The Fine Fifteen: It’s Looking a Lot Like 2007
The Patriots aren’t ready to discuss the prospect of a 16-0 season—would they ever be?—but as we reach the midpoint of the season, and 7-0 New England’s average margin of victory this year is 17 points, it seems time at least to assess the possibility of the Patriots’ matching their perfect regular season of 2007.
One of the reasons the story is a bit symmetrical is the schedule. NFL teams play each of the four divisions in the opposite conference once every four years. In 2007 the Patriots played the NFC East, just as they’re doing this year. And because the divisions alternate home-and-road every four years, and it’s been eight years since the Patriots ran the table in the regular season, New England’s schedule against the NFC East is the same as it was in 2007—at Dallas and New York, home to Washington and Philadelphia. It’s particularly timely to write about the parallels this week because the home game against Washington was the Patriots’ eighth game of the 2007 season, and it’s their eighth game this season.
The temptation is to say the one edge this Patriots team has over the 2007 outfit is defense, but that wouldn’t be right. Though this pass-rush is probably consistently better, the 2007 team was fourth in team defense and allowed 17.1 points per game. This year’s Patriots are 12th in team defense—giving up 58 more yards per game than the ’07 Pats—and are allowing 19.0 points a game.
The 2007 season was also a tale of two halves. In the first eight games New England just clobbered people. (Average margin of victory: 25.5 points.) But in the second half New England played five games decided by 10 points or fewer.
The one commonality is the greatness of Tom Brady. He had his best season (117.2 rating, 50-to-8 TD-to-interception differential), and he’s having his second-best rating season this year: 115.8, 20 touchdowns and one interception. Keep in mind, though, that six of his last nine games this year could be weather-affected—they’re in the Northeast in November and December—so there’s no guarantee Brady, at 38, can keep up the current greatness.
Analyzing the two schedules through New England’s final nine games:
|8||Washington (W, 52-7)||Washington|
|9||At Indianapolis (W, 24-20)||at New York Giants|
|10||At Buffalo (W, 56-10)||Buffalo|
|11||Philadelphia (W, 31-28)||at Denver|
|12||At Baltimore (W, 27-24)||Philadelphia|
|13||Pittsburgh (W, 34-13)||at Houston|
|14||New York Jets (W, 20-10)||Tennessee|
|15||Miami (W, 28-7)||at New York Jets|
|16||At New York Giants (W, 38-35)||at Miami|
The common threads:
- • Patriots 7-0 entering home games against Washington.
- • Games versus the Jets and Dolphins in succession late in the season.
- • Games on Peyton Manning’s home field in November.
- • Home games against Philadelphia a week apart.
- • Road games with their old friends, the Giants.
- • Game 10 of Patriots’ season against Buffalo.
Some of the similarities, really, are quite striking.
Now for this week’s Fine Fifteen.
1. New England (7-0). Washington coach Jay Gruden was asked if he uses as motivation the fact that 99.67 percent of America believes the Patriots will rout his team this weekend. “Well,” he said, “on paper it looks like that.” It certainly does.
2. Denver (7-0). Making a big jump for this late in the season, from five to two, because I loved the Denver defense so much against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday night, and the running game finally got going. This is starting to look like a complete team, one that doesn’t have to put all the pressure on Peyton Manning to win.
3. Cincinnati (7-0). I am in the camp of “stop asking Andy Dalton to pass every new test we can think of before saying he’s an excellent quarterback.” Like the winning-at-Heinz Field test. He won there in 2012. And he won there again Sunday, with a clutch drive down the stretch. For Dalton, we all know the real test comes in January.
4. Carolina (7-0). Saved by the Luke Kuechly interception in overtime after a concerning defensive collapse in the fourth quarter. But 7-0 is 7-0.
5. Green Bay (6-1). Hard to ignore this factoid: Packers haven’t scored in the 30s since September. Were they supposed to do that every week?
6. Arizona (6-2). Bye, sweet bye. Cards need it after playing three Eastern Time road games in the last four weeks, the last one on a short week in Cleveland. Arizona couldn’t hold on to the ball and still won by 14.
7. Minnesota (5-2). Every time I watch Teddy Bridgewater, he looks better than the last time.
8. Seattle (4-4).
9. Oakland (4-3). Stop the presses. Raiders ninth in the Fine Fifteen. Love their offensive weaponry. Next two weeks should tell the tale with this team: at Pittsburgh Sunday, Vikes at home the following Sunday.
10. Atlanta (6-2). Falcons worry me. Matt Ryan worries me. Roddy White has worried me since last year.
11. St. Louis (4-3). Todd Gurley is never going to run for fewer than 125 yards a game. New NFL rule.
12. Pittsburgh (4-4). I’m not one of those who think the season’s over because of the Le’Veon Bell injury. It’s bad, but DeAngelo Williams is a superb relief pitcher.
13. New Orleans (4-4). One hundred and ten points in the last three weeks, all wins. But 30.3 allowed per game in those three. Rob Ryan’s about to suit himself up.
14. New York Jets (4-3). Big drop this week, from six to 13. Deservedly so. Who’s playing quarterback? And for that matter, who kidnapped the defense?
15. Miami (3-4). You’ll be pleased to know that, at least for a week, I’ve taken Dan Campbell off my coaching Mount Rushmore.
Also receiving votes:
16. New York Giants (4-4). Jason Pierre-Paul can’t get game-ready fast enough for the feeblest Giants rush in years.
17. Indianapolis (3-5). But there is as much worry about Andrew Luck as there is glee that he brought the Colts back from 17 down in the fourth quarter.
18. Philadelphia (3-4). I hope Sam Bradford watched Tom Brady tape on his bye week.
19. Washington (3-4). Nice pleasant stretch of games: Patriots, Saints, Panthers over 15 days, starting Sunday.
20. Dallas (2-5). I’m the only one who thinks they’ll be a playoff contender when Romo gets back.