Last week’s blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts was characteristic of this season’s Patriots: another game played, another opportunity to change one’s opinion of the team. Two weeks ago, a lackluster defensive performance against the Bills suggested an inevitable first-round playoff exit, though just one week earlier the Patriots had convinced two countries of their dominance with a blowout victory over the Rams in London. The picture wasn’t any clearer earlier in the season, with a convincing win against the AFC contender Broncos followed up by a fourth quarter collapse against the Seahawks.
From game to game, the “eye test” doesn’t seem a reliable way to evaluate this team; you just can’t be certain which Patriots are going to show up. For that reason, it makes more sense to look at the Patriots’ full body of work over the course of the season to get a sense of what their prospects are of playing into February.
The most distinctive feature of the team is quite clearly the offense, which has put up points at a historic rate. This year’s Patriots are one of nine teams in history to score 350 points through 10 games, and only the fifth since 1950. They have twice scored over 50 points in a game, something only one team since 1969—the 2007 Patriots—has accomplished. They even have a formidable running game, something that hasn’t been seen in Foxborough for some years.
The ever-present worry is, as always, on the other side of the ball. The defense has continued following Bill Belichick’s formula: give up truckloads of yards, limit teams in the red zone, and force turnovers. Though creating turnovers is generally not thought of in the statistical community as a skill—that is, replicable from year-to-year—the Patriots have finished in the top ten in turnover margin in ten of their 13 seasons with Belichick at the helm. But they need every takeaway they can get, as their 30th-ranked passing defense has been quite kind to the opposing quarterbacks they’ve played—which, by the way, is not a very impressive list. The Patriots have played only two top-ten passing attacks in the Colts and Broncos.
This all goes to say that the team is essentially a carbon-copy (if not slightly upgraded) of the group that came within a few plays of winning a Super Bowl last year. I could basically re-run this article a year later, and the conclusions would be about the same.
It’s hard to win without an elite unit on one side of the ball—which the Patriots have—but beyond that, the playoffs can be a crapshoot. They are currently second in the league in Football Outsiders’ team efficiency ratings and are listed as having the highest odds of any team to win the Super Bowl at 18.5 percent…but that still means the Patriots would fall short of their ultimate goal four out of five times.
To me, this betrays the danger of using a binary definition of success—championship or no championship—for a season. The Patriots have been the NFL’s most successful franchise for a decade, but all anyone wants to talk about as the playoffs approach is that they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004, as if that represents some historic drought. The breaks find a way to even out over the long run; they had the benefit of some good luck in winning three titles in four years and suffered some bad luck in losing their last two Super Bowl appearances. But once again, the Patriots are among the league’s best teams and are as well-positioned as anyone to make a run at the title, and that’s all a fan can really ask for.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.