Sunday. Philadelphia boasts a trio in Alshon Jeffery (9 receiving TDs), Nelson Agholor (8 rec TD) and Zach Ertz (8 rec TD) who combined for 25 touchdown catches this season, most in the NFL. Nick Foles, meanwhile, has thrown zero interceptions in the red zone this season. Philly also boasts bulldozing power back LeGarrette Blount to utilize in goal-line situations
"It's just a mentality," defensive lineman Trey Flowers said of the Pats' red-zone defense. "Just understanding they're down here now and the next play mentality and you've got to make a play. You got a lot of guys who are able to make that play at any given time. We just focus in and prepare ourselves. Be physical, and be fast, and make the play when it comes our way."
If the theme of the 2017 season holds, the Eagles will gain yards between the 20s at U.S. Bank Stadium. Whether Philly can penetrate a stiff Patriots red-zone defense for touchdowns, not field goals, could determine who hoists the Lombardi Trophy.