The New England Patriots will be playing in their ninth Super Bowl, breaking their tie with the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers for most Super Bowl appearances in NFL history. It is New England’s second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons and the seventh overall in the Bill Belichick era.
A win against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI would cement Brady and Belichick’s legacy in the record books, but how does this roster stack up against those previous squads?
Based on their regular-season results, using a combination of traditional (points for, points against, etc.) and advanced metrics (adjusted scoring margin, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, etc.), you might be surprised to see where the current version of the Pats ranks. One statistic that won’t be utilized is championship rings — it’s unfair to boil down a team’s entire season to one final game.
1. 2007 (16-0 during regular season, lost Super Bowl XLII)
The gold standard for regular-season dominance, the Patriots went a perfect 18-0 before losing to the New York Giants 17-14 in the Super Bowl.
Brady led the league in completion percentage (68.9 percent), passing yards (4,806), touchdowns (50, the second-most in NFL history), passer rating (117.2) and ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (84.5) that season, earning him most valuable player of the year honors. Receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker each topped the 1,000-yard mark with Moss hauling in 23 touchdowns, the most ever by a wideout.
Belichick kills you with Whodats at WR, and then when he gets Randy Moss, his team puts up 11,000 points and nearly runs the table.
— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) January 23, 2017
Three of New England’s offensive linemen — tackle Matt Light, center Dan Koppen and guard Logan Mankins — made the Pro Bowl after that unit allowed a sack rate of 4.1 percent after adjusting for down, distance and opponent, making them the fourth-best pass-blocking unit of 2007. They were the league’s best run-blocking offensive line in 2007 per Football Outsiders.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was the fifth-highest rated interior linemen per the game charters at Pro Football Focus and linebacker Mike Vrabel made the Pro Bowl after recording 12.5 sacks and 55 tackles.
Overall, the 2007 Patriots were 20.1 points per game better than average after adjusting their point differential for strength of schedule, more than eight points higher than the Indianapolis Colts (12.0 SRS), who were second that year.
2. 2004 (14-2 during regular season, won Super Bowl XXXIX)
This Super Bowl victory made the Patriots the last team to win back-to-back championships, but their regular-season was also worthy of celebrating.
Brady had another Pro Bowl year while the defense featured all-pro lineman Richard Seymour (five sacks, 24 tackles) plus linebackers Tedy Bruschi (3.5 sacks, 76 tackles), Willie McGinest (team-high 9.5 sacks) and Vrabel. Cornerback Ty Law had one interception and tipped two more passes in seven games played. The Patriots also had the best red-zone defense that year, allowing just 3.6 points per trip inside their 20-yard line.
Overall they were ranked No. 2 per DVOA for their regular-season efficiency with top-10 finishes for offense (No. 3) and defense (No. 7).
3. 2011 (13-3 during regular season, lost Super Bowl XLVI)
The 2011 Patriots were third in the NFL in points per game (32.1) while Brady set a career high in passing yardage (5,235). The star of the season might have been tight end Rob Gronkowski, who set NFL records in receiving yards (1,327) and receiving touchdowns (17) for a tight end. Only Jimmy Graham, then with the New Orleans Saints, produced more yards per route run at the position in 2011.
4. 2014 (12-4 during regular season, won Super Bowl XLIX)
The 2014 Patriots team was stellar at protecting Brady, allowing the second-lowest sack rate (4.4 percent) after adjusting for down, distance and opponent. And that was key with Brady’s passer rating dropping from 112.8 to 55.5 under pressure during the regular season. During the playoffs his passer rating went from 111.2 to 65.6.
Gronkowski caught 82 of 131 targets for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, allowing him to join Graham as the only two tight ends up until that point to have two seasons of over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
The Patriots defense, on the other hand, was of the “bend but don’t break” variety. They allowed 32.2 yards (23rd in the NFL that year) but just 1.7 points (sixth-best) per drive.
5. 2003 (14-2 during regular season, won Super Bowl XXXVIII)
This Patriots squad went undefeated at home and ended the season with more than 11 wins for the first time in franchise history.
The defense allowed a mere 1.1 points per drive, the lowest of the season, and was ranked No. 2 in DVOA at the start of the playoffs. Two members of its secondary, safety Rodney Harrison and Law, were named as First-Team All-Pros after combining for nine interceptions and 37 passes defended.
Since 2000, the first year with Belichick as head coach in New England, only the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have held opposing quarterbacks to a lower passer rating than the 2003 Patriots.
The knock against ranking them higher is the offense. They produced just 3.4 yards per carry (third-fewest) and were forced to go three-and-out once out of every four drives (25th), resulting in an offensive DVOA that ranked 14th in the NFL that year.
6. 2016 (14-2 during regular season, face Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI)
This Patriots squad could end up being one of the most polarizing.
The offense didn’t have Brady for the first four games of the season, but when Brady was in the lineup he was sensational, and the Patriots’ offense finished first in DVOA. The two-time MVP averaged close to 300 yards per game and set the record for best touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing 28 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. He finished second to Matt Ryan in QBR.
However, the jury is still out on the defense which allowed a league-low 1.4 points per drive, mostly because they haven’t been tested yet.
— Troy Hirsch (@troyhirschfox5) January 23, 2017
Four of the quarterbacks they faced — Charlie Whitehurst, Landry Jones, Jared Goff and Matt Moore — were either backups or not the opponent’s primary starter. Ten others — Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill and Ryan Fitzpatrick — ranked in the bottom half of QBR, leaving Tyrod Taylor as the only top-10 QBR passer faced by New England this year.
According to DVOA, the average offense faced by the Patriots in 2016 was as good as the San Francisco 49ers, a team that finished 2-14 with a minus-171 point differential.
7. 2001 (11-5 during regular season, won Super Bowl XXXVI)
Brady got the call under center after the Patriots starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest in Week 2 of the regular season. And even though Bledsoe was healthy enough to return in Week 11, Belichick decided to stick with Brady, a sixth-round draft pick just a year earlier.
Brady rewarded his confidence with five game-winning drives, the most by any passer that year, and a six-game win streak to end the regular season. But this was still the only Patriots Super Bowl team that ranked outside the top-10 for both offensive and defensive DVOA, as well as the team that had the fewest expected wins (8.3) after adjusting to a league-average schedule and a league-average rate of recovering fumbles.
The Patriots’ scoring margin, after adjusting for strength of schedule, was also low compared to the rest of New England’s Super Bowl teams at just 4.3 points per game above average.