As far as experience goes, there is no comparison between the Patriots and their competition this postseason. Like the Titans and the Jaguars — the two teams New England beat to reach Super Bowl LII — the Eagles haven’t had much recent success. Entering this postseason, not one of these teams had won a playoff game in the previous eight seasons. Of course, experience can be overrated in a Super Bowl. The roots of New England’s dynasty go back to Super Bowl XXXVI against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, who were seeking a second ring in three years, while that Patriots team hadn’t won a playoff game in four years and was starting a backup quarterback.
Sixteen years later, what’s stopping the Eagles from writing their own upset story with their own backup quarterback against the favored Patriots? Judging by history, Philadelphia shouldn’t be held back by a lack of experience on this stage. But the Eagles could blame a loss to the Patriots on their lack of experience at something else: playing the Patriots.
The Patriots and Eagles met in Super Bowl XXXIX, but they haven’t faced off now since 2015. And to beat the Patriots in the playoffs, you just may need to have some prior experience with them in the same season. Belichick may be known for making adjustments, but it would appear that opponents make their own adjustments to him when they face the Pats again. While teams tend to have a hard time figuring New England out on the first try, if they were able to learn something valuable from the first matchup, it has often served them well in the second game.
Since 2001, the year that Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback, the Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent and 12-9 in a rematch from the regular season. Every playoff exit in the Belichick era was a rematch, including season sweeps at the hands of the 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens and 2015 Broncos. The 2010 Jets also beat the Patriots in the playoffs, despite losing 45-3 in Foxborough just six weeks prior.
The fact that New England will have played 37 playoff games since 2001 is staggering, and it also makes it hard to compare how other franchises have fared in this split. Let’s start with the playoff rematches. I compiled a table of every team with at least six rematches since 2001, sorted by winning percentage.1
|Team||No. of games||Record||Percent|
New England’s 12-9 record is perfectly fine by normal standards, but it does not look that exceptional when 10 other teams are also at least .500. As for the first-time meetings in the playoffs, the Patriots’ 15-0 record is off the charts. We lowered the minimum requirement to four games because these matchups are less common, but the closest competition to New England is Green Bay (5-1) and Philadelphia (6-2). Two of those Eagles wins came this season when Philadelphia won their games against Atlanta and Minnesota, facing each for the first time.
|Team||No. of games||Record||Percent|
To Eagles fans, 15-0 must sound daunting, but sometimes the win-loss record is the most misleading statistic of them all. If we break things down with a more granular look, how have the Patriots performed statistically against new opponents compared with rematches? I gathered data on Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), an efficiency metric that factors in game situation, for every New England game since 2001. We wanted to compare playoff rematches with both new playoff opponents and earlier regular-season meetings. We also looked at division games against the AFC East, where familiarity is even stronger, just to see if there’s similar evidence that Belichick is harder to beat the first time around.
|Type of Game||Record||PT Diff.||DVOA||OFF.||DEF.|
|Playoffs, new opponent||15-0||+8.3||38.6||26.5||-8.8|
|Division game, rematch||39-13||+12.1||31.2||19.0||-7.3|
|Regular season, last meeting*||13-8||+7.1||30.7||27.9||-0.6|
|Division game, first meeting||42-10||+7.3||16.9||16.1||1.1|
Oddly enough, the Patriots had their highest DVOA in playoff rematches (39.9 percent) but also their worst record (12-9). It’s important to note that the Patriots went 12-9 in the playoffs against teams they were only 14-9 against in the regular season.2 Still, it’s interesting to see 12-9 vs. 15-0 when the Patriots’ DVOA against new opponents was very similar at 38.6 percent. We also observed that Belichick’s record was better in the Patriots’ first meetings against division opponents than in the rematches, but only by three games. The DVOA again improved from 16.9 percent to 31.2 percent in AFC East rematches, with the defense getting noticeably stronger — just like it did in the playoff rematches. That makes sense: Belichick is a defensive guru, and defense should be the area where he can make the best adjustments.
So though the Patriots are undefeated against new opponents, that obviously doesn’t mean they’re invincible. Some of their most improbable playoff wins were against new opponents, starting with the 2001 Raiders in the Tuck Rule game where a reversed Brady fumble and a brilliant field goal by Adam Vinatieri saved the season. Against the 2006 Chargers, Brady threw an interception on fourth down with the Patriots trailing 21-13 in the fourth quarter, but Marlon McCree fumbled the ball back to New England on his interception return — and the Patriots won 24-21. The 2011 Ravens, playing New England for the first time that season, suffered a double whammy in the AFC Championship Game when Lee Evans failed to hang on to a game-winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime. Then we have the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl wins, in which Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle’s Russell Wilson from the 1-yard line and the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead.
This 15-0 record could easily have been 10-5, but this is why the Patriots have the legacy they have. They wouldn’t be the dynasty they are without those close calls, and avoiding such blunders against them is what the Eagles will have to do to break this streak and win their first Super Bowl.
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