By Ron Borges, Pro Football Weekly

If the playoffs began this weekend, the Patriots would be the third seed in the AFC. While the Ravens and Texans would be resting, the Patriots would be locked in a wild-card game with someone like the Indianapolis Colts, meaning they’d need three difficult wins instead of just two to return to the Super Bowl.

They already have been beaten three times, lost a head-to-head confrontation with the Ravens and nearly suffered the same fate with Peyton Manning’s Broncos before Manning was fully acclimated to Mile High life. Yet the Patriots remain the most feared team in football.

Their reputation precedes them and perhaps this year exceeds them. Time will tell on that, but no one wants to play them with their season on the line because they are what the others are not.

They are smart.

The Patriots seem to be grappling with a fatal flaw, a defense so suspect Homeland Security takes them into a side room before allowing them on the team plane.

It is ranked 27th in the league overall, 29th against the pass and near the bottom in third-down efficiency. It is in the middle of the pack in scoring, which is nothing to crow about since it leaves them sandwiched between San Diego and Green Bay.

Conversely, its offense is No. 1 in football in points and yards, and because of those two contrasting sides of the ball there is a lingering sense of “live by the sword, die by the sword’’ until one considers a statistic that speaks to why they continue to play so successfully eight years after their last Super Bowl victory: they are plus-24 in takeaway/giveaway ratio.

Fifteen of the league’s 32 teams are on the positive side of that most telling statistic and the next closest team, Chicago, is 11 behind the Patriots. For all one can say about the greatness of Tom Brady and the shakiness of the Patriots’ defense, that plus-24 speaks loudest about why they remain football’s toughest out even though they’re no longer its most talented team.

Simply put, they make fewer mistakes than anyone else. They can be beaten but they refuse to submit. Unlike many of their peers, they are seldom conspirators in their own demise.

The old ball coach Bill Parcells loved to say that more games are lost in the NFL than are won. He was right about that then and it is truer today because more young kids are playing earlier, practice time has been reduced and some of these guys play in a way unfamiliar to people like Paul Brown or Don Shula.

Recently, the Patriots beat three such examples: the Colts and division rivals Buffalo and the Jets. Buffalo committed 14 penalties worth 148 lost yards and three turnovers. Not surprisingly the turnover-free Patriots nosed them out, 37-31.

A week later, New England undressed Andrew Luck’s Colts, besting them 59-24 on a day when Luck passed for 334 yards but undid himself with three God-awful interceptions.

Then, on Thanksgiving night, the Jets played like turkeys in a 30-point loss, cooking their own goose by fumbling five times, losing four, and throwing an interception at the Patriots’ 15-yard line with the game tied 0-0.

In those victories, New England’s defense allowed 1,334 yards, an average of 444.7 yards per game, yet the Pats won by an aggregate score of 145-74. Why?

Let Jets QB Mark Sanchez explain.

“It was crazy,’’ Sanchez said of a second quarter in which New York give up 21 points in 52 seconds, all fueled by mental and physical errors. “This is a team you can’t turn the ball over on because they make you pay. This was a great example of that today. One of the most important things is they play real smart. They don’t make the mistakes we made tonight.’’

No they don’t, which is why their defensive Achilles’ heel isn’t as painful as it should be and why, despite their problems, they remain the most feared team in football,  if not quite the best any more.

Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald and Pro Football Weekly.

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