In his first scene in Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister—the shrewd, cunning, and cutthroat Lannister patriarch—tells his golden boy son, Jaime, that they can establish a dynasty that will last a thousand years.
Bill Belichick, the real life Tywin, has already built an empire that’s lasted a millennium in football years, and he did it with his own version of Jaime. In 17 years, the Pats have 15 division titles, 12 AFC championship appearances, seven Super Bowl appearances, and five Super Bowl wins. Those numbers are repeated ad nauseam, but even they fail to tell the full story of the team’s dominance. Let’s run through the numbers of the Pats dynasty that you haven’t heard.
New England has a stranglehold on the regular season. The Patriots are the most winning team of the Tom Brady–Belichick era (duh) and looking at their regular-season point differential, a simple metric that can be more informative than a team’s record, paints a picture of even greater dominance.
For the most part, this graph shows a league of hard knocks, with 17 teams between negative-700 and plus-160 point differential. Meanwhile, the Patriots are in a different galaxy at plus-2,534—more than double every team except no. 2 Pittsburgh (plus-1,354). Just the difference between the Patriots and the Steelers would be the fourth-highest bar on the chart. The Pats have such a high point differential that if you combined the last-place Browns’ (minus-1,477) score and New England’s, that number would still be good for fourth place.
Changing the timeline so it begins in the 2011 season, when the Pats’ streak of seven consecutive AFC championship games began, provides a more recent sample of the league—and the same conclusion.
The Pats have lapped every team in point differential except Seattle, and their figure is three times (!) that of the sixth-place Saints (plus-371). (Also, shout-out to the Browns for being last in both of these charts, but still not nearly as bad as New England is good.)
Looking at the Pats’ point differential, Foxborough might as well be Mordor.
One of the most common rebuttals to the Pats’ dominance is that New England often has had an easy path to the AFC championship game. That’s true. Here’s every quarterback the Patriots have faced in the divisional round in the past decade: Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, Matt Schaub, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Brock Osweiler, and Marcus Mariota. Yikes.
Yet as Mona Lisa Vito would say, the argument doesn’t hold any water, because a favorable matchup is often the reward for earning a first-round bye. Of course, then the Pats’ detractors would point out that New England had the luxury of beating up on the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins (a combined 44 different starting quarterbacks since 2001) twice each year to inflate its record. That sounds true, but it doesn’t appear to have had a big impact on the team’s record. Yes, counting the playoffs, the Patriots are 82-24 against the AFC East (77.4 winning percentage) since 2001, the best divisional mark in the league. But the Patriots have gone 235-72 since 2001 (including playoffs), producing an almost-identical winning percentage (76.5). The Patriots are better against the AFC North (29-8 record, 78.4 percent), which includes rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, than they are against their own division. They’ve beaten everyone equally.
That dominance—not a weak division or conference—is why the Patriots’ matchup against the Jaguars on Sunday will be New England’s seventh consecutive AFC championship game. To put that in perspective, in the Super Bowl era, only 11 teams have made their conference championship game seven or more times. It’s New England’s 12th final four under Brady and Belichick, a number only four teams (the Cowboys, 49ers, Raiders, and Steelers) can match in the past half-century. The only comparable stretch is a nearly identical Cowboys run from 1966 to 1982 under legendary coach Tom Landry, when Dallas made 12 conference championships in 17 years—but the Cowboys went 2-3 in the Super Bowl in that era.
The Pats’ relentless march to the AFC championship game each year is a product of the machine that Belichick has built. He’s the head coach and the GM, and was for a time the de facto defensive coordinator. Even when Belichick gets compared to the best coaches of all time, the comparisons fall short. John Madden won one Super Bowl. Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls and then finished with nine or fewer wins in seven of his next 11 seasons. Being compared to Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh is still a compliment, but the comparison is starting to falter. Lombardi and Walsh coached for only 10 seasons each, while Belichick is on the verge of taking his 15th Patriots playoff team to an eighth Super Bowl.
And yet those Super Bowl appearances have been a few blades of grass from producing dramatically different story lines. New England is a few ridiculous plays (the David Tyree catch, Asante Samuel’s drop, and Brady overthrowing Moss twice at the end of Super Bowl XLII; the Mario Manningham catch in Super Bowl XLVI) from being 7-0 in the Super Bowl. The Pats are also two Jedi mind tricks (the Seahawks and Falcons not running the ball) from being 0-4 in the Super Bowl in the past 10 years and Skip Bayless insisting that Brady is the worst playoff game manager ever. Even for the most dominant team in NFL history, success and failure can be determined by the skin of your teeth—or your helmet. (Also, happy early birthday to the Tyree catch, which turns 10 next month. It single-helmetedly saved us from Boston fans having claim to the greatest season in history.)
And while Brady is called the GOAT at seemingly every opportunity, it’s worth diving into just how ridiculous his career has been. Brady now holds every playoff record worth having, mostly because he has more playoff wins than every quarterback except for Peyton Manning has had playoff games. In the mid-2000s, when the Brady vs. Manning debate was at its peak, the typical pro-Brady argument boiled down to admitting that Manning was the statistically superior passer in the regular season, but Brady was the most clutch player in playoff history. Since then, Brady has become even better in the playoffs. Just counting his numbers since 2010, Brady has thrown for more passing yards and touchdowns in the playoffs than everyone in league history except for Manning, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana. If you divided Brady’s career in half—2001 to 2009 and 2010 to today—and assigned each to two different people, both would be locks to make the Hall of Fame.
Brady and New England can continue that dominance if they get past the Jaguars on Sunday. The Patriots are nine-point favorites against Jacksonville, the biggest spread in a conference championship game since 2007, when the Chargers were 14-point underdogs against … New England. In the past 10 years, the Patriots have been an underdog a league-low 20 times, and that number should probably be lower. They’re 11-9 in those games—in wins and losses, not against the spread. Out of all of New England’s impressive victories, its consistent wins over Vegas might be the most impressive. But Sin City is finally catching on: This season, the Patriots became the 19th team in a 16-game season to be favored in every game.
We’ve never seen anything quite like the longevity of the Patriots’ excellence—football dynasties half as long are legendary. The NFL’s Lannisters are still sitting on their throne, but the recent departure of an obvious successor has put a ticking timer on their dynasty. As much as the rest of the league wants to see their reign go down in flames, everyone should take a moment to appreciate how rare it’s truly been, and maybe even enjoy what’s left of it. (Also, if Blake Bortles and the Jaguars beat them on Sunday, forget I said any of this.)