Patriots Have Thrived Against Lesser Competition
A while back, I did a piece suggesting that the Green Bay Packers success at making it into the postseason was a bit deceptive, because the NFL North division has been weak for most of the 12 years Mike McCarthy has coached the team. In another division, the Packers might have only gone to the playoffs maybe five times, not the eight in a row they went to from 2009 through 2016.
Before you place your Super Bowl wager, you might give some thought to the division and the conference that the Patriots have been in during their run of nine straight postseason appearances.
The AFC East division consists of the Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets. During New England’s nine-year run they’ve gone 112-32 – a phenomenal win percentage of .778.
So how has the rest of the AFC East division fared during that time?
The Buffalo Bills have gone 61-83, a .424 win percentage. Their only postseason appearance was this year, when they went one-and-out.
The Miami Dolphins have compiled a 65-79 record over the last nine years, for a win percentage of .451. Like the Bills, the Dolphins have only made the playoffs once in that time, losing their only game in 2016.
Finally, we have the New York Jets. Their nine-year record is 66-78, a win percentage of .458. The Jets went to the playoffs in both 2009 and 2010, but haven’t been there since. By the way, new Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was Rex Ryan’s and the Jets’ defensive coordinator in both of those playoff seasons.
You get the picture. The Patriots play six games every season against these three patsies. Not counting the Patriots, the other AFC East teams have been among the weaker, if not the weakest, group that any NFL team faces within its division. In other words, though the Patriots have had nine straight double-digit-win seasons, they’ve also had the NFL’s softest schedule almost every year.
Don’t get me wrong, New England is very good, though maybe not quite as dominant a force as most fans have come to believe.
You want more proof? The Pats play in the AFC, which in the last several years has fielded considerably fewer talented teams than the NFC.
Who are the tough teams in the other three AFC divisions? The AFC South managed two teams with winning records this season, the Jaguars at 10-6 and the Titans at 9-7 – though a winning season isn’t typical for either team. The Colts and the Texans had four wins each.
The Kansas City Chiefs have been the class of the AFC West for a few years. Still, they’ve not been a dominant team, and after a 10-win season they got bounced out in the Wild Card game this year.
The closest the AFC has to a team consistently competitive with the Patriots is the AFC North Steelers.
By comparison, NFC teams that regularly produce tough match-ups include the Packers, Eagles, Cowboys, Saints, Falcons, Panthers, and Seahawks. And for 2017, you can add the Vikings and the Rams to the list.
If you need any more proof that the Patriots’ winning record is misleading, let me deflate that thought. Remember that once a team makes the playoffs, all of their opponents leading up to the Super Bowl are teams within the conference. So, not only do the Patriots not have to play many of the powerful teams from the NFC during the regular season, they never play an NFC team in playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. The Patriots consistently have an easier playoff path to the final game than do NFC teams.
Still not buying it? Okay, in their eight previous playoff drives, how often have the Patriots gone on to win the Super Bowl? Only twice, in 2014 and 2016 – and you can put an asterisk after 2014, as the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (and/or the Seahawks’ play caller) gifted the win to them in the final half-minute.
What kind of gauntlet has New England had to run through this postseason to get to the February 4 showdown with the Eagles?
First there was the Titans, a team who until this year had not been to the playoffs since 2008. They skimmed by the Chiefs by a point before being trounced by the Pats by 21 points.
In the other playoff game, the Pats faced the Jaguars – a team that hadn’t made it to the playoffs since 2007. Though mediocre quarterback Blake Bortles had a mediocre game (84.7 passer rating), it took a furious comeback by Tom Brady and company to edge the Jags by three points.
It would be hard to find a team in the last decade with a softer, easier path to the Super Bowl than the 2017 Patriots.
The Eagles have faced tougher and more playoff-savvy teams on their way to the Super Bowl. First they dispatched the Falcons, who had made the playoffs four of the last seven years, and were the Super Bowl last year. The Eagles then faced the Vikings, who had a sterling 13-3 record, and were favored by most to go on to play in the Super Bowl. This was the Vikings’ third playoff appearance in the last six years. Nick Foles and his mates drubbed Minnesota and its supposedly tenacious defense, 38-7.
The Patriots have actually been very good, consistent, and competitive for going on nearly two decades now. Since 2001, they’ve made the playoffs 15 out of 17 times. However, they don’t often steamroll their way to massive wins. In recent years, they’ve not been a team that dominates and crushes opponents. In their last seven appearances in the Super Bowl, their biggest victory margin has been six points.
Keeping in mind the talent differential between the NFC and the AFC, here’s how the Eagles ranked among the 16 NFC teams: 2nd in overall offense, 2nd in overall defense. The Patriots ranking among the 16 teams in the weaker AFC: 1st in overall offense, 15th in overall defense.
The numbers tell us that against weaker competition during the regular season, the Patriots had a net 451-yardage advantage – they amassed 6,307 yards and yielded 5,856. The Eagles had 5,852 yards of offense, and gave up 4,904 yards on defense: a net yardage differential of 958 yards – against a tougher group of opponents.
Foles, facing the 29th best defense in the league, should have another good game. Brady has a tougher task, as he’s up against the NFL’s fourth-best defense.
I don’t think the Pats are going to eke out another win – for the third time in four years – this time around. The Eagles are the better team, and they’ve got to this point against better competition.