When do we get to stop jabbering about the Patriots? Last winter, the New England Patriots marched through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. Then we spent all spring and summer worrying about whether their quarterback, Tom Brady, had knowingly deflated footballs — and then we had to start the conversation over again when his four-game suspension was overturned. And now that football is actually being played, the Pats are still on everyone’s minds: At 3-0, with the NFL’s second-best SRS rating,1 they’ve started so hot as to inspire speculation about another 16-0 season.
But the Patriots media frenzy may have finally swallowed itself when Skip Bayless was asked on Tuesday’s “First Take” about New England’s chances of going undefeated and said it was “extremely probable” that the Patriots would go 16-0.
We touched on this during a segment of our sports podcast, Hot Takedown (Pats chatter begins at the 7:00 mark), but the notion that it’s “extremely probable” for any team to go 16-0 after three weeks of the season was too absurd for us to confine our dissent to a podcast.
Let’s get this out of the way: It’s extremely improbable that New England will win each of its remaining 13 games. According to our Elo ratings (a system for estimating each NFL team’s strength at any given moment), New England has only a 4.4 percent probability of navigating the rest of its schedule without a loss. In other words, if you played out 100 versions of the 2015 season, the Pats would fail to go undefeated in about 96 of them. Bayless is holding out for our real-life timeline to be one of the four leftovers.
It’s easy to see why the Patriots are so unlikely to win out. They aren’t even favorites in all of their remaining contests — Elo says there’s a 53 percent chance they lose to Denver on the road in late November. And among the games in which they are favored, they’re far from guaranteed victors. Nine teams have a greater than 20 percent chance of knocking them off — there’s a 42 percent chance they don’t even emerge from their bye week and make it to 4-0 against the Cowboys on Oct. 11. (Granted, Elo is unaware that Dallas will be without QB Tony Romo for that game, but a Romo adjustment would still leave New England with roughly a one-third chance of being upset.)
This year’s Patriots team is really good. Through three weeks, the 2015 edition has a slightly better Elo rating (1698) than the 2007 version that went 16-0 had (1697) at the same point in the season.2 But the 2007 Patriots were arguably the best team in pro football history (to the extent such a thing exists), and they still required a great deal of luck in close wins in the second half of their schedule.
It’s very hard to go undefeated, which is a big part of why streaks capture our imagination. If it were as easy as Bayless seems to think it is, we wouldn’t care as much.