When the New England Patriots’ reign as one of the top teams in the NFL comes to an end, we will not know it immediately. There have been so many false starts in proclaiming their decline that they are now presented tongue firmly in cheek, as evidenced by a FiveThirtyEight headline this season: “The Patriots Look Finished. So They Will Probably Win The Super Bowl.” Other offshoots of this genre include rounding up all of the times they’ve been declared finished.
New England ends up making a lot of people look stupid, and that is by design. Each season, it has flaws, some of them deep, none of them fatal. The gambit is to be the least flawed team of all the contenders and then win with situational football—a strategy which, if you haven’t noticed, the Patriots succeed with. They’ve been referred to as an Evil Empire, but they operate more like a casino. They maintain a series of tiny advantages over their opponents—scheme, personnel, cap management—and over two decades, like a casino, they’ve won a lot more times than they’ve lost. They made the Super Bowl last season with the worst pass rush in the NFL. They won it the season prior amid concerns about their secondary in late November. In December 2014, their offensive line was said to be their potential downfall. They finished the season as champions. These flaws are a byproduct of the most sensible roster-building scheme in the NFL. It involves eschewing highly paid players in favor of those making middle-of-the-road money, accumulating as many draft picks as possible and knowing exactly the right balance a roster needs to strike.
The Patriots, despite being 7-3, look like an incomplete team. On Sunday they lost 34-10 to the Tennessee Titans, which brought back memories of their uneven September, when they had another horrific loss, 26-10 to the Detroit Lions, during a 1-2 start. That a 7-3 record is panic-inducing is a testament in and of itself, but it’s also part of the process of Patriotsdom. Perfection isn’t part of the plan. The question is: In one of the weirdest NFL seasons in recent years, are the Patriots built to win big? They’ve bent the NFL to their will for so long, but the sport is changing. New England seems out of step in a moment when Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes II, and Jared Goff are making us rethink what is possible from an NFL offense, much the same way that Brady and the Patriots did in 2007, when they rewrote record books. But here is where things stand:
The Saints have now scored on 66.3% (57/86) of their possessions, the highest rate in the league. For some perspective on that rate, the 2007 Patriots scored on 57.0%, the 2017 Falcons 55.8%, the 2013 Broncos 51.1%.— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) November 12, 2018
Brees has completed less than 60 percent of his passes twice in his past 45 games. Mahomes just ended an eight-game streak of passing for at least 300 yards. Rams coach Sean McVay is a schemelord, and Jared Goff executes those schemes to perfection.
In a season when it’s easier to play offense than at any point in league history, the Patriots are averaging 0.2 yards fewer per play than they did last year. Brady is the league’s worst quarterback against the blitz. But to rule the Patriots out of contention is to fundamentally misunderstand them. First of all, they aren’t exactly the Buffalo Bills, ranking seventh in the NFL in points per game. The low point—the reason Bleacher Report is saying Tom Brady’s decline is “really happening” this time—is the loss to Tennessee. Football Outsiders is dubbing it a “very gradual decline.” The result set New England back in the race for the AFC bye, one game in the loss column behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, and two behind the Kansas City Chiefs. After the game, Titans running back Dion Lewis, formerly of the Patriots, called New England “cheap.” He’s not wrong—the Patriots don’t sign players like Lewis to big contracts because they prefer to maintain ruthless salary cap flexibility. It is not pretty, it is not player-friendly, but it’s how they do business. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for instance, would never be branded cheap, what with his slew of market-rate contracts and apparent allergy to negotiating. I think the Patriots are fine with the path they’ve taken.
New England’s roster construction takes on different meaning when you look at the stakes of Super Bowl contention in 2018: Teams have gone all in, and the Patriots have not followed suit. The Rams and Saints have made increasingly aggressive moves to win right now without an eye toward the future. If those teams are the guy at the poker table putting his car keys in the pot, the Patriots are the guy studying charts and playing everything completely by the book. It’s not for everyone. A buzzword when it comes to roster building is “windows.” The Jacksonville Jaguars have a two-year window to win with their defense as currently constructed. The Rams have a three-year window before Goff becomes expensive and some of their luxury items have to go, and the same is true for the Eagles with Carson Wentz. Teams are maximizing their windows. The Patriots have taken a decidedly window-proof approach. Their roster is probably less talented than many of the teams who are “all in” this season—they traded Brandin Cooks for a first-round pick and let Malcolm Butler walk in free agency. They play the percentages. It remains to be seen whether that is enough to beat the best teams in a season like 2018.
Even Brady—who along with coach Bill Belichick has been the NFL’s beacon of consistency—has had these types of struggles before. Last year he had one of the worst five-game stretches of his career. He made it to the Super Bowl, where he played in the most offensively explosive game in football history and could have won it. If you are the type of person who has declared Brady finished, you are also the person who watches James Bond movies, sees him drink a poisoned martini or be targeted with an impending laser, and assumes this is finally it for him. It hasn’t happened yet, and it’s tiring to keep predicting that it will.
New England has very real flaws, including a lack of consistent weapons, a banged-up Rob Gronkowski, and some Brady mistakes that may or may not be prompted by a loss of arm strength. The Patriots aren’t in the top 10 in preventing or gaining passing and rushing yards per game. They rank 31st in punt coverage and 29th in kickoff coverage, which is scandalous for Belichick. No head coach thinks about special teams more, yet his units are flopping. There’s a real case to be made that the Patriots simply aren’t good enough. Then again, that case has been made before, and proved wrong. They might not have the weapons to keep up or the defense to be elite, but consider how they compare with the other elite teams. New England’s defense ranks 16th in DVOA—comfortably ahead of the Rams, Chiefs, and Saints. Those last two teams are 25th and 27th, respectively. The Rams and the Chiefs can’t stop the run (the latter can’t stop the pass either). There is no perfect team, and the Patriots have built a dynasty in part because they understand that. They do nothing incredibly well except be the Patriots, and whether that’s enough in a changing era is a fascinating test.
As Tom Curran pointed out, the Patriots lead the NFL in strength of victory but have lost to some pretty bad teams:
Here's a weird stat. They lead the NFL in strength of victory by a wide, wide margin. (.568) with wins over KC, Houston and Chicago leading way ... teams they beat are combined 36-23-1.— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) November 12, 2018
Losses to three teams that are combined 11-16. https://t.co/6EJ5xC3T6h
You can read this as evidence that the Patriots can hang with good teams—their 43-40 win over Kansas City tells you that—or that they are inconsistent. Belichick, even in his best years, has clunkers. The 2015 team was 10-1 when it lost to an Eagles team that was steamrolling its way toward getting Chip Kelly fired. The 2004 team, which eventually won a Super Bowl, was 12-1 when it inexplicably lost to a 2-11 Miami Dolphins team. This intrigues me more than perhaps any other story line in the second half of the season. Maybe the Patriots’ strategy of being the least-flawed team will pay off in an era of über-offense and questionable defense. Or maybe they won’t have enough offensive weapons to keep up over three playoff games. We don’t know, but that’s sort of the point too. With the Patriots you can never rule anything out. That’s the plan.