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The Patriots Dynasty Just Won’t Die

The 2018 NFL season will be remembered in part for its regular-season offensive explosion and the breakout performances of exciting young players such as MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. But in the end, all of that new stuff faded away. The Patriots won, just like they have six times in the past 18 seasons, and they did it with defense, just like in the very beginning. It was yet another affirmation of a dynasty that continues to reach unprecedented levels of dominance in a sport we keep pretending is designed to produce parity. The only question now is: How much longer can Tom Brady and Bill Belichick keep doing this?

Sunday’s Super Bowl win over the Los Angeles Rams was not the prettiest for New England, even if it was the team’s widest margin of victory in a Super Bowl (somehow). Brady had a 71.4 passer rating in the lowest-scoring title game on record. And yet, it counted the same in the legacy column. I recalculated the numbers from my story measuring the most difficult-to-replicate multiseason runs by any franchise, and the Patriots’ stretch from 2003 through 2018 is easily the most dominant in the NFL’s Super Bowl era.1

The Pats are (still) the NFL’s greatest modern dynasty

Among franchises with at least two Super Bowl titles, the most impressive (nonoverlapping) spans of seasons, according to Elo ratings, since 1966

Team Span Seasons Titles Mean Elo vs. Expected
1 New England 2003-18 16 5 1712 +170.5
2 San Francisco 1984-95 12 4 1706 +155.1
3 Dallas 1992-95 4 3 1740 +150.7
4 Pittsburgh 1974-79 6 4 1712 +139.0
5 Miami 1972-74 3 2 1739 +138.5
6 Dallas 1968-83 16 2 1667 +125.7
7 Oakland/L.A. Raiders 1967-85 19 3 1654 +115.3
8 Denver 1996-98 3 2 1704 +103.9
9 Washington 1982-92 11 3 1653 +99.1
10 Pittsburgh 2004-11 8 2 1656 +93.9
11 Green Bay 1966-68 3 2 1688 +87.7
12 Green Bay 1995-15 21 2 1619 +81.7
13 Baltimore 2000-14 15 2 1599 +54.6
14 N.Y. Giants 1985-90 6 2 1627 +54.3

Mean Elo is the harmonic mean of a team’s seasonal blended Elo ratings (which mix the average, final and peak Elo during the season) over the span of the seasons in question.

Expected Elo is the mean Elo we’d expect for a generic Super Bowl contender (from a starting Elo of 1617) over the span of the seasons in question. Teams are ranked by how much they exceeded this expectation.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

This Super Bowl might rank among the most satisfying for Belichick, who originally made his reputation as a football genius with defensive game plans designed to shut down high-powered offenses. A year after his defense gave up 41 points to the Philadelphia Eagles’ backup QB in Super Bowl LII, New England held the Rams — who had averaged 32.9 points per game during the regular season — to a mere 3 points Sunday. L.A. quarterback Jared Goff had nobody to throw to and faced unrelenting pressure all night, recording a ghastly 57.9 passer rating.

Belichick’s defenses had tended to be surprisingly mediocre over the back half of New England’s dynasty era, garnering an average seasonal rank of 15th of out 32 teams in ESPN’s Expected Points Added metric from 2008 to 2017. (Instead, they tended to rely on Brady and the offense to carry the load.) But this year’s Patriots were different, ranking seventh in defensive EPA, which made for one of the most well-rounded Patriots teams in a while. And in a year when seemingly anybody who ever met Rams offensive prodigy Sean McVay got hired as an NFL head coach on the spot, Belichick badly outcoached the wunderkind (by McVay’s own admission), unveiling a zone-coverage concept that the Rams hadn’t seen on tape and were completely unprepared for.

That defensive master plan helped paper over a mediocre passing game for Brady, who at age 41 had his worst statistical Super Bowl performance, on the heels of a regular season that — while still good — was one of his least impressive of the past decade. There are mitigating factors, of course, including a vastly diminished set of targets as compared with his Randy Moss heyday. And by now, Brady is used to people wondering if he’s about to fall off a cliff every time he has an uninspired game. But he will also be sailing into uncharted territory at age 42 next season, playing at an age when literally no QB in football history has had an effective season:

Brady is headed for uncharted territory

Best seasons (by Approximate Value) for quarterbacks at ages 40, 41 and 42 (or older), 1960-2018

Age 40 Age 41 Ages 42+
Player Year AV Player Year AV Player Year AV
Tom Brady 2017 19 Tom Brady 2018 14 Warren Moon 1998 5
Brett Favre 2009 16 Warren Moon 1997 12 Doug Flutie 2004 2
S. Jurgensen 1974 7 V. Testaverde 2004 10 V. Testaverde 2005 2
V. Testaverde 2003 5 Brett Favre 2010 5 Steve DeBerg* 1998 1
Len Dawson 1975 4 Doug Flutie 2003 5 Warren Moon* 2000 1
3 others tied 4 Earl Morrall 1975 2 Earl Morrall 1976 1

* DeBerg and Moon were 44 in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

There are simply no comparisons for what Brady will try to do next year. (Although, to be fair, no quarterback had won six Super Bowls before Brady, either.)

And for all of the Pats’ improvement on defense in 2018, they shouldn’t count on it being quite as good next season — defenses tend to regress to the mean much more strongly than offenses between seasons. Add in what (for now) looks a like a relative lack of cap space; several important players (such as Stephen Gostkowski, Malcom Brown, Trent Brown and Trey Flowers) hitting free agency; and speculation about the possible retirement of future Hall of Fame TE Rob Gronkowski,2 and the Pats haters will have plenty to occupy themselves with over the next seven months.

But as Sunday proved, the Patriots usually find a way to overcome the mechanisms that are supposed to make dynasties like theirs impossible to sustain. According to futures odds that sportsbooks have already released for next season, the Pats are, at worst, slightly behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the race to win Super Bowl LIV — if not outright favorites. So although there are, as always, plenty of logical reasons to think New England’s dynasty days are numbered, and 31 fan bases hoping we’ll look back at Sunday night as one of their final moments of glory, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then, Patriots fans should enjoy what they have: We’ve never seen something like this before and probably never will again.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Moving up the list to officially pass … the Pats’ own run from 2003 through 2017.

  2. Which would generate some cap savings but not enough to move New England into the top half of the league in space.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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