Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman once told me that each offseason he studies the final four teams in the playoffs, examining factors ranging from draft strategy and scheme to the height and weight of players, as a way of identifying strategies his organization might implement. The teams remaining this season—Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New England—are the four highest-scoring offenses in the NFL, so, on the surface, it looks like scoring a lot of points is the most important trend that’s emerged.
But that is not precisely true. Last year’s playoffs told the opposite story: each of the final four teams remaining had a top-five defense, the first time that had occurred since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The lesson is not that offense or defense will forever be king, but that the league is capable of reversing its norms in one calendar year. The best way to contend in the NFL is to be adaptable, flexible, and smart.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that the Patriots are the only team to make the final four in both seasons. Maybe that’s the lesson, too.
Studying the Patriots is a useful exercise, especially this time of year, because it teaches you about the current state of the NFL. Of the four remaining teams, they have the worst offensive unit in a year in which that might mean everything, and the best defensive unit in a year in which that might mean nothing. But of course, as is often the case, the Patriots will teach us what is important.
New England has the fourth-best offense in 2018, but that’s slightly misleading: The Chiefs (565), Rams (527), and Saints (504) have each eclipsed 500 points this season—the Patriots scored 436, a distant fourth. The disparity in points scored between the Chiefs and the Patriots (129) is roughly the difference between the Patriots and the Tennessee Titans (126), who are ranked 27th in the league.
In an era in which rookie contracts have become the building blocks for contending teams, New England is dead last in the number of rookie contracts on its roster and percentage of its cap space allocated to them. Instead, it leads the league in what Over the Cap calls “low contracts”—veterans like receiver Julian Edelman ($4.1 million) and safety Patrick Chung ($3.8 million), who are incredible values at their respective salaries.
The Patriots provide a useful service in the postseason by ejecting teams with bad game plans (ahem, the Los Angeles Chargers), stopping superstars who can’t overcome a double-team, and providing benchmarks for league trends. You can explain nearly two decades’ worth of playoff games through Bill Belichick’s ability to beat the latest trend with his own innovation.
New England’s methods are different than those of other elite teams in the NFL because it plays the long game. Increasingly, teams build to maximize windows: when their quarterback will be cheap, or around a superstar’s prime, for example. The Saints and Rams employ this so-called “all in” method by making moves designed to strike while the iron is hot. The Patriots have tried to be window-proof, which explains both their consistency and the fact they rarely have the most talented roster. They jettison talent instead of committing to expensive, long-term contracts, trade down in the draft to accumulate more picks, and know when they can take shortcuts at one position group to build up another.
The Patriots win on the margins and take advantage of the fact they are the least-flawed elite team in most seasons. It’s also worth noting that this means they are always among the elite in the NFL. They are playing in their eighth consecutive AFC title game, which is more conference title game appearances than 24 NFL franchises have played in their history. Their greatest advantages come from having Tom Brady at quarterback and Belichick devising game plans, both of which will be put to the test against the Chiefs on Sunday in the AFC title game. Belichick planning against a good team is one of the most fun things in sports. Pitting him against Chiefs coach Andy Reid, one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes II is the pinnacle of the sport. If you call yourself a football geek and you are not excited about Belichick and Brady vs. Reid and Mahomes, it’s because you are lying about being a football geek.
The question at the core of the most mouthwatering AFC title game in recent memory is whether the Patriots offense can keep pace in a shootout on the road and in cold weather. Or, can their defense prevent the game from becoming a shootout? It has been nearly 20 years since the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and Belichick announced himself as a coaching genius. He took advantage of an inflexible game plan from a lesser coach in Mike Martz and stopped the previously unstoppable Marshall Faulk. The Patriots have spent two decades repeating various versions of this game against different coaches and different players. Mahomes is on a short list of the most talented players they’ve faced in that span, and Reid is one of the few coaches who has innovated as consistently as Belichick has. He’s also, incredibly, been responsible for three of the seven instances in which Belichick has given up 40 or more points.
Belichick has schemed effectively against many of the greats of the game. He solved Peyton Manning during Manning’s record-breaking season in 2003 by instructing his team to be so physical at the line of scrimmage that the NFL ultimately changed the defensive contact rules, ensuring that defensive backs couldn’t manhandle receivers anymore—rules that have gotten even more strict in the decade and a half since. Belichick also lost to Manning three times in the playoffs, including New England’s past two road AFC championship games—the exact scenario they’ll be in on Sunday. It’s worth noting that Belichick and Brady are 3-4 on the road in the playoffs. The Patriots are, somehow, second in the NFL in defensive DVOA at home this year, but 31st on the road. It is also worth noting that Mahomes is a football god. These teams played in October in Foxborough, a 43-40 epic Patriots win, in which Mahomes threw two interceptions but finished with four touchdowns and a 110 QB rating. The Chiefs defense, long thought of as a liability, looked great against the Indianapolis Colts in Saturday’s playoff win. Their defensive line, the strong point of their defense, is going to pressure Brady. There is a legitimate chance the Chiefs win this game easily. Counterpoint: Patriots.
Against the Chargers, the Patriots had the benefit of playing at home, where they haven’t lost in the playoffs since after the 2012 season. They also had a better coaching staff and quarterback. The Chargers probably had more talent at the top of their roster: Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers, and Derwin James are elite-level players, and there are a handful of other Chargers who are considered great players. I thought the Patriots would win a close game and that I would learn more about Belichick’s performance in high-pressure situations. Instead, it was a blowout, which may have taught me even more.
Belichick embarrassed Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who employed a particularly poor Cover 3 defense that was expertly dismantled by the Patriots. The Chargers earned praise for playing seven defensive backs against the Baltimore Ravens during the wild-card round—a genuinely innovative idea—but the Patriots knew it was coming and the Chargers never had a chance. They either couldn’t identify obvious tells or couldn’t stop them if they did. When running back Sony Michel was in the game the Patriots ran the ball more than 80 percent of the time; when James White was in, they threw the ball 97 percent of the time. The Chargers couldn’t stop the Patriots even when they knew what was coming. I have often compared the Patriots to a casino—they win on the margins, over and over again, until you tally it up and they win big (there’s a joke to be made about how, like a casino, there were cameras everywhere, but I won’t be making it). There were no such margins in this game. The Chargers were the guy who got shellacked at the blackjack table, lost his money for the weekend, and didn’t even have a funny story to tell about it.
There is an old sitcom rule that perfect television is made by spending the first two-thirds of a show getting a character into hot water and the last third getting him out of it. Against the Chiefs, Belichick will be in hot water. Watching how effective his game plan is against Mahomes is why the sport—which marries talent and strategy better than any other—is so popular. And if the sitcom rule holds and Belichick gets out of the hot water, that’s when the perfect television will come in. I keep coming back to a comparison I made two years ago: “The best way to describe Belichick is the way Malcolm Gladwell described Steve Jobs: He’s a tweaker. Of course, it’s unfair to compare Jobs and Belichick, because one changed the world with his constant innovation and is recognized as an all-time genius, while the other invented the iPad.” In Gladwell’s definition, Jobs was a creative person who kept refining and tweaking different inventions. This description also applies to Belichick, who has had the best game plan against stars for nearly his entire Patriots tenure and will have a good one against Mahomes, the one passer who seems game plan–proof.
The Patriots called a stunt on more plays against the Chargers than any other team used in any game this season. This pissed off Philip Rivers to no end. “300-pound guy running clean at you unblocked? I mean, c’mon, I think we’d all be frustrated with that,” Patriots defensive lineman Adam Butler told reporters. A similar situation will probably not repeat itself against the Chiefs. But Belichick is capable of throwing anything at Mahomes. Will he reintroduce the physical approach the Patriots took with Manning, despite a new set of rules designed to prevent that from happening? Even if he designs a genius game plan, it’s altogether possible that Mahomes, who has never seen a throwing angle he didn’t like, overcomes it with pure smarts and talent.
One of the most fun subplots of every postseason is seeing how Belichick navigates the Patriots’ path to the Super Bowl, which opposing stars he tries to take away, and which trends he wants to jump on. Like the league as a whole, the Patriots reverse their norms routinely. Their 2007 team probably ushered in the NFL’s offensive boom by innovating with the slot receiver position, becoming the first NFL team to use shotgun a majority of the time, and developing a connection between Brady and Randy Moss that made us reconsider how deep passes should look. This evolution is a far cry from when Bob Ryan wrote after New England’s Super Bowl win over the Rams in 2002 that Brady “paper-cuts you to death” with short passes. Seventeen years later, Brady has reinvented himself dozens of times over and is back to the paper cuts. Against the elite Chargers pass rush, his pass attempts came out in 2.3 seconds for 4.3 air yards on average. He didn’t get sacked.
Right now, Belichick is thinking about his game plan. So are Reid and Mahomes. And so are you.
Let’s get scientific for a moment: This game is going to be awesome.