The New England Patriots team that takes the field for Super Bowl LI will have far less star power than that of the Patriots team that won Super Bowl XLIX two years ago. But star power can be deceiving: This season’s AFC champions are very much in the same league as the last six Super Pats squads. Despite this season’s injuries, suspensions and trades that prioritized the future at the cost of the present, the Patriots finished No. 1 in wins, No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 3 in scoring offense and No. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Head coach Bill Belichick had already built a resume worthy of the Hall of Fame, but the Patriots’ emphatic 36-17 win over the Steelers on Sunday might make this season his most impressive achievement yet.
Coaching is often judged one of two ways: Did your team accomplish more than expected, or did it achieve greatness? Marvin Lewis was named AP Coach of the Year after the 2009 season, when he oversaw the the Cincinnati Bengals’ improvement from 4-11-1 to 10-6 despite several off-field tragedies that affected the team. In 2007, Belichick won after the Patriots completed the NFL’s first undefeated 16-game regular season.
This year Belichick’s Patriots are on the cusp of doing both: overcoming adversity and a dearth of difference-making talent while outperforming every other team in the league.
On Belichick’s six prior Super Bowl squads, his offense and defense had at least three Pro Bowlers. Save 2004, at least one big-game bound Patriot was also named to the Associated Press’s first-team All-Pro squad. But this season, only two Patriots starters were named to the initial Pro Bowl roster, and none were named an All-Pro.1
Using FiveThirtyEight’s historical Elo ratings, we can stack up the relative strength of each Patriots Super Bowl squad during the Belichick era against the number of individual honors each team’s players earned the Super Bowl season:
|SEASON||PRO BOWLERS||1ST TEAM ALL-PROS||ELO RATING|
The 2016 Pats’ Elo rating will go up or down after the Super Bowl. But as it sits, this year’s Pats compare favorably to most recent Pats’ Super Bowl teams. The exceptions are the 2004 and 2007 Pats: the top two Elo-ranked teams in NFL history.
Individual awards are subjective and a matter of debate, but they’re reliable enough to make clear that this year’s Patriots have achieved historically great results despite having fewer dominant big-name playmakers than every other AFC-winning Patriots squad. Tom Brady’s top target in the win against Pittsburgh Sunday was unheralded, undrafted journeyman receiver Chris Hogan, who accounted for 180 of Brady’s 384 passing yards, plus two of the Pats’ four touchdowns.
Hogan is an exemplar of what Belichick’s Patriots do so well: seek out and acquire players who fit their system but whom the rest of the league has overlooked. The Pats have done this so many times that some NFL fans have come to expect it.
Kyle Van Noy, a former second-round pick whom the Patriots traded for in October, is one of the scrap-heap guys who have played a vital role for this no-name Patriots defense. From the time he made his Patriots debut in Week 11 through the end of the regular season, Van Noy finished fifth on the Patriots in combined tackles and assists. Against the Steelers on Sunday, he registered four solo tackles and forced the second-half fumble that clinched the game.
Despite these fill-ins, the Patriots led the NFL in regular season DVOA for the first time since the 2010 season.2
Before the Steelers saw their season ended — emphatically — by New England, they had won nine straight games. Pittsburgh also had five players named to the Pro Bowl; in the AFC, only the Raiders had more. If there was an AFC team with the talent and experience to go into Gillette Stadium and win a playoff game, Pittsburgh was it. Yet the Steelers were out-coached and out-executed.
The result of the Super Bowl doesn’t always reflect which team was stronger throughout the season. Just ask the 2007 Patriots, who won their first 18 games and registered a second-best-ever DVOA of 52.9 percent. But whether the Pats win or lose their last game, Belichick already has dominated the NFL with a roster full of retreads and role players. He had a claim on being the best coach in NFL history before this season. This squad’s performance will only bolster it.