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
|Team||Span||Seasons||Titles||Mean Elo||vs. Expected|
This Super Bowl might rank among the most satisfying for Belichick, who originally made his reputation as a football genius with defensive game plans designed to shut down high-powered offenses.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:
|Age 40||Age 41||Ages 42+|
|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|
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: