The New England Patriots are perched atop the AFC—again.
Football fans had spent years waiting for Tom Brady to age out of top form and for the Pats’ dynasty to fall apart, but they kept winning Super Bowls: after the 2014 season, and the 2016 season, and the 2018 season. They dominated the league long after everyone reluctantly acknowledged that all of their key figures were legendary. But when Brady left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in March 2020, fans breathed a long-awaited sigh of relief. As a Jets fan, I felt as if a 20-year headache had suddenly cleared up.
For a year or so, New England seemed to be flailing. In 2020, the Pats signed Cam Newton and finished under .500 for the first time since 2000. They clearly needed a long-term Brady replacement at quarterback, but their draft pick wasn’t high enough to take any of the first four QBs off the board in 2021.
But now the Pats are back, and so is my headache. New England is 9-4, riding a seven-game winning streak. On Monday, the Patriots played their main AFC East competition, the Bills, and bullied them. Incredible winds rendered passing and kicking nearly impossible in that game. You’d think Buffalo would be best prepared for Buffalo weather, but the Pats were the ones who showed up ready to play. They only asked Mac Jones to throw three passes while the offense ran the ball 46 times for 222 yards. Head coach Bill Belichick was downright gleeful at the result, smiling on the sideline for the first time in years.
Out of all the crazy moments in this game, Bill Belichick smiling and showing emotion is by far the craziest. pic.twitter.com/UlIiZWPTJi— OddsChecker (@OddsCheckerUS) December 7, 2021
It’s time for us to come to terms with this objectively awful thing that’s happening. How do we deal with the apparent return of the NFL’s most hated juggernaut?
How Worried Should I Be About a Pats Super Bowl Appearance?
Very. The Patriots are in sole possession of first place in the AFC, as they’re a half-game up on the Titans, Ravens, and Chiefs. That might not sound like much, but New England boasts the seventh-easiest remaining strength of schedule, while Baltimore and Kansas City have schedules that rank among the 10 most difficult in the league.
How important is the no. 1 seed? Nothing explains this better than the Patriots’ dynastic run. In the eight years the Brady-led Pats had the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, they made six Super Bowl appearances and won it all three times. It’s possible they performed so well because they were clearly the best team in these years, but the structural advantages provided by the NFL playoff format helped.
The no. 1 seed is even more important now under the 14-team playoff format that the league adopted in 2020. Now, only the top team in each conference gets a first-round bye. Everyone else must play in the wild-card round. In the four years that the Brady-led Pats had to play in the wild-card round, New England never made the Super Bowl.
Are the Patriots Actually the Best Team in the NFL? No, Right? They’re Not, Right? They Can’t Be, Right? Right?
It’s alarmingly close. The Pats have the best point differential in the NFL, at +150. They rank second in Football Outsiders DVOA, and fourth in both FiveThirtyEight’s QB-adjusted ELO ratings and ESPN’s FPI. If you prefer tape nerds to stats nerds, Pro Football Focus ranks the Pats second overall as a team: Its rating for the Rams is 92.6; its rating for the Patriots is 92.5.
How Do I Wake Up From This Nightmare?
You can’t. It’s real.
Can You Give Me a Reason the Pats Actually Suck?
Honestly, no. Their passing game is significantly more limited than that of most Super Bowl contenders, but it’s still effective. The Pats lead the NFL in scoring defense (15.4 points allowed per game) and rank third in yards allowed per play (5.0). Their kicking, punting, and return units are all good. The only statistic in which the Pats rank in the bottom 10 in the NFL is … pass attempts, which really just tells us that they don’t have Jones throw a lot. New England has lost eight fumbles, tied for sixth-most in the league, but fumbles are generally considered a function of luck.
Maybe They’ve Played an Easy Schedule or Something?
The Pats are playing a third-place schedule because they finished third in their division last season, meaning they’ve played the teams that finished third in the AFC North, AFC West, and NFC East, respectively. Despite that sounding like an easy slate, those teams have been competitive: the Browns, Chargers, and Cowboys.
Of course, New England has also played the Jets twice, which always helps. It won those games by a combined score of 79-19.
Look, Just Invent Some Stat Where the Pats Suck, OK?
Sure. The Pats rank 31st out of the league’s 32 teams in PATSBAD (Patriots-Adjusted Team Strength, Burying All Data). Somehow the Jaguars are worse—I honestly couldn’t believe it when I ran the numbers, especially since I made them up.
Wait, Didn’t This Team Start 2-4?
Yes, but that record isn’t so embarrassing in retrospect. Two of the three losses were close games against teams that seem bound for the playoffs: The Pats lost to the Cowboys in overtime (35-29) and to the Buccaneers after missing a last-minute field goal (19-17). New England was leading both of these games before late field goals by the opposition.
The Patriots’ most head-scratching loss came in the season-opener to the Dolphins (17-16), but New England was on the verge of taking a late lead before running back Damien Harris lost the first fumble of his career on the Miami 11-yard line. The team’s one definitive defeat was a 28-13 loss to the Saints in a game in which Jones threw three interceptions.
New England has lost four games by a combined total of 24 points. That’s not only less than any other teams’ combined margin of defeat; it’s also smaller than their margin of victory in three separate games this season, including a 45-7 rout of the Browns in November.
Did the Patriots Rebuild a New Championship Contender Overnight?
Not really. Although Brady is no longer around, this roster features a lot of continuity from the Patriots teams you hated not so long ago. The Pats led the NFL in scoring defense in 2019, and six of the current team’s defensive starters were on that squad too. So it’s not really a surprise that they once again lead the NFL in scoring defense.
Four of the team’s offensive line starters were with the Pats in 2019; the fifth, Trent Brown, won a Super Bowl with New England in 2018, so it’s also not a surprise that this team is fundamentally sound in the trenches.
Everywhere you look, the Patriots remain the Patriots. Only now they have Matthew Judon.
Did the Pats Really Take the Best Quarterback in the 2021 Draft Midway Through the First Round?
As impressive as Mac Jones has been, it is far, far too early to come to this conclusion. Jones has by far the best numbers of any rookie quarterback, and he’s won more games than the other four 2021 first-round QBs (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields) combined. But he’s on the best team, which helps a lot. His coach is Bill Belichick; Justin Fields’s coach is Matt Nagy.
Jones has the third-highest completion percentage (70.3) in the NFL among qualified passers, but he’s tied for 26th in average depth of target (7.7 yards) among quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks.
Coming into the season, Jones was seen as a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect. Watching him play, that scouting report seems accurate. It’s easy to imagine any other rookie quarterback also doing well on the Patriots, and it’s easy to imagine Jones struggling if he were on the Jaguars or Bears.
So I Don’t Need to Feel Bad About My Team Picking a Different Rookie QB Over Mac Jones Yet?
Exactly. Well, maybe with Zach Wilson. But that’s more of a Jets thing than anything else.
People Have Said Mac Jones Is a Young Tom Brady. Is Mac Jones a Young Brady?
I get the comparisons: Neither was considered a top draft prospect, and both appeared to have no abdominal muscles in their pre-draft photos. And Jones, of course, is outperforming Brady early on. Brady didn’t start for his entire rookie year, while Jones is already winning games.
But please ... let’s not do this. Brady’s career arc is so historic and unprecedented that it’s impossible to project anyone else being able to replicate it. Please, dear reader, I’m begging you.
How Worried Should I Be About a Belichick-Brady Super Bowl?
VERY! Football Outsiders currently gives the Patriots a 53.8 percent chance of winning the AFC and appearing in the Super Bowl, the best odds of any team in the NFL. Which team has the second-best odds? You guessed it—the Buccaneers, at 28.3 percent.
If the Patriots are the most likely team to win the AFC, and the Bucs are the most likely team to win the NFC, then Belichick-Brady is an exceedingly possible Super Bowl matchup. FO gives it roughly a 15 percent chance of happening. ESPN’s FPI gives this outcome a roughly 10 percent chance.
How Will the Media Handle a Belichick-Brady Super Bowl?
Watch the Adele promo that NBC made for the regular-season game between these two.
Now multiply it by 10,000. The NFL might just have to pay Adele to spend the entire two-week stretch between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl singing her most wistful songs in SoFi Stadium with Tom Brady highlights playing on the JumboTron.
How Should I Prepare for a Potential Belichick-Brady Super Bowl?
Stock up on canned foods and canned responses to hot takes. Practice nodding and saying things like, “It sure will be exciting to see who wins the Big Game.” If you have children, now would be a good time to explain to them that the people on television sometimes try to be controversial or entertaining instead of accurate and informative. Also, tell them that if someone says Mac Jones is better than Tom Brady, they should run.
But Really, How Can I Deal With the Patriots’ Return to Success?
Humans have wondered this for thousands of years. I recommend The Book of Job, written by a Jets fan several thousand years ago.
When Will This End?
Are you kidding? If the Pats’ run of success didn’t end post-Brady, it’s never ending. Everything in this world has an expiration date, including the world itself, but not this team. You will die someday, and Bill Belichick will be at your funeral in his most formal cut-off sweatshirt, grimacing.