We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
In the movie Casino, Ace Rothstein described his associate Nicky Santoro thusly: “You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife; he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep coming back and back until one of you is dead.” Ace, meet the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. You want to beat the Pats, you better come ready for a 60-minute war, or don’t come at all. They aren’t backing down, nor are they ever giving up. Don’t believe me? Ask the Falcons.
But before we get ahead ourselves, let’s make one thing clear: All this talk about the Patriots going undefeated during the 2017 season is bullcrap. (Sorry, Simmons.) The season is too long and it’s much too difficult to maintain that level of excellence each week. It takes talent — of which the Patriots have plenty — but it also takes a great amount of luck. Even in the near-perfect 2007 season, there were four regular-season games that could have gone the other way. There was an Eagles game in which A.J. Feeley (remember him?) threw an interception late as the Birds were driving for a potential winning touchdown. (The Pats held on for a 31-28 win.) The next week in Baltimore, the Patriots had to convert two fourth-down plays to keep their winning drive alive and take the lead, and still, the Ravens ended up just 3 yards short of the win. In Week 10, with less than eight minutes to play, the Pats overcame a two-score deficit to beat the Colts. And finally, in the last game of the regular season against the Giants, it took a late Ellis Hobbs interception to give the ball back to the Pats in an eventual three-point victory. They won all four close games because they made the plays they needed to make — and because luck was on their side.
Another factor: The CBA requires days off and limits time on the field and contact during practices during training camp. No more two-a-days, no more three weeks preparing the team for the first preseason game, and most of all, no more unlimited reps for young players. Now, the month of September is used to glean the strengths and weakness a team might possess. Yes, the games count toward the overall win-loss record, but what matters more is being able to accurately assess a team and then making the minor adjustments needed to win in late November and December. Think of September as the first 100 miles in the Indy 500, when the race teams make the minor adjustments to the car at the first pit stop. Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh always wanted his assistants to play talented rookies in September knowing full well that the mistakes they made in September would help refine their habits by November and December, when mistake-free football is essential.
The Patriots have always used September as part of their preseason team evaluation — since 2001, the Pats are 37-15 in the first month of the season. Meanwhile, they’re 58-10 during the month of December. This year they open at home vs. Kansas City, on the road in New Orleans, and then home for the Texans and Panthers. Not an easy opening stretch. The undefeated dream could be over before the first quarter of the season is out. If they survive it, teams will be using those first four wins to pick apart the Pats’ weaknesses.
But the recipe to beating the Patriots is not in the first month of play, and it isn’t complex, nor does it require an unusual formula. What it requires is the following:
An Organizational Commitment to Special Teams
No team that struggles in the kicking game — particularly with its coverage units — is ever going to beat the Patriots. One good week of practice won't mean much for a team that wants to take down the Pats. Yes, good practice is fundamental, but winning against the Patriots requires an institutional commitment to the kicking game, every single day of the season. We all know the Patriots last season allowed the fewest points (250) in the NFL because of their effectiveness on defense, specifically in the red zone. However, because of their dedication to the kicking game, the Patriots controlled field position and made it hard for the opposing offense to ever play on a short field. The Pats defense led the NFL in drives that resulted in points (just 48). And in those 48 drives, it took teams more than eight plays (8.6) to score, which tied for second in the NFL, and they ranked ninth in the total yards per scoring drive allowed (61).
Special teams are the pillars in Bill Belichick’s cultural foundation. Tom Brady, an adaptable offense, and a multidimensional defense define the team’s success, yet without special teams the Pats would never work with complementary football precision. They established their culture of “team first” and “do your job” with their commitment to the kicking game. Within that culture, the team's mental and physical toughness is harvested and developed. In spite of the league’s attempts to do away with the kickoff — or at least make it obsolete by changing the location of the kick — the Patriots believe that a team cannot be tough-minded without having great coverage units. (Last year, the Pats were first in starting field position allowed and never let a kickoff be returned past midfield.)
The Patriots will carry players on their roster whose sole role is to make an impact in the kicking game — Matthew Slater has made a Pro Bowl–laced career with such a job — and they dedicate countless hours to preparing the team. From the first meeting, players understand that to have a role on offense or defense they must first excel in this area. Special teams participation is required of virtually every player in New England. And that does not happen in most NFL cities.
A few years ago, I was talking to a president of an NFL team who wanted to know about Belichick and his obsession with special teams. This executive was highly engaged in analytics and based on his research of the core special teams numbers, he saw no real correlation between having great special teams and a winning record. Yes, he acknowledged making field goals mattered, and he understood the value of field position. However, the time spent by Belichick’s team and allocation of cap resources to special teams for him far outweighed the gains. He kept asking, “Why would he risk playing highly paid players on coverage teams?” And this executive — an analytically inclined type — could care less how many titles the Patriots had won; his data did not support the value Belichick placed on the kicking game. And you know what? The value isn't in the data; it lies in the culture. Building a team’s toughness and quality of execution can't always be quantitatively measured.
Here’s a perfect example of how opponents’ special teams must play well: Remember back to 2012 when the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI? The unsung hero of the game was Giants punter Steve Weatherford. The Patriots had the ball for nine drives — two below their average for any game — and Weatherford had four punts, three of which pinned the Patriots inside the 20. New England was unable to return any of his four punts, and Weatherford forced the Patriots to play on an extended field all game. Their average starting position was their own 16-yard line — their best was their own 29-yard line. The Pats gained 349 yards and held the ball for just under 23 minutes, while the Giants held the ball for 37 minutes and out-gained the Pats by a mere 47 yards. Regardless of how well an offense can move the ball, the longer the field, the harder it is to string together seven or eight perfect plays. Eli Manning and Mario Manningham’s sideline catch grabbed the highlights for that game, but the Giants’ special teams were the unspoken key.
Understanding the Laws of Inversion
The Patriots subscribe to the Law of Inversion, which means they first must avoid losing to prepare for winning. Avoiding losing means protecting the ball with your life and playing mistake- and penalty-free, especially in the kicking game. Nothing drives me crazier than penalties on exchanges. The television announcers say the receiving team will now have the ball on the X-yard line instead of the Y due to a penalty as if it’s no big deal. In the course of a game, it’s a huge deal, and those lost yards are often never discussed. However, the Patriots are aware of these hidden yards. They’re monitoring and tracking them for their opponents, and avoiding them at all costs.
Mistakes are not limited to just the players — they also apply to coaches. (Andy Reid, please pay close attention.) How teams handle specific game situations will often determine the outcome. The Patriots love to defer the toss and love to receive the ball to start the second half. Why? Because Belichick lives for in-game adjustments. He views the second half as an entirely new game. And they’re great in this area — last season, they scored 55 points on their first drive of the second half, no. 1 in the NFL in this category. You know what else they excel in? Getting the lead in the first half, one of the most important statistics in football. Last year, the Patriots led the NFL with a plus-133 point differential in the first half. (The Rams scored a total of 124 points in the first half combined all season.) The Falcons finished plus-101, the Cowboys at plus-91, and Seattle at plus-52. The first half for the Patriots is about getting the lead; the second half is about adjustments.
Not All Third Downs Are Created Equal
When we analyze the stats after a game, we tend to focus specifically on third-down conversions, an important area of the game. However, please understand that not all third downs are the same. A third-and-10 inside your territory is not as important as a third-and-5 on the opponents’ 12. The NFL rate for converting a third-and-10 or longer is just 20 percent, which means it’s highly likely a team will be punting — once again, the kicking game is important — and it should also mean it will be careful with the play call. I’m not suggesting running a draw, but I'm not suggesting taking a seven-step drop and leaving both tackles alone on an island. The time to be aggressive when playing the Patriots is third-and-5 at their 12-yard line. That is a four-point call — meaning if the team converts, it might score a touchdown; if it fails, then it settles for three points, losing out on four potential points. Teams that can beat the Patriots spend more time practicing red zone third downs than any other third downs.
Sidenote: Look, I am no Don Draper, but what blows me away about the NFL is while it usually never misses a sponsorship deal, it’s letting this four-point play slip away. How are third downs in the red zone not sponsored by Johnnie Walker Red? It’s the perfect time to slip in some ad dollars without disrupting the flow of the game, and more importantly it would place importance on the actual play call. Cover the entire red zone with a giant bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, and on the stat sheet have little Johnny Walker bottles indicating third-down red zone conversions. The marketing possibilities are endless.
Another third-down situation that is hugely important: third-and-1. To beat any good team in the NFL, converting all third-and-1s is vital. The league average for conversion in 2016 was 65 percent, but it was 70 percent for all the playoff teams. To win against the Patriots, teams generally have to convert over 85 percent of their third-and-1s, which allows them to keep the ball away from Brady. That 1 yard looks so easy to convert, but it requires a ton of practice time, a few new wrinkles each week, and some diversity in play-calling.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain wrote, “The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.” Playing the Patriots requires being a little unconventional, a little unpredictable, a little imperfect. This doesn’t mean abandoning systems and schemes, but rather making modifications within those systems and schemes. A perfect example: Super Bowl LI. On third-and-6 with just over two minutes left in the first half, Brady was expecting a certain coverage from the Falcons, one they have played 99 percent of the time. When he took the shotgun snap, he felt confident they were playing that coverage, and let the ball go toward Danny Amendola. However, the Falcons went unconventional on Brady and modified the coverage slightly — suddenly, Robert Alford was running the ball back 82 yards for a pick-six. The ignorant antagonist can still succeed.
Be a Stoic
The great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius believed in living in the moment — only concern yourself with things that are in your control and ignore all else. In a game against the Patriots, good things can happen, bad things can happen, and the team that just ignores both and focuses on the next play will have the most success. Football is an emotional game. Players and coaches lose themselves over a single official’s call. This cannot happen when playing the Patriots. The only play that matters is the next play, and that play will require 100 percent dedication and concentration.
The key to beating the Patriots is to keep raising your level of play as they continue to raise their play. Never, ever think they will concede — sorry, Matt Ryan — and keep meeting each challenge. In other words, just follow Ace’s advice on Nicky. Keep comin’.