The resurgent Patriots are now 7-4 after shutting out the Falcons last night 25-0.
After starting the season 2-4, the Patriots have now won 5 games in a row and are firmly in the AFC playoff picture. Currently, they’re the 5-seed although nobody else has played in week 11 yet. However, the Patriots can’t move down in the AFC playoff standings given that all the teams behind them have only 5 wins (Steelers, Chargers, Raiders, Bengals, Colts, Browns, Broncos).
At this point, it’s more likely than not the Patriots make the playoffs this year.
Even though their 7-4 record is impressive, it probably should be even better. They lost by a point to the Dolphins in week 1, they lost on a last-second field goal to the Bucs in week 4, and they lost in OT to the Cowboys in week 6. The only legit loss they have this year is week 3 against the Saints, where they lost 28-13 at home. The Patriots could easily be 10-1 or at least 9-2 right now, which would be the best record in the NFL.
As crazy as it sounds, we might have to start asking the question: Are the New England Patriots legitimate Super Bowl contenders this season?
In my NFL power ratings, the Patriots came in at #5 in the league. My ratings are not the be-all, end-all, but ESPN’s FPI ratings have the Patriots as the 6th best team in the league.
They are obviously at the very least a top-10 team right now, and I personally think they’re top-5.
They have the second-best point differential in the league behind only the Bills, who are +145 largely due to some beatdowns over really bad teams. The Patriots are +123 on the season, and yeah, they’ve played an extra game, but take away the +25 point differential they added against the Falcons and they’re still +98, which would put them in a tie for second-best in the league with the Cardinals.
The Patriots have an elite defense right now. Here are their ranks in the major categories:
- 2nd in scoring defense, 16.1ppg
- 4th in total yards allowed at 313.2.
- 7th in passing defense allowing 211.5 passing yards per game.
- 10th in run defense, allowing 101.7 yards per game on the ground.
- 4th in yards-per-play allowed at 5.1.
- 2nd in opponent scoring rate at just 27.1%, meaning opposing offenses get points on just 27.1% of drives against the Patriots defense.
The Pats have a legit defense.
I’m not going to go over all the statistical categories because that’s what my power ratings do, but even on offense, they rank 10th in passer rating with Mac Jones.
They’re not particularly elite or explosive on offense, but they do rank 6th overall in points per game at 27.3. They’re not going to knock anybody’s socks off offensively, but that’s not how this team is built.
They have the best coach in the league, probably the best coach all-time.
They have one of the very best offensive coordinators in the league in Josh McDaniels.
They’re top-10 on special teams as well. They take care of the ball well, ranking 6th in the league in turnover margin.
I think it might be time to stop viewing the Patriots as a rebuilding squad who will be good next year or the year after that and start looking at them as a team that can win it all right now.
They’re ready to go right now. Why can’t they win it all this year?
Okay, okay, okay–pump the brakes here, chief, They’re starting a rookie QB for fuck’s sake.
Fair point, fair point.
No rookie QB has ever won the Super Bowl. In fact, no rookie QB has ever even made the Super Bowl.
History is not on the Patriots’ side in that regard.
The youngest QB to ever win the Super Bowl is Big Ben, when the Steelers won in 2005. Big Ben was in his second season as a pro and just 23 years old. Mac Jones is currently 23, but unlike Big Ben in 2005, Mac is in year 1 of his NFL career.
But let’s think of it this way: probably, at some point in the future, a rookie QB will lead his team to the Super Bowl. And at some point in the future, a rookie QB will win the Super Bowl.
What would that hypothetical team look like?
Well, in my mind there are two possible scenarios here:
- It would either have an elite defense that just absolutely carries the team all year, like the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens, the 2008 Steelers, the 2013 Seahawks or the 2015 Broncos. The 2013 Seahawks had Russell Wilson as their QB who was in just his second pro season.
- If not led by an elite defense, then the team would have an absolute phenom superstar young QB, like Patrick Mahomes in 2018 or Dan Marino in 1984. Mahomes was in year 2 in 2018, but it was his first season as a starter. He threw for 50 TDs and won MVP, and if not for Dee Ford being offsides in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs probably would’ve made the Super Bowl. Dan Marino won MVP and led his team to the Super Bowl in his second season in the NFL, although he had become the team’s full-time starter by week 6 in his rookie year. And the Dolphins got romped in the Super Bowl by the 49ers, 38-16.
Mac Jones is not a phenom talent like Mahomes or Dan Marino. And while the Patriots’ defense is really good, it is not on the historically-elite level like the 2015 Broncos or the 2000 Ravens or any of those other historically-great defenses.
But if there was ever any coach who could win the Super Bowl with a rookie QB, wouldn’t it be Bill Belichick? The Patriots may not have an elite, all-time great defense. But it’s really good. And Mac Jones may not be a once-in-a-generation phenom QB talent, but he is simply getting it done.
20 years ago, the Patriots won the Super Bowl with a first-year starter, Tom Brady. 2001 was Brady’s first season as a starting QB in the NFL, and the Pats were still able to win the Super Bowl. Brady took over in week 2 after Drew Bledsoe got hurt, then proceeded to lead the Patriots to an 11-3 record after an 0-2 start to the regular season.
And Brady’s stats in 2001 were not that great: 63.9% completion rate, 2843 passing yards or 203 per game, 18-12 TD-INT ratio, 5.39 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and an 86.5 overall passer rating for the season.
Let’s compare Brady’s 2001 stats to Mac Jones’ stats this year. Jones is completing 70.2% of his passes, he’s already got 2540 passing yards (231 per game average). He has a 14-8 TD:INT ratio, he’s got a passer rating of 94.7, and his ANY/A is 6.14.
Now, obviously it’s way more of a passing league today than it was in 2001, so this has to be taken into account before we just conclude Mac Jones in 2021 is better than Tom Brady was in 2001.
And while the 2021 Patriots have decent offensive weapons: a legitimate two-headed monster at running back with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, who are both really, really good players; then Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and then the two tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. But I don’t think they have that one guy that really scares opposing defenses. I look at all the other contenders in the AFC and I see big-time offensive weapons: the Bills have Diggs, the Titans when healthy have AJB and Julio (and should have Derrick Henry back for the playoffs), the Chiefs have Tyreek Hill and Kelce, the Chargers have Keenan Allen and Ekeler. The Patriots just don’t have any players on offense that are on the same level as any of those guys.
The 2001 Patriots had some pretty good offensive weapons. This year’s Patriots team is probably deeper, but not quite as much high-end talent. Troy Brown was the leading receiver on that 2001 Pats team, and people forget how good he actually was. In 2001 he had 101 catches for 1199 yards–those are really good numbers. And their running back, the now-forgotten Antowain Smith, was pretty damn good as well with 1157 rushing yards and 13 total TDs. While I think the current Pats’ backfield is about on par with the 2001 Pats’ backfield (which also included the great pass-catching RB Kevin Faulk), I don’t think the 2021 Pats have any single pass-catcher that is as big a threat as Troy Brown was back in 2001.
So I am sort of concerned about this. If there was one reason I would bet against the Patriots, it’s that they don’t have any elite weapons on offense. There is no Edelman or Moss or Gronk or Welker or Branch or Brown anymore.
It’s not a total dealbreaker for me, but it is a real concern.
The larger point is, this isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Bill Belichick.
Mac Jones takes care of the ball really well. Over this 5-game win streak, he’s only got 2 INTs. And 3 of his 8 INTs came in one game, against the Saints in week 3. Since that Saints game, Mac Jones has a 102.9 passer rating. He’s been a remarkably quick study.
It’s not that much of a stretch to believe Belichick and McDaniels can win the Super Bowl this year with a rookie Mac Jones. Brady was practically a rookie in 2001 (of course McDaniels wasn’t there in 2001).
I think it’s possible the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year. I really do.
Now, that said, they have a very tough stretch of games coming up here:
- vs. Titans
- at Bills
- at Colts
- vs. Bills
Then they finish with vs. Jaguars and at Dolphins.
The next 4 weeks are going to be very difficult for the Patriots, but if they can go 2-2 in those games, then I think it’s confirmed they’re legit Super Bowl contenders.
When the Pats played the Bucs in week 4, I viewed that game as kind of New England’s Super Bowl. As in, they were in a rebuild, they weren’t quite there yet, maybe they go 9-8 or even 10-7 at best this year, but they’re still a year or two away from really competing.
I chalked up their strong performance against Tampa to the fact that Belichick and Co. were coaching their asses off, the crowd was going nuts, and the players were all extra motivated to beat Brady.
But what if the Patriots were so close in that game because they’re simply on the same level as the Buccaneers, and not because Bill Belichick was sand-bagging for the first three weeks of the season and saving all his best plays and schemes for the Tampa game?
At this point I think we could actually see a Tampa-New England Super Bowl. I think it’s possible. A Brady-Belichick Super Bowl would be the craziest thing in NFL history. It would be some WWE shit. We’ve already seen brothers coach against each other in the Super Bowl (the Harbaughs in 2012). Brady vs. Belichick in the Super Bowl would be utter insanity. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here though. It’s just too insane to even contemplate.
If they beat the Titans next week, the Patriots are a real threat to get a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the AFC. They really are. The Pats have the chance to overtake the Bills in the division over the next several weeks.
The AFC Playoff picture looks like this currently:
The Patriots are only a half-game out of the #2 seed, and if they beat the Titans, they’ll be within striking distance of the #1 seed in the AFC.
Look out, folks. The Patriots are back.