FOXBORO - The Patriots' defense is better than last year, when the team finished 31st overall in the NFL and still made it to a Super Bowl.
But their 22nd ranking this year still hides a disturbing trend - a tendency to allow big plays, particularly on pass defense, where the Patriots are ranked 28th among 32 teams.
It's something the team must address if it hopes to represent the AFC in New Orleans this coming February, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said.
"If we don't give up big plays, the defense can be very, very good," he said. "That's one of the things we have to get better at - stop giving up big plays and stop hurting ourselves."
Wilfork said that while there have been obvious signs of improvement, especially against the run, the Patriots' defenders sometimes lead themselves astray.
"That's our focus, our focus," he said. "The times we give up big plays, we are not on the same page and our focus level is not where it needs to be. That's one of the areas we need to get better and I think going forward, we're going to have to get better in that area.
"If we don't, we're going to continue to have problems," he said. "But I think the guys are working hard to fix those problems. In the past few weeks, we've kind of moved in the right direction with that, so hopefully it will continue this week."
This week, the Patriots play a team that registered several big plays in the first game against it this season - although the final score hardly reflected that.
The Patriots entertain Buffalo on Sunday (1 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12), and back on Sept. 30 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Bills marched out to a 21-7 lead as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (350 passing yards) started out with fire in his eyes. But the Patriots forced six turnovers in the game (four interceptions, two fumbles) and raced to a 52-28 triumph, scoring six unanswered touchdowns in the second half.
Wilfork said he prefers to remember what the Bills did early in the game as a reminder of how dangerous he believes they can be.
"They're a team that can strike from anywhere on the field, in the air and on the ground," he said. "We have to do a better job of that this time around because that game was close. We got a couple turnovers in that game that basically led to points on our end. But without those turnovers, you're looking at a different ballgame so we definitely have to minimize the big plays on our defense."
The Patriots are tied for seventh overall in run defense, which is a good sign when facing a team that has a stable of impressive running backs.
"Buffalo has a great ground attack and their offense is very explosive," Wilfork said. "They're one of the teams in the NFL that can put up some points and put up some big plays, through the air and on the ground with the backs they have. We're going to have our hands full defensively to try to slow these guys down, but we're up for the challenge. Hopefully it will work in our favor but they definitely cause a lot of problems we have to deal with.
"As a whole, I think we can play a lot better," he added. "But our goal is to get better each week. That's our goal."
As the NFL rankings are based upon yardage gained or allowed, they can be misleading. Last year, one of the things that made up for their 31st-overall defensive ranking was turnover differential - a plus-17, 34 turnovers forced as opposed to 17 surrendered. This year, the Patriots are at plus-13 through eight games (20 forced, seven surrendered).
The importance of turnovers is one thing Bill Belichick always stresses to his team, Wilfork said.
"There's no magic wand he waves over us," he said. "It's basically talking about things we need to do to be successful and if we don't get it done, we're going to have problems. That's how all of our meetings start."
And even though the Patriots have been able to mask some of their shortcomings in the past, Wilfork repeated a familiar mantra when he said that what's happened in the past has no bearing upon what's happening in the present or will in the future.
"We don't even pay attention to last year," he said. "Every year is different. Thirty-two teams in the league every year change personnel, change coaches. You've got players new on this team, so we try not to dwell in the past.
"It's just like the Super Bowls we've won - just keep the past in the past and the future in the future," he added. "So, moving forward, that's all you have to do. It's a one-week game every week. This week it's the Buffalo Bills so all of our focus has to be on the Bills and the Bills only."