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Will Patriots Penalties Pose a Threat to Super Bowl Aspirations?

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IDecember 3, 2014

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks with field judge Buddy Horton during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AJ Mast/Associated Press

For years, the New England Patriots have earned a reputation for not shooting themselves in the foot. Instead, they would hand their foe the revolver and wait for them to make that key mistake, which would allow the Patriots to capitalize toward a victory.

This year, the story has changed. The Patriots have drawn penalty flags at an alarming rate but are finding ways to win despite their own bad luck and lack of discipline. 

Maybe you could call it "Fun With Flags," but no one will be calling it fun if the penalty flags end up being the crowbar stuck in the turning gears of the unstoppable machine that is the Patriots.

The question is: Are those concerns grounded in reality? A quick survey over the landscape of recent Super Bowl champions shows a recent history of teams overcoming their own obstacles to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Past Super Bowl Champions
YearTeamPenaltiesRankPenalty yardsRank
2009Saints1072393827
2010Packers991780414
2011Giants1172798225
2012Ravens14532133532
2013Seahawks15232141532
Source: NFLPenalties.com

In fact, the past two Super Bowl champions have led the league in most penalties and penalty yards, according to NFLPenalties.com.

Last year, the two teams that led the league in penalties were the teams that played in the Super Bowl—the Denver Broncos (132 penalties) and the Seattle Seahawks (152 penalties). The year before, the Baltimore Ravens (145 penalties) had the most penalties, and the San Francisco 49ers (126 penalties) had the third-most penalties in the league.

So, clearly, penalties do not differentiate Super Bowl contenders from pretenders. Even when getting to the playoffs, penalties have not necessarily been a death knell. Last year, the New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos each won at least one playoff game in which they were penalized more frequently than their opponent.

In 2012, the Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Patriots all won a playoff game in which they were penalized more than their opponent. 

This all could cause speculation that a team can benefit from an aggressive style of play and pushing the boundaries of what is legal and illegal. Whether there's any factuality to that, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would rather not find out.

"I think it just creates more opportunities for our opponents," Belichick said of the penalties in a press conference in November. "It gives them extra plays on defensive penalties and it negates yardage on offense and puts us in long yardage. You're right, we've been able to overcome a few of them, but they've also gotten us into a lot of trouble. In the long run, it's certainly not the way we want to go. We want to try to play penalty-free and take advantage of extra opportunities that our opponents give us and not give to them.

"I think if we don't correct it, it's going to cost us, so we're going to do what we can to coach it better and hopefully play better."

New England Patriots penalties
YearPenaltiesRankPenalty yardsRank
200986978414
201088880515
201195886814
20121062193520
20137546754
2014992986132
Source: NFLPenalties.com

It remains to be seen whether it will cost them, and in what way, but one can't blame Belichick for his concern. The high number of flags are foreign territory for the Patriots.

From 2009-2013, the Patriots only once ranked outside the top 10 in fewest penalties. Their discipline may not be the only reason they've been so successful, but it certainly has played a hand. 

This year, the Patriots have more flags than the United Nations. 

But why are they being flagged so much? Some might think back to this offseason's rules emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact and assume that the alarming rate of penalties is due to some individuals who missed the memo.

Jerry Sullivan @ByJerrySullivan

There have been 125 penalties for illegal contact with receivers in the NFL this year; last year, there were only 36 over the same period.

Most of the Patriots' penalties have been in the secondary. The Patriots have been hit with 13 accepted penalties for defensive holding. That is tops in the league by three more than the second-most in the league, the Seahawks. They have also been hit with seven accepted penalties for defensive pass interference, tied for third-most in the NFL.

For illegal contact, however, the Patriots have only been hit with two accepted penalties. 

Defensive backs are always walking a fine line with how tight penalties are called, but there are some times when a penalty can be the preferential outcome.

"You don't think about that when you're out there," cornerback Brandon Browner said this summer after practice. "You want to just play freely and try to eliminate the penalties, but at the same time, when you're between a penalty and a big play, I'd rather take the penalty than give up the big play, because the big play could ultimately be a touchdown, where illegal contact could cost you five yards and a first down. I'd take the penalty, but ultimately you don't want the penalty. You want to play technique sound."

Most accepted penalties against the Patriots
NamePenalties againstLeague avg.Yards lost
False Start1913.7892
Offensive holding1614.53157
Defensive holding135.3864
Defensive pass interference74.97117
Illegal block above the waist62.5356
Source: NFLPenalties.com

Browner currently leads the team with 10 penalties: four for defensive holding, three for pass interference and one each for illegal use of hands, encroachment and illegal contact. That's probably not what he had in mind when he made the above statement, but it comes with the territory of being a big, physical defensive back in the NFL.

Defensive penalties are far from the only kind that are plaguing the Patriots this year. In fact, the Patriots have 42 penalties on offense compared to 41 on defense. The Patriots' 19 false-start penalties are tied for second-most in the NFL. Their 16 holding penalties are tied for 10th-most. Their offensive line play has been much improved over the past several weeks, although they took a giant step back against the Packers

But other than all that, the Patriots are doing OK with penalties.

Sarcasm aside, even if the Patriots aren't able to get things cleaned up in time for the postseason, their inability to play within the rules may not necessarily be what holds them back from achieving their lofty goals. 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are obtained firsthand. All penalty stats provided by NFLPenalties.com.

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