FOXBORO - It wasn't a Picasso.
Heck, it might not have been the work of a star student at the Art Institute of Boston. But, in the end, it was enough.
While it was hardly a masterpiece, the New England defense had just enough to finish off a 20-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers yesterday.
Make no mistake, these are not the Patriots that won Super Bowls with defense, sporting Pro Bowl playmakers like Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi all over the field. But if New England has any chance of contending this season, it will be with workmanlike performances by the defense, like the one it turned in yesterday.
"We didn't play great," said Patriots safety James Sanders. "But we did enough to win. That's what we needed, and maybe this is something we can build off of."
It's safe to say the defense had scuffled in recent weeks.
The Pats allowed 407 total yards to the Indianapolis Colts and 480 yards to the New Orleans Saints. Those two teams feature the NFL MVP frontrunners: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
But more disturbing was the 416 yards allowed to the Miami Dolphins last week. That included 335 passing yards by Chad Henne, who entered the season as the Dolphins' backup.
Even worse than the statistics — much worse — were the fourth-quarter, game-winning drives surrendered to both the Colts and the Dolphins.
The Pats' defense wasn't just struggling. It was simply overwhelmed.
"We made some adjustments going into this week," said Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo. "In the previous few weeks we have had a number of communication problems. We didn't want that to happen today, and it didn't. We wanted to get on the same page."
Fear — and more than a few boos — filled Gillette Stadium when the defense showed all-too-familiar sloppy play late in the first quarter when Steve Smith flew down the field and grabbed a 41-yard touchdown pass from Panthers backup QB Matt Moore.
But the Pats tightened up after that.
They allowed only a field goal the rest of the way.
Carolina managed 305 yards.
Not exactly shut down, but it was enough.
"The coaches brought in an easier game plan," said Mayo. "Those guys (the Panthers) wanted to run the ball and throw it to Steve Smith. We knew what they wanted to do, and we knew what we wanted to do. We toned down the schemes and stuff."
The Patriots also made a pair of personnel moves, starting veteran defensive backs Sanders and Shawn Springs.
"Getting the opportunity to get back out there, run around and make some hits was great," said Sanders. "It was somewhat surprising. They told me Monday that I was going to start this week, and I wasn't buying it until Sunday. They told me and Shawn we'd have the chance to go out there and do what we could. And we played pretty well."
Not unlike the defense as a whole, neither veteran made a play worthy of NFL Films. But both did contribute.
Sanders, a starter for the Patriots the past three seasons, had played sparingly of late, making only two tackles over the previous five games. But, inserted in place of Brandon McGowan, Sanders tied for the team-high yesterday with seven tackles and a pass defended, although he did show his rust when he dropped an easy interception.
"James Sanders is probably our smartest defensive back," said safety Brandon Meriweather. "Every call he makes. He knows every position. He knows every call. He brings more to the table when it comes to making checks and making calls and it was great to have him there."
Springs was totally absent from the stat sheet for each of the past four games, stuck behind corners Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite. But Springs turned in three tackles yesterday, and helped hold Smith to only two catches.
"Winning helps everything," said Springs. "It was out of my control the last few weeks. But when I'm called upon I do what I have to. That's all I can do."
It was not a great game, but it may have been what the Patriots' defense needed to get back on track.
"We had a few bad games," said Bodden. "We played well. There are still some things that you don't do right and you want to fix so those don't happen again."
Reality is, this is not the defense of Ty Law, Ted Johnson or Richard Seymour. Nor is it the defense of Rodney Harrison or even Asante Samuel. This team isn't going to pitch three-hit shutouts every week. But it does need to turn in quality outings - say, three runs over five innings — like the performance yesterday.
"You can't pay attention (to the critics)," said linebacker Pierre Woods. "It's in one ear and out the other. But this is hopefully a confidence boost."