It seems that the sky is falling around the New England Patriots recently. Of course it is all relative. The Pats were booed off at halftime, on their way to a two game losing streak, despite still being an enviable 10-3, one win away from an 11th straight playoff appearance, and a 16th in 17 seasons. It should be pointed out that 10 teams haven’t had 16 playoff appearances in franchise history but we’re talking a different cat with Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
To judge how the Patriots are ‘struggling’, we have compared their performance so far this season compared to the last five seasons. Of course, in four of those five seasons, they made the Super Bowl, winning three, and made it to the AFC Championship Game in the other season. So the bar is extremely high. We’re hardly talking about them being an average team.
The problems have largely been on offence. New England are an average team in terms of total yards, ranking 15th. That compares to being top six since 2015, creating 20-40 yards fewer on offence per game. The Patriots have averaged 354.4 yards a game, compared to 393.4 yards a year ago.
A crucial marker isn’t overall production but their conversion rate. The Pats have ranked 16th on 3rd Down, at 37.4%, the only time they’ve been under 40% in the last six years. New England were sixth and fourth in ’14 & ’16 and 10th-13th in the other three years. Hardly a big drop in terms of rating but a big drop off in their conversion rate.
|Year||Outcome||Total Offence||3rd Down %|
|2014||Super Bowl Champions||11th (365.5 yards/game)||6th (44.3%)|
|2015||AFC Championship Game||6th (374.4)||11th (40.9%)|
|2016||Super Bowl Champions||4th (386.3)||4th (45.8%)|
|2017||Super Bowl||1st (394.2)||10th (40.6%)|
|2018||Super Bowl Champions||5th (393.4)||13th (40.8%)|
|2019||?||15th (354.4)||16th (37.4%)|
While it will always be difficult to replace peak Tom Brady, it is doable if you move a more balanced or run-heavy approach. The Patriots have had a solid running game over the last three years, ranking in the top ten in yards/game since 2016.
This year, perhaps as teams are daring Tom Brady to beat them and stuffing the run, it is a different story. The Pats are 22nd in yards/game, posting 96.2, having been near or over 120 since 2016. It is the worst performance by the Pats since posting 87.8 in 2015. For what it is worth, that is the only year they didn’t make the Super Bowl over the last five years.
The Tom Brady Factor
We can’t avoid it anymore. Tom Brady is one of the factors in New England’s struggles. Since 2016, Brady’s QB Rating has dropped from 112.2 to 86.5. He ranks 20th of anyone in terms of QBR, which is of course average at best. The GOAT has only thrown seven interceptions so it isn’t like he is turning the ball over.
|Year||Tom Brady Average QB Rating||Tom Brady Completion %|
However the lack of production is a problem. The Patriots are posting their fewest passing yards since 2014, and some of their most effective plays are gadget plays with Julian Edelman making the pass, not Brady. TB12 ranks 30th in completion percentage (60.5%), his lowest figure since 2013. Brady ranks 24th in yards/completion (10.9) and 29th in yards/attempt (6.6). Those are hardly the stats of a man leading his team to glory.
Despite this, Brady has thrown more passes than anyone this season, with 512. Perhaps because the running game has struggled so much, ranking 29th in yards per rush with just 3.5 yards for every tote. That is forcing them to rely on Brady, but he can’t create the desired production.
Defence Steps Up
There is a saving grace for the Patriots, and it’s a big one. The defence has been on fire in 2019, the best by far. It makes a change to consider New England as a defensive team but that’s what they’re relying on. The Patriots are allowing less than 13 point a game. This is the fifth year in a row they have been at least top 10, ranking first in 2016 as well with 15.6 points/game.
The Pats are allowing just 264.8 yards/game, better than even the 49ers and one of only three teams to average allowing less than 300 yards/game. They also have the second most turnovers of anyone with 31 and their turnover differential is +19, seven better than anyone in the league.
Summed up, the Patriots are not allowing points or yards and are creating turnovers and short fields for the offence. That’s an extremely potent combination.
Some of the data is bleak for the Patriots offence. That being said, they are still top ten in passing yards and crucially points. The biggest concern has to be the lack of running game given their reliance on the defence. In terms of clock management, that will be a concern in the playoffs. Tom Brady is absolutely in decline but is still serviceable. He isn’t turning the ball over but production is low.
New England need to find an offensive identity, which I suspect will focus on ball control and clock management. With such a good defence and the coaching of Belichick, not to mention a trick play or two, this team will still be a hard out in the playoffs. At 10-3, they’ve proven they won’t beat themselves.
The dynasty’s not over until the clock strikes triple zeroes.
Image: CBS Sports