Why are the New England Patriots So Good this Year?

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You know the Patriots are Super Bowl contenders, because they’re going to win the AFC East and because the AFC as a whole can only be won by three or four teams. The Pats are one of those teams. Ergo, they’re a contender. But if you watch them every week, and you really watch what’s happening on the field, the problems are as glaring as Tom Brady’s weird Euro haircut in that new commercial for Man Uggs (does anyone understand that commercial, and what Uggs have to do with creepily playing football with kids in airports?). When your opponents have thrown more touchdown passes then your quarterback – and your quarterback is Brady – there are some serious issues.

But there’s no getting around the fact they are legitimate contenders, at least to come out of the AFC. And, once a team reaches the Super Bowl, anything can happen (cue video of David Tyree making the only respectable play of his NFL career, which caused me to kill a homeless man in Queens later that night).

Reasonably, there’s four teams in the AFC that can reach the Super Bowl – the Patriots, the Texans, the Broncos and the Ravens. Not so coincidentally, they’re all leading their divisions. Other then maybe the Steelers (and that’s only if Big Ben is healthy), there isn’t a wild card team that can suddenly get hot and win three straight playoff games. There’s no 2007 Giants or 2010 Packers or 2011 Giants. Those teams don’t exist in the AFC this year. Just look at it. The Colts aren’t doing it, nobody in the East or West is doing it, and do you have any faith in Cincinnati to even contend in one playoff game, nevermind win three? You shouldn’t. So unless Pittsburgh gets hot and Big Ben makes an unexpected medical turnaround, it’s a four-team race.

Each team has a defining characteristic. Houston has its defense and the best running game in football (not to mention their quarterback just threw for the second-highest passing yardage total of all-time, which is mind boggling for two reasons. 1. Does anyone think Matt Schaub is really that good? and 2. Nobody has ever thrown for over 600 yards in the 50-plus year history of the NFL?) . Denver has their newfound Peyton Manning swagger and an elite pass rush. Baltimore has the belief that its defense is really good and Ray Rice (which is a combination of factors that makes them the weakest of the four contenders) and New England has….

…wait for it….


I’m telling you – that’s why the Patriots are contenders. That’s what separates them and defines them and makes them unique. It’s the one aspect of the game that can mask shortcomings, and they do it better than anybody else. They also have a lot of shortcomings, so it works out perfectly.

Look, obviously Brady is fantastic, and so is the entire offense (even sans Gronk for the next month). The Pats have the best coach in football, with apologies to Jim Harbaugh and his multiple personality disorder (did anyone else think of this clip when he called all the reporters Jive Turkeys the other day?) So it’s not just as if they excel in the turnover department and nowhere else, but the turnovers are the one thing that keeps their heads above water.

If you watched the Pats 59-24 dismantling over the flavor-of-the-month Colts on Sunday night, a couple of things stood out, at least to me.  The first was how easily the Colts were able to score in the early portion of the game. The second was how miserable life became for the Colts in the later portion of the game. It was almost as if they played two different games.

But it was exactly how the Patriots want it to look. It’s the Patriots blueprint down to a T.

You see, For the last few years, with the league gravitating towards passing and offense as a staple, the Pats have tried to stay one step ahead of the game with their innovative offensive strategy – the quick-hit throws, the back-shoulder throws, etc. Their offense takes advantage of every loophole and mis-match that can possibly be exploited.

It might not always look like it, but the Patriots have tried to be innovative on defense, too, and it starts with the turnovers. Here’s the basic idea – “We’ll play vanilla defense in the secondary, work on keeping everything in front of us, score enough to force the opposition to throw almost exclusively and eventually they’ll get greedy and try to force a deep pass or make a play that’s not there. Then, we strike.”

Turnover differential.

The Patriots score enough points to win most games, but because of how often – and oftentimes, how quickly –  they score the other team gets an absurd amounts of touches during the game. With the game-shifting towards offense over defense, like I mentioned above, the Patriots are of the theory that elite defenses (think Baltimore, 2000) are a thing of the past. So rather than try to beat you with over-the-top schemes, the Patriots wait for you to beat yourself.

It’s worked. Andrew Luck liked what he saw from the Patriots on Sunday, so he got greedy. The result? Three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Throw in a lost fumble by the Colts on a kickoff return and a typical clean-sheet Patriots performance in the turnover department, and you get a plus-4 turnover rate for the day and a 35-point win.

The Patriots bank on not turning the ball over, and playing a brand of defense that is predicated on the other team making a mistake. The blitzes aren’t as elaborate as they used to be and the Pats don’t pitch a lot of shutouts, but they’re still winning games. Not many teams who won 11 games in 2001 can say that they’re still going to win 11 or 12 in 2012 without any sort of drop-off in between. In fact, nobody can, except the Patriots.

It’s evolution.

There’s a reason that sometimes Brady throws the ball at the feet of open receivers. He doesn’t try to throw the ball into overly tight spaces in the middle of the field. If he’s rushed out of the pocket, he’s not likely to complete the ball because he knows that it’s a high risk pass. That’s what the Patriots are taught. It’s as if they did a risk analysis and determined hat this was the best way to win. Punch the numbers into a machine and BOOM, you’ve got a formula that works 85-percent of the time.

This season, the Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-20. The next closest team is the Ravens at plus-12. The Patriots have turned the ball over the fewest times of any team in the NFL (7 – four fumbles lost, three interceptions) and they’ve taken it away more than any team in the NFL (27 – 14 fumble recoveries, 13 interception returns). Separately, they have intercepted the most passes in the league and recovered the most fumbles.

In 2011, last season, the Patriots led the NFL in turnover differential at plus-17. The next closest team was the Texans at plus-7. They turned the ball over the fewest times of any team in the NFL (17 – five fumbles lost, 12 interceptions) and they took it away more than any team in the NFL (34 – 23 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries). Separately, they intercepted the most passes in the league and recovered the fourth-most fumbles.

The Pats went 13-3 and lost in the Super Bowl that year.

In 2010, the Patriots led the NFL in turnover differential at plus-28. The next closest team was the Steelers at plus-17. They turned the ball over the fewest times of any team in the NFL (10 – five fumbles lost, five interceptions) and they took it away more than any team in the NFL (38 – 25 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries). Separately, they intercepted the most passes in the league and recovered the third-most fumbles.

The Pats went 14-2 that year.

That’s how you win football games, consistently, in today’s NFL. Almost everybody scores with some degree of regularity, but you do it better than everyone. There are no turnovers on your end. And, you force the other teams into turnovers, giving you extra possessions for your offense – which doesn’t turn the ball over – and taking away possession from them. It’s a classic addition by subtraction, and the Patriots are simply the best at it.

At times, it looks like their defense is porous. Yardage-wise, it is. But the Pats are right in the middle of the pack in points allowed (16th) and they’ve scored far away the most. You can move the ball on the Patriots, but sooner or later you’re going to make a mistake. The Pats usually pounce, and the offense doesn’t miss a beat. Game, set and match.

It’s why people are so scared to fumble in New England. It’s why BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a starting running back for two years – because he literally didn’t fumble a single time during his tenure. So what if he wasn’t flashy? He helped the Patriots control the turnover differential.

In other places, if a player fumbles he’s usually given a second chance. In New England, if a player fumbles, he may never see the field again. And, most of the time, nobody does fumble. That’s the emphasis – no matter what you do, not matter what mistake you make, DO NOT TURN THE BALL OVER.

It’s a way of life in New England, and it’s a philosophy that has mirrored the evolution of football over the last seven years or so. It’s what has kept the Patriots relevant, kept them from rebuilding (well, that and having players who buy in to it and are capable of executing it, most notably Brady).

During the Colts game, CBS flashed this stat: During games 9-16 since 2010, the Patriots have outscored their opponents 202-0 off of turnovers.

If that doesn’t blow your mind then you’re not a fan of football. To put it in simpler, in the second half of the last three Patriots seasons (including this year, so that’s only two games right now), no team has scored a point off of a Patriot turnover.

The Pats are 7-3 right now. They’ve won four straight games. In those games, they’ve forced 11 turnovers and turned it over once.

It’s not rocket science. If the Patriots do that the rest of the season, and in the playoffs, they are as likely to win the Super Bowl as any team in the NFL.

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