New England Patriots are chasing the franchise's own greatness
For most NFL teams, reaching the midpoint of the season without a loss would be a historic and crowning achievement, a masterful eight-game run that portends greatness and gives its fans reason to celebrate wildly.
The New England Patriots, though, aren’t your typical pro football franchise.
They are one of three 8–0 teams this year — the most ever in a single season in league history — but are the only club in this rare trio that has been here and done this before. The unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers are entering uncharted waters; the Patriots, on the other hand, are experiencing deja vu all over again.
In 2007, the Patriots won their first eight games … and then kept on winning, completing the first — and only — 16–0 regular season in NFL history. They didn’t stop winning until they reached the Super Bowl, where they were the victim of one of the most shocking upsets in all of sports, losing 17–14 to the underdog New York Giants.
Halfway to another perfect regular season, the 2015 Patriots have somehow come full circle as they take their unblemished record to MetLife Stadium for a matchup with the Giants Sunday afternoon. Similar to 2007, New England enters this game as the big, bad behemoth, looking to steamroller a gritty and determined, yet undermanned, Giants club. The Patriots have won 11 straight games (including the playoffs), their third double-digit win streak in the last decade. The other two streaks — in 2007 and 2011 — were both ended by the Giants.
Quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged that this week’s opponent is a familiar one and that he is aware of his imperfect record against them:
“We’ve always had a hard time beating these guys, for one reason or another,” Brady said Monday morning on sports radio WEEI. “So hopefully we can get over our struggles and finally go out and play well and beat them.”
Brady, of course, is referring to those losses to the Giants at the end of the 2007 season in Super Bowl 42 and then again in the finale of the 2011 season at Super Bowl 46. It’s been a bit of a different story in regular-season matchups, where Brady is 2–1 in his career against the Giants. The only other time he paid a visit to East Rutherford, N.J., was the final game of the historic 2007 campaign, when the Patriots rallied for a 38–35 win to preserve their perfect regular season.
This collision of counterblows has added an interesting twist to Sunday’s game: New England likely will have revenge on its mind for those aforementioned Super Bowl losses, but the Giants also should relish another chance to ruin the Patriots’ pursuit of regular-season perfection.
Brady and coach Bill Belichick have routinely dismissed talk of an unbeaten season, and insist that going 16–0 isn’t a priority or goal for this team. But the parallels and commonalities between 2007 and this season are too inviting to not invoke a comparison of the two clubs, and at least assess the likelihood of the Patriots’ approaching another unbeaten campaign. So, how does this 2015 version stack up to the juggernaut from eight years ago?
In terms of dominance, the ’07 team set a remarkable standard in the first half of the season. Its point differential of plus-204 through eight games is, by far, the largest for any team since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. In second place are the 1991 Redskins, who are a whopping 51 points behind, or around an average of a touchdown per game. Further down the list are the 2015 Patriots, who check in at eighth place with a margin of plus-133.
The 2007 club rarely was tested, winning each of its first eight games by at least 17 points. The 2015 team, on the other hand, has only four wins by at least that margin so far; its other four victories have come by the relatively slim margins of seven or eight points. While this year’s squad has looked unstoppable at times, the 2007 crew set the standard for modern football supremacy.
The 2007 team also seems to have faced a more difficult schedule en route to its perfect first-half record. Four of its eight wins came against clubs that finished the regular season with a winning record, including two division winners in the Chargers (11–5) and Cowboys (13–3). This year’s team has beaten just two winning clubs — the Jets (5–3) and Steelers (5–4) — and its only win over a projected division winner came in Week 6 against the Colts (yes, someone has to win the AFC South).
Another hallmark of the 2007 Patriots was their high-powered offense, which featured a once-in-a-generation collection of talent at the skill positions and completely overwhelmed opponents during the first eight games. They scored 34 points or more in every game during their 8–0 start, and their 331 points ranks behind only the 2013 Broncos for the most by any team through eight games. The 2015 Pats have reached 34 points in “only” half of their contests so far, and their 276 total points is well behind the pace of the 2007 season.
Although this year’s offense can’t match the 2007 version in terms of explosiveness, it has been remarkably consistent. The Patriots have scored in every quarter this season except the first quarter of the first game, a stretch of 31 consecutive quarters, which ties the 1999–2000 Rams and the 2005 Colts for the longest such streak in NFL history.
While the Patriots’ defense didn’t garner many headlines in 2007, it was a strong group and actually put up better numbers than this year’s unit through eight games. The 2007 team allowed fewer points (127 vs. 143), total yards (2,148 vs. 2,672), and yards per play (4.8 vs. 5.2), and forced more turnovers (18 vs. 12) than its 2015 counterpart.
The one constant between the two teams might be the excellence of Tom Brady. Yet, while he’s putting up MVP-caliber stats this year and is having a historically great season at age 38, he is still lagging behind his record-setting 2007 campaign. Through eight games that year, Brady completed 74.2 percent of his passes at a clip of 9.1 yards per attempt, and had a ridiculous 30-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This season, he boasts a completion rate of 68.6 percent, is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, and has thrown 22 touchdowns against two interceptions. Brady might be in the midst of the second-best season of his career, but it still pales in comparison to his unforgettable run eight years ago.
Through their first eight games, the 2015 Patriots have clearly established themselves as the league’s elite team and top Super Bowl contender, but it’s also obvious that they are not on the same level as the otherwordly 2007 club at this stage in the season.
Despite not matching up to what many consider to be the best regular-season squad in NFL history, these Patriots look poised for a deep postseason run. Of the 21 previous teams to start 8–0 in the Super Bowl era, 12 reached the Super Bowl and eight of those teams won rings.
Don’t discount the ability of these Patriots to go undefeated, either, although the task got a little tougher this week with the news that dynamic running back Dion Lewis is out for the season with a torn ACL. Lewis is one of the NFL’s top pass-catching threats out of the backfield, ranking third among running backs in receiving yards and fifth in receptions. He also has the second-most rushing yards on the team and is one of the toughest players to bring down in the league, leading all tailbacks with 43 broken tackles.
Brady still has plenty of weapons around him, but the offense will look different without Lewis in the mix. The Patriots have overcome a slew of health-related setbacks already this season, and health could be the biggest obstacle to keeping their unbeaten record intact.
Going forward, the Patriots are expected to be favored in every game, per Fivethirtyeight.com’s projections, and the only matchup where they have a less than a 70 percent win probability is their huge Week 12 tilt in Denver (51 percent). Along with the Broncos, their stiffest upcoming tests will probably be against the Bills (Week 11), Eagles (Week 13) and at the Jets (Week 16).
As for the computers, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives New England a 6.7 percent chance to complete a perfect regular season, while the Patriots finish 16–0 in 7.5 percent of the simulations at Sportsclubstats.com. Some betting markets are more bullish on the Patriots, though: Betfair.com lists them at 11-2 odds to end up with an unbeaten record.
This year’s team is clearly very good, and has the capacity to be great, but to put it on the same pedestal as the 2007 club would be premature. And although the Patriots have emerged as the best team in football and are halfway to running the table, completing a perfect regular-season campaign is never easy. Having the deepest and the most talented roster isn’t enough — you need to have toughness and confidence, plus a good dose of lady luck on your side as well. And while 16–0 is remarkable, every Patriot would rather have what the 2007 team ultimately didn’t obtain: A Super Bowl title.