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Even Down Two QBs, The Patriots Are Playing With House Money

Going into Week 1, there were at least mild concerns that Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension (upheld in July after nearly 18 months of legal theatrics) might put a dent in the New England Patriots’ season before it even began. Though few reasonable analysts expected total calamity for the Pats, terms like “survival” and “staying afloat” were tossed around in relation to New England’s four weeks under backup Jimmy Garoppolo, particularly after Brady’s understudy received mixed reviews in the preseason.1

Halfway through Brady’s suspension, though, the Patriots are in great shape. They moved to 2-0 on the season with a 31-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins, and although Garoppolo was injured in the win — thrusting rookie third-string QB Jacoby Brissett into the starting role for at least one week, if not two — New England is still well ahead of where preseason expectations would have had them at this point in the season. In fact, it’s now likely that they’ll make it through Brady’s suspension with a better record than we’d have expected if Brady had played all along.

We can show this using our Elo ratings, which are used to judge each NFL team’s quality at a given moment in time. The Patriots entered the season with an Elo of 1605 — good for sixth in the league — and if they played to that rating, they could have expected to win about 2.5 of their first four games, with an 86 percent chance of going 2-2 or better, a 53 percent shot at 3-1 or better and a 17 percent probability of going 4-0.

But Elo also doesn’t know about injuries or suspensions to key players. Research has shown that starting a backup QB slices about 60 points off a team’s Elo, so a more reasonable projection might have set New England’s opening-day Elo at 1545, reflecting the drop-off from Brady to Garoppolo. Under those circumstances, the Pats would project to win an average of 2.3 games in the season’s first quarter, with a 77 percent chance of breaking even and an 11 percent shot at 4-0.

Maybe that number undersells the perceived gap between Canton-bound Brady and untested backup Garoppolo — the betting markets consistently estimated that the suspension would cost New England half a win over four games — but the general point remains: Before the regular season started, the Pats were projected to win somewhere between 2 and 2.5 games during Brady’s suspension, as opposed to the 2.5 games they’d be expected to win with Brady in the lineup.

Now, they’re likely to emerge from Brady’s ban in better shape than they could have expected based on preseason predictions with or without Brady. Even if Brissett proves to be among the worst QBs in the league — warranting a further deduction of 32.5 Elo points2 from New England’s rating, on top of the Garoppolo penalty from above3 — and the Patriots play to a 1526 Elo (think of a team somewhere between the Lions and Jets) over the next two weeks, they already have a pair of wins in the bank and can be expected to tack on 1.2 more at home against the Texans (owners of a 1544 Elo) and Bills (1478) before Brady returns. That would give them an updated projection of 3.2 wins through the season’s first four games, with an 82 percent chance of going 3-1 or better.

ODDS OF…
SITUATION WINS 2+ WINS 3+ WINS 4 WINS
Brady starts 4 games 2.5 86% 53% 17%
Garoppolo starts 4 games 2.3 77 44 11
Actual (Brissett starts Wks. 3-4) 3.2 100 82 36
What the Patriots could have expected during Weeks 1-4

Brady and Garoppolo numbers reflect preseason projections.

In other words, the Pats are basically playing with house money now. Through two weeks, they’ve already won almost as many games as they could have reasonably expected to during Brady’s entire ban, and they’ll have plenty of chances for more against the Texans and Bills. Plus, Garoppolo’s injury was less severe than originally believed, so he might return for Week 4, further bolstering New England’s chances. It’s also unclear whether Brissett will play poorly — his numbers in relief of Garoppolo Sunday weren’t horrible (though the Patriots’ lead did erode under his watch).

The Patriots’ season could certainly have taken a rotten turn without Brady, given how little we knew about Garoppolo’s skills — and how important the first few weeks of the season are to a team’s playoff chances. But with two wins under their belts, the Patriots have already survived the worst of Brady’s absence. Even though they’re down to a backup’s backup under center, the team Touchdown Tom inherits in Week 5 will likely carry a record he finds familiar. Some teams have all the luck.

Footnotes

  1. Garoppolo’s cumulative stats were actually pretty good.

  2. I estimated this using the same method my colleague Harry Enten used to judge Brady’s value here, assigning Brissett the average defense-adjusted yards above replacement of a bottom-five NFL passer from the past five seasons.

  3. Though this should be mitigated a bit because the Pats’ Elo increased from 1545 to 1571 during Garoppolo’s two weeks at the helm. So I decided to average together the Pats’ hypothetical Elo if we deducted Brissett’s penalty from Garoppolo’s initial Elo (1513) and their Elo if we lopped the penalty off their updated Elo under Garoppolo (1538). The resulting Elo for the Pats under Brissett was 1526.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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