First of all, how amazing is it that I can write this type of can column? Being able to compare your team’s 7 Super Bowl teams within the past 16 seasons is mind-blowing. Savor these moments.
Anyway, the 2016 Patriots were an interesting team. During the middle of the season, it looked like the defense just wouldn’t be able to hold up, and you’re lying if you pretend that you weren’t terrified of a playoff upset by Oakland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or Denver when Gronk went down. Nonetheless, the Pats won their two playoff games by a combined 37 points, even though we all agree that they kind of sucked in the first one.
Compared to the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2014 teams, the 2016 Patriots are far different from so many of them. There is one of those AFC Champion teams, however, that is a cousin of this year’s Pats team.
The 2001 Pats is clearly not the one. Tom Brady has an absurd 99.5 rating on ProFootballFocus this season. (The ratings are done out of 100, and 90 is considered “elite.”) He definitely was not elite during first season taking over for Drew Bledsoe. He wasn’t bad by any means, but that team’s defense and special teams were much better than anything about its offense. Very different from 2016.
The 2003 and 2004 teams achieved what may be the best two year period of a defense of all time, especially when you factor in the team achievements of a Super Bowl win in both years. I love Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Malcolm Butler. But they’re not Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Ty Law.
The 2007 Patriots are not the 2016 Patriots. They may both have awesome offenses led by incredible seasons from Tom Brady and better than average defenses, but these Pats just aren’t the 2007 ones. This year’s team didn’t stomp on the rest of the league during the regular season the same way the record setting Patriots did.
Next, we’re going to skip to the 2014 Patriots, which should tell you who my final answer is. It’s easy to say that the 2014 Pats were similar to this year’s team, and in many ways, they were. But that offense also relied much more on Gronk than this year’s team has (obviously due to Gronk’s injuries this season). We all lived in fear of a Gronk injury during the 2014 season that would have dismantled the year’s campaign. In the first four games when the Pats gave Gronk a reduced snapcount, Brady and the rest of the offense was lackluster. When they let him loose in Week 5, the offense was incredible.
This year, we all feared that Gronk injury as well, but with Chris Hogan, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Mitchell, Dion Lewis, and James White replacing Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen, and Tim Wright, the offense could survive that Gronk injury a lot better. And it did. There’s no way that the Patriots win the 2014 Divisional game vs. Baltimore without Gronk’s 7 receptions for 108 yards and 1 TD.
Also, the 2014 defense was better. New England’s best part of the defense in both years was/is its secondary, but the 2016 team doesn’t have the same firepower. Malcolm Butler is a beast, but he’s not 2014 Darrellle Revis, and Patrick Chung has taken a step back this year. The Pats defense has improved massively over the course of the season, but consider this: The 2014 Pats secondary didn’t allow a pass completion to the Seahawks for the first 1.5 quarters in Super Bowl 49, but Russell Wilson lit them up in their matchup this year.
The answer, of course, is the 2011 Patriots that lost to the Giants in Super Bowl 46. Both the 2011 and 2016 Patriots teams featured a version of Tom Brady that was incredible that season, and the 2011 team was 3rd in league offense that season on Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, while this 2016 team was 2nd. While the 2011 Super Bowl did have Gronk the whole season, they were relying on a crippled version of Gronk in the Super Bowl, which mirrors the 2016 team not having Gronk at all more than it is to the 2014 team using him at full throttle.
The weakest part of the comparison lies with the defenses, as the 2016 defense is much better. The 2016 team is ranked at 16th on Football Outsiders, and I’d put them higher because of their performance ever since the Seattle game in early November. The 2011 Pats, meanwhile, look to be nothing similar, as they were ranked 30th. But I’ve never bought that ranking. As much as I love Football Outsiders, I’ve always felt that their ranking of the 2011 Pats defense was off. They gave up more than 27 points only once, and held the Ravens and Giants to 20 and 21 points in the AFCCG and Super Bowl, respectively. Those weren’t great offenses, and I’m in no means saying that the Pats defense that year was great, but they also weren’t the 3rd worst in the league. They were at least mediocre and at best decent, which isn’t too far off pace from this year’s team. Finally, the Pats’ special teams this year was 7th in the league, while in 2011 it was 5th. Pretty similar.
The biggest similarities may lie in the intangibles. In both 2011 and 2016, the Pats faced a ton of criticism (some of it legitimate) about getting easy schedules. Also, the NFL was searching for a truly great team all year, and there was none to be found. The NFC was better in 2011, especially when Matt Schaub went out for the year. The NFC was also better in 2016, if you haven’t been reminded enough by 500,000 Patriots haters that you know. Finally, the Pats got to beat up on horrendous quarterbacks in the Divisional Round of both years.
The biggest difference between the 2011 and 2016 teams will come down to their Super Bowl opponents. The Falcons are much better on offense and much worse on defense than the 2011 Giants. Luckily for us, the recipe for beating the Pats every postseason has been applying pressure to Brady, and the Falcons are nowhere near the 2007 Giants, 2011 Giants, or 2015 Broncos in that department. For that reason, let’s hope tha t2016 turns out differently than 2011.