How Do the New England Patriots Typically Fare After a Trip to the Super Bowl?
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But what happens to the team of the decade in a year after a Super Bowl appearance indicates that the Patriots may be more Hercules than Zeus.
The NFL is designed to create parity, to keep the best teams from being dominant, and while the Patriots have defied the logic of the salary cap era, they're not perfect.
2002: 9-7, missed playoffs
The defense played to their bend-don't-break mantra perfectly in '01, but despite a similar ranking in total yards, they ranked 11 spots lower in scoring.
Brady led the league in touchdown passes in 2002 with 28 (that sounds weird nowadays), but his efficiency went down a bit, completing a lower percentage of his passes (62.1 percent in '02 vs. 63.9 in '01) for fewer yards per attempt (6.3 YPA in '02 vs. 6.9 in '01).
It turns out '02 was just a bump in the road on the Patriots' path to greatness.
2004: 14-2, won Super Bowl
Impressively, the Patriots were able to improve across the board despite the gigantic bullseye on their backs.
The carryover between the '03 and '04 seasons was due in large part to a dominant season from Brady, who had the best season of his career (up to that point) in '04, averaging a whopping 7.8 YPA (the league average in '04 was 7.1). It was a solid but unspectacular season that was overshadowed by Peyton Manning's record-breaking year.
There wasn't much retooling necessary, and the Patriots capitalized on a strong veteran group with their third Super Bowl title in four years.
2005: 10-6, lost in divisional round
The small step back that the defense took from 2003 to 2004 was met by a giant leap in the wrong direction in '05, Eric Mangini's first and only year at the helm of the defense. The defense gave up 78 more points in '05 than it did in '04 while allowing an eye-popping 87.8 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks a year after yielding just a 75.3.
Injuries also took their toll on New England's record. Richard Seymour missed four games, Tedy Bruschi missed seven as he recovered from a stroke and the secondary featured 13 different starters over the course of the season.
Quite simply, it was a group that didn't have the team-wide balance that had made them so dominant from '01-'04.
They would find it in varying degrees over the coming seasons, but would have trouble getting back to the Super Bowl. That is, until they turned the NFL upside down and set the record books ablaze in 2007.
2008: 11-5, missed playoffs
The surprising thing is, the Patriots were still a tiebreaker away from winning their division and returning to the playoffs despite the absence of the 2007 NFL MVP, and with a defense that was plagued with injuries (Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi) and was in the beginning stages of what would become a years-long rebuild.
Many of the veterans were still in place, but most were on the downside of their careers.
While their rankings hardly suffered for any of those issues, it all proved just too much in the end, as the Dolphins won the division in a heated race that came down to the season's final game.
Barring an incident similar to the '08 season, we know what Brady brings to the table. He will likely be one of the dominant quarterbacks in 2012 once again. The defense, on the other hand, isn't what it was that year, but with several additions this offseason and a core of younger players looking to come into their own, the Patriots have taken every measure possible to improve their defense short of installing a wall at the 50-yard line at Gillette Stadium.
It's telling, though, that no team besides the Patriots has made a return trip to the Super Bowl this decade the year after getting there. But very few have addressed their needs as aggressively as the Patriots have, adding several well-renowned wide receivers and a few high draft picks on defense.
The AFC is still wide open, and if their offseason acquisitions amount to what the Patriots hope they will, New England will be in the mix once again.
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