Monday, January 03, 2011

Best Patriots team yet?

I suggested earlier that this might actually be the best Patriots team that Bill Belichick has taken into the playoffs. As they've finished 14-2 two other times, and 16-0 once, it might seem far-fetched. Particularly given how often we've seen this defense, which is admittedly young and inexperienced, get torched over the course of the season.

To put first things first, the perception of this as a somewhat shaky team, inconsistent offensively and weak defensively, was formed early, and first impressions can be hard to overcome. The team was inconsistent offensively, and weak defensively, early in the year. They lost their second game, in New York, they barely held on against the Bills at home. They needed overtime to come back against the Ravens, the Dolphins blowout happened because of freak special teams plays, and the Chargers put the ball on the field several times to enable them to win despite being outplayed in San Diego. When they were blown out in Cleveland, they were 6-2.

And it felt, in many ways, like a lucky 6-2. Through 8 games, they had scored 219 points (2nd in the NFL) and allowed 188 (23rd).

What's happened since then is very different, but some of it's hard to realize. The NFL tends to rank defenses by yards allowed, and they allowed 366.5 yards/game, 25th in the league. They finished the season 8th in points allowed, which is an improvement. As is usually (though not always - see 2007) the case with Bill Belichick teams, they've improved through the course of the year. But the amount of the improvement is significant.

So, how do they stack up against the other Super Bowl teams of the Belichick era? The following table shows the last eight games for each of the previous four, plus this year's team. (The pythagorean column is calculated by [PF2]/[PF2 + PA2] - much like with baseball, this correlates extremely well with winning percentage, which makes sense - teams that score many points and allow few tend to be stronger than those with smaller differentials.)

New England Patriots - 2000s
WLPFPAPtDifPythagoreanSeason result
20017118611274.734Won Super Bowl
20038019410985.760Won Super Bowl
200471229114115.801Won Super Bowl
200780258147111.755Lost Super Bowl

We can see that, like two of the previous Super Bowl seasons, this one goes in undefeated in the second half of the season. It also goes in with more points scored, a bigger point differential and a better pythagorean winning percentage than any of the other. Over the last eight games, this team was much better than the 2007 team (which wasn't as good as either the 2003 or 2004 teams). Over the last eight games, they've allowed 125 points, 15.63 per game, which is the third best in the NFL over that span. Their point differential and pythagorean winning percentages are far better than any of the previous teams.

One football stat site [] loves to look at defensive passer rating, figuring (correctly, in my opinion) that if passer rating tells you something valuable about offense, it must also tell you something valuable about defense. For the first half of the season, the Patriots defense was among the worst in the NFL, allowing opposing passers to go 206-for-294 (70%) for 2222 yards, 13 TDs and 9 interceptions, compiling an average 93.95 rating. Only six NFL quarterbacks finished the season with a rating that high or higher. Over the last eight games, however, opposing QBs have gone 182-for-317 (57%) for 2093 yards, 12 TDs and 16 picks, compiling a 69.02 rating.

And those last games were not compiled against the little sisters of the poor. Five of the eight games were against playoff teams. They beat the second seed in the AFC, Pittsburgh, on the road. Handily. They beat the second seed in the NFC, Chicago, on the road. Handily. The beat the AFC's third (Indianapolis) and sixth (NY Jets) seeds, and the NFC's sixth (Green Bay) seed.

Are they going to win it all? Hey, anything can happen. Is this the best Patriots team ever? It's hard to tell.

But I do think that they're pretty clearly going into the playoffs with the best second half of a season with which they've ever gone into the playoffs.

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