The Patriots are the best team in the league, and we all know it. They’re my pick to win the Super Bowl this year, and I’m guessing that they’re your pick, too. But if 2005 through 2013 taught us anything, it’s that different teams can get hot for one game and knock off the Pats.
Since it’s impossible not to look ahead as a Pats fan given how they’re doing this season, let’s look ahead and try to determine which teams could give New England the most trouble, either AFC teams in the Divisional or Conference Round of the playoffs or NFC teams in the Super Bowl.
We have to understand the kinds of teams that beat the pats from 05 to 13, also known as the Drought Years. Here is a list of the teams that knocked off the Pats and their head coaches, as well as their DVOA rankings that season on offense and defense.
2005: Denver Broncos — Head Coach: Mike Shanahan — Offense DVOA Rank — 2. Defense DVOA Rank: 9 Overall: 2
2006: Indianapolis Colts — Tony Dungy — Offense: 1 — Defense: 25 — Overall: 7
2007 New York Giants — Tom Coughlin — Offense: 18 — Defense: 13 — Overall: 14
2008: Bernard Pollard. Screw Bernard Pollard.
2009: Baltimore Ravens — John Harbaugh — Offense: 9 — Defense: 4 — Overall: 1
2010: New York Jets — Rex Ryan — Offense: 16 — Defense: 5 — Overall: 6
2011: New York Giants — Tom Coughlin — Offense: 7 — Defense: 19: Overall: 12
2012: Baltimore Ravens — John Harbaugh — Offense: 13 — Defense: 19 — Overall 8
2013: Denver Broncos — John Fox — Offense: 1 — Defense: 15 — Overall: 2
What should stand out first is the two losses to the New York Giants that caused us all severe insomnia countless times right up until Malcolm Butler’s interception. In the 8 playoff losses that the Pats suffered between beating the Eagles and the Seahawks, there were only 2 teams that beat the Pats ranked in the double digits of overall DVOA. They were both of the Giants, which backs up the narrative that we’ve always had about those teams: They got hot for a total of 2 months — December and January — in each season, and they rode those hot streaks to 2 agonizing victories (and 2 impossible catches) over the Pats.
After that, though, there isn’t much of a pattern. The 06 Colts, 11 Giants, and 13 Broncos were all significantly better offensively than defensively, while the 10 Jets were the only ones significantly better on defense according to DVOA itself, but I think it’s fair to include the 2007 Giants in that category given how ferocious their defensive line was by the Super Bowl. Both the 05 Broncos and the pair of Ravens teams were pretty balanced, especially because they were ranked 8th in special teams DVOA in 2009 and 1st in 2012. (On another note, I completely forgot how good that 09 Ravens team was. That has to be one of the all worst 6 seeds for a 3rd seeded team to face.)
Since 2005, we’ve heard the idea that the Pats get shut down in the playoffs when they can’t score against a top quality defense. New England supposedly has lost in January and February since 2005 in part because their team has been better on offense than defense, while that was the opposite in 2001, 2003, and 2004. To some degree, that narrative is fair, because the Pats have scored less in their playoff losses than they normally do, and 2014 was the first time that the Pats had an awesome secondary since 2004, and look how that worked out.
But that’s not as true as we’ve heard. In 2006, they put up 34 when Jabar Gaffney was their number 1 receiver, and they lost because Peyton wore out the overmatched New England defense. In 2011, the offense did move the ball against the Giants for a good part of the game, with Brady even setting the record for most consecutive completions. But they only put up 17 in part because of the mediocre Brady throw/Welker drop late in the game and because of Gronk’s injury. Gronk’s injury, and the injuries to what seemed like half the team, was also a big part of the Pats only scoring 16 points on the Broncos in 2013. You could say that it’s unfair to include the Gronk injury as a reason that they didn’t score much, but this column is meant to be a sign of what could happen in the future, and we all know that the Pats’ offensive production and Super Bowl chances will take a humongous hit if Gronk suffers another season ending injury.
There is, however, an unequivocal theme that great defensive lines can beat the Pats in the playoffs, but the correlation only holds strong for the pass rushers specifically. The Giants’ 2 teams, Ravens’ 2 teams, and Jets all showed that getting pressure on Brady is the best way to knock New England out of the postseason. Whether it be Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Calvin Pace, or Shaun Ellis, great pass rushers are Brady’s kryptonite in the playoffs. But don’t confuse great pass rushers with great run stoppers or a great secondary. The Pats beat the Ravens last January with 8 — count them, EIGHT — rushing yards all game, and they beat the Seahawks when their lead running back had 40 yards on 14 carries. Antowain Smith was no threat to anybody in 2003, and neither was Laurence Maroney in the historical 2007 season. Except for when they’re playing the mental midget Colts and their swiss cheese run defense, the Pats have never won a playoff game by simply running all over the opposition. With regards to the secondary, remember that Tom Brady just torched one of the best secondaries of all time for 328 yards on 37-50 attempts and with 5 drives that made it to the red zone. And the MVP of the first 3 quarters of the game was not Brady, Gronk, Russell Wilson, Chris Matthews, or anyone in the Seattle secondary. It was Michael Bennett, who was having one of the best games that I’ve ever seen a pass rusher play until Brady and McDaniels finally wore him down with over 70 plays from scrimmage and almost 34 minutes of possession.
Beyond that, the teams that have beaten the Pats have been able to do what they were best at the whole year. The 06 Colts and 13 Broncos, Peyton’s 2 teams, were the best offensive teams in the league and put up 38 and 26 points, respectively, on the Pats. (The Broncos only went 2-4 on red zone trips and clearly should have done better, indicating that their offense was way more potent that day than 26 points suggests.) The 10 Jets were exactly the kind of defense that the organization wanted when they hired Rex. Outside of those teams, the 07 and 11 Giants got hot and had a great pass rush like I said before, and the other teams were just that damn good. The 05 Broncos and 09 Ravens were incredibly balanced and ranked 2 and 1 in DVOA, respectively. And the 2012 Ravens had the ability to play above themselves in January, and they had the one intangible that very few teams have when coming into Foxboro in the playoffs but every team needs: Balls. The Ravens weren’t afraid to come into the House that Brady Built and take on the Pats, and they proved it with an incredibly 2nd half.
So how does that relate to this year? Well, first, anyone who’s writing off the Broncos because of Peyton’s arm strength is a moron. They have maybe the best pass rushing combination in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, and Aqib Talib and Chris Harris will be there to collect any rushed throws that Brady makes because of the pass rush. With Nate Solder out for the season, we have to be very worried about another great pass rush taking the Brady Bunch down.
I’m not worried in the slightest about the Colts, because, as we’re gonna see this Sunday, they don’t have the balls that they’ll need to beat the Pats, and their front 7 can’t do anything against New England. The Ravens doesn’t worry me much anymore, because the Joe Flacco – Torrey Smith combination was awesome against the Pats and Terrell Suggs is out. (Then again, they won’t make the playoffs anyway after starting 1-4.) The Steelers worry me because Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown could easily repeat what the 06 Colts or 13 Broncos did with their amazing offenses. The Bengals also worry me with their 2nd ranked offense and 14th ranked defense. I was very worried about the Chiefs before Jamaal Charles went down and they fell to 1-4, because Justin Houson and Tamba Hali could eat Brady and his injured O-Line alive. Finally, the Jets definitely concern me, and any Pats fan who says they don’t is lying. Their defense is ranked 2nd right now, and their pass rushers are exactly what Brady doesn’t need, so let’s pray that they miss the playoffs like the good old Jets that they are. After that, nobody scares me in the AFC, so let’s hope that the 4 seed Colts knock off the 5 seed Steelers and the 6 seed Bills/Chargers defeat the 3 seed Bengals/Broncos.
In the NFC, obviously the Packers are scary because Aaron Rodgers could take advantage of the Pats’ weak cornerbacks, and people don’t realize that their defense is actually rated better than their offense, 4th on defense vs. 5th on offense. The Cardinals probably worry me the most, though, because both their offense and defense are ranked 3rd and they’re coached by a guy who can actually manage the clock and his challenge clafs in the same league as Belichick, unlike Mike McCarthy. The Seahawks could definitely beat the Pats, as their biggest weakness for the first quarter and a half of Super Bowl 49 was getting open against a Patriots secondary group that no longer exists. But they don’t scare me like the Cardinals or Packers, at least not until Marshawn Lynch or their O-Line looks anything remotely like what they looked like the past 2 years. The Panthers don’t scare me much, and I doubt they will make the Super Bowl. The Rams would scare me, but they also won’t make the Super Bowl. Finally, with the NFC East, the Eagles aren’t much of a threat, because Chip Kelly is trying to be the new Bill Belichick, but Bill Belichick is the real Bill Belichick. The Cowboys, if healthy, are actually pretty frightening, because of the Greg Hardy addition and their offensive potential. And the Giants don’t worry me like 2007 or 2011 because their pass rush is horrendous now, but Odell Beckham Jr. could go off. Belichick is a genius at taking away a team’s number 1 option, but they’re the Giants, so they’re the only team who could finish outside the top 10 in DVOA (excluding injuries) and still have a legitimate chance at beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl, because, ya know, they’re the Giants.