How Does 2017 Compare to Patriots' Recent Championship Seasons?
The Patriots are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the AFC. They'll travel to Heinz Field to take on those Steelers in Week 15. If New England wins that game, it'll almost certainly control its destiny for the top seed in the conference—assuming, of course, it doesn't fall flat at home against the Bills and Jets.
In fact, the Steelers appear to be the only real challenge in the AFC this season. The Kansas City Chiefs already defeated the Patriots once but are fading fast. Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans certainly appear playoff-caliber, but they're not the type of complete teams that can hang with New England. Barring something unexpected, New England will probably find itself in a seventh consecutive AFC title game.
There's a big difference between getting deep in the playoffs and actually winning a title, though. For Bill Belichick and Co., it's the difference between a successful season and a disappointing one. Belichick and Tom Brady know what it takes to be a championship team—they've been to seven Super Bowls and won five.
So is this year's incarnation a championship team? To answer that question, let's compare it to the five championship Patriots teams of the Brady/Belichick era. We'll see how the 2017 Patriots match up to each in terms of strengths, weaknesses, team trends and competition level.
We'll dedicate one page to each Patriots championship team and at the end of each, rate how this year's team stacks up. We'll use a grading scale ranging from minus-five to plus-five, with positive points meaning this year's team is more of a championship threat than the comparison and negative points denoting less of a threat.
Regular-Season Record: 11-5
Super Bowl Outcome: 20-17 over St. Louis Rams
The 2001 Patriots had a few things going for them. Their biggest asset was a defense that ranked sixth in the NFL with just 17.0 points per game allowed. This defense, which featured a pass rush that produced 41 sacks during the regular season, allowed New England and Brady, in his first season as a starter, to lean on that side of the ball.
Brady and Co. had the benefit of a couple of quality skill-position players, like running back Antowain Smith and receiver Troy Brown. Smith and Brown topped 1,100 yards rushing and receiving, respectively, but the Patriots weren't exactly loaded with elite offensive playmaking talents. Let's not forget about kicker Adam Vinatieri, though, who kicked the game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Aside from only having a handful of offensive playmakers, the 2001 Patriots had a couple of other weaknesses on that side of the ball. As hard as it might be to believe now, Brady's presence as a first-year starter could be seen as a weakness due to his inexperience. He was forced into action in Week 2 due to an injury to Drew Bledsoe.
Obviously, the Patriots found ways to overcome Brady's inexperience, but it's not as if they had his veteran leadership of today to lean on.
Pass protection was also an issue for the 2001 Patriots. Brady was sacked an alarming 41 times during the regular season. That number remains a career high for Brady.
The 2001 Patriots seemed like a team of destiny, and let's be honest, they had fortune on their side several times in the postseason—including in the infamous Tuck Rule game. The trend throughout the year was one of perseverance. Much like this season, New England overcame some early struggles and got rolling late.
New England actually faced a bit of competition in the AFC East in 2001. The Miami Dolphins finished with an equal 11-5 record, and the New York Jets finished 10-6. The Oakland Raiders, whom the Patriots narrowly defeated in the divisional round, were a stout 10-6 team of their own. The Pittsburgh Steelers, meanwhile, finished with an AFC-best 13-3 record.
The team New England faced in the Super Bowl, the Rams, appeared to be in the beginning stages of a dynasty. They won the Super Bowl the year before and finished the 2001 season with an NFL-best 14-2 record.
This year's offense is dramatically more potent than the 2001 edition. The Patriots have a more experienced and more lethal Brady under center now. While the defense is trending upward this season—it's allowed 13.1 points per game over the last seven—the 2017 Patriots have a shadow of 2001's pass rush.
New England is on pace for roughly 35 sacks, but seven of the defense's 24 sacks came against the Dolphins in Week 12. The defense averaged fewer than two sacks a game coming into that contest.
Pass protection has been only slightly better this season than it was in 2001. Before the bye week, Brady was on pace for more sacks than the 41 he suffered in 2001. He's now on pace for "only" 35.
While this year's version of the Patriots doesn't feel like a team of destiny, New England has spent the season overcoming adversity. The awful defense and pass rush from early in the season are disappearing, and the league-best offense (411.2 yards per game) seems virtually unstoppable. While New England doesn't have a workhorse back like Smith, the running game is coming together too.
Competition in the AFC outside of Pittsburgh is virtually nonexistent, though there are some teams in the NFC that match up well with New England. Should the Patriots meet a big, physical team with a dynamic quarterback—like the Carolina Panthers or the Philadelphia Eagles—in the Super Bowl, it will be a challenge.
Comparison Grade: minus-four
Regular-Season Record: 14-2
Super Bowl Outcome: 32-29 over Carolina Panthers
By 2003, Brady was a more experienced and a better quarterback. The Patriots also had a legitimate weapon in Vinatieri—once again, the kicker's heroics earned the Patriots a victory at the end of the Super Bowl.
Once again, defense was New England's biggest strength in 2003. The Patriots had the league's best scoring defense, which allowed just 14.9 points per game. The pass rush, led by studs like Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, was again one of the league's most dangerous. It tied the 2001 Patriots with 41 regular-season sacks.
While the 2003 Patriots had a more experienced Brady under center, they were lacking in terms of dominant offensive playmakers. They didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or a 1,000-yard receiver. Deion Branch was the most productive skill-position player with 803 yards receiving on 57 receptions.
While pass protection was better than it was in 2001, Brady was still sacked 32 times in the regular season.
This was a typical Belichick/Brady Patriots team. While the defense was difficult to score against, the offensive players besides Brady weren't going to scare many people. A lot rested on Brady's shoulders, and the Patriots got just enough from their offensive skill players to consistently go ahead on the scoreboard.
New England had a lot to overcome again in 2003, but this time it was injuries. The Patriots started 42 players over the course of the regular season, which at the time was a record for a division winner.
The Dolphins were the only other team in the AFC East (by now down to four teams). They finished with a 10-6 record. The 12-4 Indianapolis Colts, 12-4 Tennessee Titans and 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs, however, were real tests in the conference.
The Patriots narrowly beat the Titans, 17-14, in the postseason before a 10-point victory over the Colts.
The Jake Delhomme-led Panthers were solid and certainly worthy of reaching the Super Bowl. However, they weren't dominant on either side of the ball (ranked 15th in scoring and 10th in points allowed). It took another last-second Vinatieri kick for the Patriots to win in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but New England was the team to beat in the NFL all season long.
Again, this year's defense isn't quite what the Patriots had in 2003. The pass rush isn't nearly as good, and the defense isn't keeping completely shutting down opposing offenses the way it did then.
The level of competition is roughly the same as what the Patriots faced in 2003. The 2017 Patriots are likely looking at one or two legitimate rivals in the AFC and a few worthy potential Super Bowl opponents. This year's team trends are similar to those of 2003 as well. Injuries have been a big part of 2017—the loss of Julian Edelman, for example, was huge—but the Patriots have managed to overcome.
The big advantage this year's Patriots team has is an offense loaded with playmakers. Edelman is out, but Brady has guys like Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead and Danny Amendola to utilize. This is arguably the most dangerous Patriots offense since the 2007 edition that featured Randy Moss.
Comparison Grade: plus-two
Regular-Season Record: 14-2
Super Bowl Outcome: 24-21 over Philadelphia Eagles
Once again, Brady and Vinatieri were around for the entire Patriots run. By 2004, Brady was even more dangerous as a passer. This time, though, he had better skill players to lean on. David Patten and David Givens each reached the 800-yard mark receiving. More importantly, offseason acquisition Corey Dillon became the workhorse back New England had been missing.
Dillon finished the regular season with an impressive 1,635 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns.
The Patriots offense ranked fourth in scoring in 2004, averaging 27.3 points per game. Defensively, they weren't quite as good as the season before, but the difference was marginal. New England finished the season tied for second (with Philadelphia) in points allowed with 16.2 per game.
Sacks were up for the Patriots defense (45) and down significantly for the offense (just 26 allowed) from the year before.
The Patriots of 2004 had very few weaknesses to speak of. Aside from not having a legitimate playmaking receiver, the biggest weakness of 2004 came in the form of injuries. The Patriots lost starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole during the regular season.
There were two big trends for the 2004 Patriots. The first was that New England, the defending champion, was the team to beat all year long. Finishing the regular season with a 14-2 record, that followed the Patriots all the way to the Super Bowl.
The second was the patchwork secondary New England had to put together after injuries to Law and Poole. Part of the replacement crew included the same Troy Brown that led the Patriots in receiving back in 2001—now playing cornerback.
The then-unknown group of Brown, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay prompted Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell to say he didn't know New England's defensive backs heading into Super Bowl XXXIX.
"Freddie Mitchell bit off more than he could chew," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said after the Super Bowl, per Tim Smith of the New York Daily News. "I bet he knows our number now."
As is the case this season, the Steelers, 15-1 in the regular season, provided the only real competition for the Patriots in the AFC. That was the rookie season of Ben Roethlisberger, and the rookie wasn't able to keep up with New England in the postseason.
The Patriots trounced the Steelers 41-27 in the AFC title game.
The Eagles brought a bigger challenge in Super Bowl XXXIX, but ultimately, there was no one in New England's class in 2004. Yes, the Eagles pulled within a field goal in the big game, but they did so with less than two minutes remaining and didn't get the chance to mount a final drive until there was less than a minute remaining. New England's smothering defense proved too much.
Once again (there's a theme here), New England's defense isn't quite on the level of those from the early dynasty years. The pass rush is definitely a step below. This was the last Super Bowl victory for New England that included Vinatieri, and Stephen Gostkowski hasn't been nearly as reliable this season. Brady, though, is as good as ever.
The competition level this season is perhaps a step up from that of the 2004 season, though not necessarily in the conference. Even though the Patriots are defending their title, they aren't the only team to beat. The Eagles have a better record and there are a few teams in the NFC who could pose a legitimate threat in the big one.
The Patriots have a more lethal collection of pass-catchers than they had in 2004, but they don't have the bruising workhorse back that Dillon was. Overall, the Patriots offense isn't that much better now than it was in 2004. This year's offense is averaging a little more than 50 yards per game more than the 2004 offense but just 2.2 points per game more.
The 2004 Patriots had one of the league's best offenses and a true shutdown defense. This was one of the most complete Super Bowl teams we've ever seen.
Comparison Grade: minus-two
Regular-Season Record: 12-4
Super Bowl Outcome: 28-24 over Seattle Seahawks
The 2014 Patriots were another one of the most well-rounded teams we've seen in the modern Super Bowl era. Brady was playing as well as ever and, while once again lacking a workhorse back, he had a superb collection of skill players.
Gronkowski had one of his best years in 2014, finishing the regular season with 1,124 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns. Wideouts Edelman and Brandon LaFell each topped the 900-yard mark receiving. Overall, the Patriots offense averaged 29.2 points per game, fourth-most in the NFL. Pass protection was also a strength, as Brady was sacked just 21 times in the regular season.
New England's defense, while not a shutdown unit, was quite good. It allowed just 19.6 points per game, eighth-fewest in the league. It also produced an impressive 40 sacks on the season.
The Patriots defense was better in 2014 than it has been through 12 weeks this season; however, it was relatively weak compared to the Patriots defenses of previous championship years. While there were plenty of quality skill players for the offense to work with, there wasn't a workhorse back for the Patriots to lean on.
The weaknesses of 2014 were nearly identical to those we've seen this year. At times, the defense would surrender some big plays. The offense frequently had to look to a different back to carry the load in the run game.
Also like this season, the trending theme for the 2014 Patriots was overcoming a slow start to the season. After suffering a lopsided 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 4, New England sat at 2-2 and heard plenty of calls for panic.
"After Monday, though, it's not hard to envision the end," Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com wrote after the game.
Of course, the Patriots righted the ship and went on to earn a first-round bye in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. As was the case this year, it was premature to freak out when New England was 2-2.
The Patriots faced a healthy level of competition in the AFC in 2014. The Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos and the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts reached the playoffs along with three teams from the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the one team that is never scared to play in Foxborough in the playoffs, proved to be a true challenge.
New England narrowly escaped the Ravens, having to mount a comeback en route to a 35-31 victory. The Patriots then steamrolled the Colts in the now-infamous Deflategate game.
The defending champion Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers were the two top teams in the NFC. The Seahawks proved to be an extreme challenge in the Super Bowl, and we all know how fortune granted the Patriots a victory.
Seattle appeared to have Super Bowl XLIX in hand on a couple of occasions. However, the Patriots mounted a comeback and sealed their victory with a Malcolm Butler interception that should never have been allowed to happen.
There are several parallels between the 2014 Patriots and this year's version. The defense was slightly better in 2014 and there are slightly more weapons on offense this season.
The notable difference: The pass rush and pass protection were both dramatically better in 2014 than they have been this season. The level of competition in the AFC appeared to be higher back then as well.
These are very similar teams when compared side-by-side. In a head-to-head matchup, the 2014 version may come out on top because of its ability to get after and protect the quarterback.
Comparison Score: minus-one
Regular-Season Record: 14-2
Super Bowl Outcome: 31-28 over Atlanta Falcons
Brady was at the best of his career—apart from that 2007 season—last season. He was a worthy MVP candidate and he was the engine that drove the Patriots offense. Despite playing in just 12 games, he racked up 3,554 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, just two interceptions and a passer rating of 112.2.
The Patriots also had a plethora of offensive weapons, like Edelman, Amendola, Lewis, Gronkowski, James White and Martellus Bennett. Unlike in 2014, the Patriots also had a workhorse back in LeGarrette Blount. He finished the season with 1,161 yards rushing and a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns.
The offense ranked third in the NFL in scoring with 27.6 points per game.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the Patriots had a true shutdown defense in 2016. Guys like Butler, Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan held together one of the league's top secondaries. As a unit, the defense allowed a league-low 15.6 points per game.
Pass protection was superb last season, allowing Brady to be sacked just 15 times in 12 games. Depth was also a strength, as the presence of Bennett helped New England overcome a season-ending injury to Gronk.
The 2016 Patriots weren't without their weaknesses. The pass rush was not good, as the Patriots amassed just 34 sacks in the regular season, 16th in the NFL. While the Patriots had some team speed in the secondary, they eschewed it in favor of size in the front seven.
The lack of team speed was apparent in the first half against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The Falcons built a 28-3 lead over New England because they were faster and able to outpace New England on both sides of the ball. That size did come into play, though, late in the game when Atlanta was gassed and its speed diminished.
The trend following the Patriots in 2016 was a feeling of revenge. Brady was forced to miss the first month of the season due to suspension for his part in the Deflategate scandal. Upon his return, New England embarked on a scorched-earth tour. The Patriots frequently embarrassed opponents en route to an 11-1 record with Brady back under center.
Of those 11 wins with Brady, eight were of the double-digit variety. New England won by at least 18 points in each playoff game leading up to the Super Bowl.
No one in the AFC was a real threat to the Patriots in the AFC. The only game the Patriots lost after Brady's return was against the Seahawks, and they had a chance to tie that game at the end but fell just short.
There weren't many teams in the NFC that were going to match up well with the Patriots either. The 13-3 Dallas Cowboys had the best record, but their defense wasn't built to contain a passing attack like New England's.
As we previously noted, Atlanta's team speed, offensive weapons and pass rush made them a tough matchup for New England. In fact, that game easily could have gone the other way, but an incredible play by Edelman and some questionable playcalling by Atlanta allowed fortune to once again smile on New England.
Offensively, the Patriots are on par this year with last year's team. The 2017 Patriots have a healthy Gronkowski and Cooks but are missing Edelman and a workhorse running back. Defensively, this year's team is a notch below last year's—though it's certainly moving in the right direction.
The pass rush is roughly the same as last year's, but pass protection has taken a dip.
From a competition standpoint, the Patriots seem to have a bigger challenge this year. The Steelers have the weapons to match points with Brady and Co. and their revamped defense is better than last year's. However, the Steelers still rely on a lot of zone coverages and are apt to give up the big play.
In the NFC, there are more teams that match up well with New England. Think of the 2008 and 2012 New York Giants teams that have won the Super Bowl over New England. They had stout defenses, quality rushing attacks, a few offensive weapons and a quarterback capable of making all the throws. There are several teams in NFC—like the Eagles, Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams—who fit this mold. The new-look New Orleans Saints are even trending toward being this type of team.
This year's Patriots team looks to be a step above last year's offensively, a step below defensively and facing just a bit better competition.
Comparison Grade: minus-one