Tom Brady will be 36 at the start of the 2013 NFL season, and with eight full seasons between him and the last time he raised the Lombardi Trophy, it's reasonable to wonder if Brady and the Patriots still have a window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl.
Of course, Brady is closer to the end than the beginning, and it's easy to cherry pick some stats that support a "Brady-in-decline" argument (per Paul Kenyon of the Providence Journal):
His completion percentage of 63 percent was excellent by most standards, except perhaps his own. It was his lowest percentage since 2006. The percentage of his passes that went for touchdowns dropped to 5.3, his lowest number since 2009. And his average yards per pass was 7.6, his lowest since 2008.
Perhaps more significantly, he turned in his weakest performances over the final month, the time when he tries to peak. He completed 58.5 percent of his passes in December and averaged 7.0 yards per pass. His touchdown-to-interception ratio always has been outstanding and was again for most of this season. But Brady’s lowest ratio in that department came in December when he had 10 touchdowns with five interceptions.
This disregards the fact that the Patriots also kicked their offense into hyper-speed this season, getting more first downs, according to Field Yates of ESPN, than any other team in NFL history. With more plays come more passes, so that has to be a factor in a drop in completion percentage. Another reflective stat of this is that Brady had the best interception percentage of his career in 2012 per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
It's also worth pointing out that Brady's December featured games against two top-10 defenses (per Team Rankings). Is Brady unstoppable even against the best defenses? Not every time but he can still torch just about any defense in the NFL, with the exception of the Ravens of the past two seasons.
You can construct a random collection of statistics to support just about any argument, but let's be realistic. If Brady is slowing down, it was barely perceptible in 2012. He's still arguably the best quarterback in the game.
In terms of wins and efficiency, the Patriots are still rolling.
While some stats can be fickle and correlate highly to the evolution of the game, especially over a long period of time, Football Outsiders' DVOA is an excellent and consistent measure of efficiency.
The DVOA ranking chart below shows just how good New England has been over the last decade on both sides of the ball.
Ever since 2004, the Patriots have had a dominant offense in all phases. It didn't matter if it was Randy Moss or Reche Caldwell at receiver, Corey Dillon or Sammy Morris at running back, or even Tom Brady or Matt Cassel at quarterback. The Patriots have always moved the ball under Bill Belichick once he had fully implemented his offense and players. And there was no sign of slowing down in 2012.
Offensively, the window has never been shut, and that is a testament to Belichick and the rest of the Patriots' front office, scouts and coaches.
But it's also clear that if any window has been shut, it's been because of the defense since 2008.
The Patriots' dynasty defense was built on a foundation of veterans who had been with the team since the late-90s, with a sprinkling of just the right free agents and occasional rookies. But unlike the offense, which has been dominant regardless of personnel turnover, the defense could not maintain the level of play seen in the early-to-mid 2000s.
From 2006-2009, the Patriots selected just one impact defender in four drafts (per Pro-Football-Reference.com), Jerod Mayo. These were the vital drafts to replacing the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel among others, and the misfires are clearly reflected in the dip for all the Pats' defensive DVOA numbers.
The defense still played well in the red zone and forced more turnovers than anyone since 2009, but the difference between the championship defenses and what the Patriots have done over the past few seasons is clear.
However, there is reason for optimism with the defense trending upward, and it started with the past three drafts where they've selected six defenders who became starters for the AFC Championship Game.
This influx of young talent has re-opened the window of opportunity for the Patriots, because now, they have an ascending defense to complement their always-dominant offense.
It's easy to connect these current Patriots with the Patriots dynasty, but they are two completely different teams with completely different dynamics. The early Super Bowl wins were achieved with a young talented quarterback just coming into his prime, complemented by a savvy veteran defense.
Their next Super Bowl win will likely be a savvy veteran quarterback complemented by a young talented defense just coming into its prime.
Is the Patriots' championship window closed? Far from it, as long as Bill Belichick is at the controls.