Tom Brady will have played in a half season’s worth of Super Bowl’s by the conclusion of Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
He’s 5-2 in said games, all seven of them decided by six points or less. Would you believe that last year’s game against the Falcons, the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, was the largest margin of victory – by either team – in a Super Bowl featuring Brady?
Not every Patriots team that’s won has been without its warts, nor should either loser be remembered solely as such. The main purpose of this exercise isn’t to figure out how each New England team stacked up with the rest of the NFL in hindsight; rather, it’s to figure out how each of the teams stacks up against each other.
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For context, each team’s final regular season rank in total offense and total defense have been added in. But much more than the raw numbers went into determining which Brady/Bill Belichick Super Bowl team stands out above the rest.
In reverse order, with the best listed on the bottom, here’s where the eight New England teams to play for the Lombardi Trophy this century stand:
#8 - 2011 (Super Bowl XLVI)
Regular season: 13-3
Postseason: Won 45-10 vs. Denver Broncos, divisional round; Won 23-20 vs. Baltimore Ravens, AFC Championship Game; Lost 21-17 vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XLVI
Offensive rank: 2 | Defensive rank: 31
It’s important to remember that the worst Patriots entry to the Super Bowl this millennium is still pretty darned good…but there are probably a few teams that wound up not making it to the big game (2012, 2015 certainly come to mind) which featured better rosters top to bottom than the 2011 crew.
There was still plenty to like, particularly on offense. Brady threw for a career-high 5,235 yards, Rob Gronkowski had 17 touchdown receptions and made First Team All-Pro for the first time and Wes Welker caught a franchise-record 122 passes.
Andre Carter and Mark Anderson became the first and to date only teammates in the Belichick era to reach double figures in sacks in the same season for the Patriots, with 10 each. That’s about where the compliments end for the defense, which in addition to being morbid against the pass (31st overall), was an un-Patriot-like middle of the road in scoring defense at 15th overall.
Much like the previous loss in the Super Bowl to the Giants, the Patriots were still in it to the bitter end. Much like in 2007, the better team did not win. The 2011 Giants remain the only team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl despite a negative point-differential in the regular season (minus-6).
Truthfully, neither the Giants nor Patriots were worthy champions in 2011. The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers should have faced off in Super Bowl XLVI, much like they wound up doing the next season. Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams had other ideas, however.
#7 - 2017 (Super Bowl LII)
Regular season: 13-3
Postseason: Won 35-14 vs. Tennessee Titans, divisional round; Won 24-20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, AFC Championship Game; TBA vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl LII
Offensive rank: 1 | Defensive rank: 29
Brady at 40 isn’t all that much different from Brady at 30, it turns out. Just like in 2007, he led the league in passing yards and was named First Team All-Pro at quarterback.
The defense improved greatly after the first six weeks of the season, particularly the secondary. After each of the first six quarterbacks New England faced threw for over 300 yards, none of the next 12 (including postseason) have topped that threshold. While the pass defense still finished 30th in the league, by the time the regular season was over, the Patriots were a top-five unit in terms of scoring defense (18.5 points per game).
Even with a win on Sunday, though, look at all of the players missing who played a massive role in last year’s title: Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, LeGarrette Blount, Marcus Cannon, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan and Chris Long, just to name a few.
Rob Gronkowski’s return to health this season was huge for New England after Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. He suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the AFC Championship Game, but after being a full participant in yesterday’s practice, is seemingly good to go for Super Bowl LII.
The Patriots aren’t guaranteed to win a Super Bowl for the third time in four years once again, but here’s something: they finished with the NFL’s best point-differential in the regular season for the third time in four years this season. And we know how 2014 and 2016 ended.
#6 - 2016 (Super Bowl LI)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 34-16 vs. Houston Texans, divisional round; Won 36-17 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 34-28 (OT) vs. Atlanta Falcons, Super Bowl LI
Offensive rank: 4 | Defensive rank: 8
See above for some of the talent that was on this roster. While there was no Gronkowski after Week 11, the Patriots got by just fine thanks to Brady’s NFL record 28-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio (min. 224 attempts).
Had New England not erased a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl, there’s a good chance this team is at the bottom of the list. Consider the previous record for largest comeback was 10 points (accomplished three times, once up a Patriots team further up this list), the ’16 group is able to stay clear of the basement.
#5 - 2001 (Super Bowl XXXVI)
Regular season: 11-5
Postseason: Won 16-13 (OT) vs. Oakland Raiders, divisional round; Won 24-17 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 20-17 vs. St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXVI
Offensive rank: 19 | Defensive rank: 24
As it relates to the Patriots dynasty, the uniqueness of 2001 stands out because almost nothing like it had ever transpired before. True, New England had two Super Bowl appearances in franchise history, including one just five years earlier. But neither of the first two runs began with a franchise quarterback who had just signed the largest contract in league history suffering potentially life-threatening injuries in the second game of the season. And certainly, neither of the first two runs featured a second-year quarterback drafted in the sixth round suddenly thrust into starting duty with only three career passing attempts to his name.
Brady taking over for Drew Bledsoe altered NFL history. It turned the league on its head, a wheel the league still hasn’t stopped from spinning.
The best single-season story? It’s the 2001 Patriots and it’s not even close. The original almost always is. To call it the best team, however, is another matter entirely.
Incredibly, Brady’s five game-winning drives in 2001 is a total he didn’t match again until 2013. The notion of him being merely a “game-manager” in these days is exaggerated; look no further than the final drive of Super Bowl XXXVI. But aside from Troy Brown, who had a career year with 101 catches for 1,199 yards, there wasn’t much weaponry on offense yet. The underrated David Patten (51) and Kevin Faulk (30) were the only other players to surpass 30 catches.
The defense gets this group into the middle of the pack, with some holdovers from the 1996 Super Bowl runner-up team (Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson) and some fresh blood (free agents Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer, rookie first-round draft pick Richard Seymour). Save for Milloy, all of those players were on the roster through the 2004 season. Bruschi, Vrabel and Seymour still had plenty to offer in 2007, even.
#4 - 2003 (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 17-14 vs. Tennessee Titans, divisional round; Won 24-14 vs. Indianapolis Colts, AFC Championship Game; Won 32-29 vs. Carolina Panthers, Super Bowl XXXVIII
Offensive rank: 17 | Defensive rank: 7
Though Brady led the league in passing touchdowns a year earlier, with 28, his ceiling remained unclear. A 31-0 loss to the Bills in the season opener, complete with Lawyer Milloy sacking Brady less than a week after his unceremonious release from New England, cast the first of many dark shadows over the organization asking if the run was over – in this case, before it had even truly begun.
Blowing teams out wasn’t yet in the Patriots vernacular, as New England won only one game all season by more than two scores. What’s important is that the team did begin to win after the Buffalo debacle… a lot. A Week 5 win over the Titans was the beginning of an NFL record 21-game winning streak (including the postseason) that stretched into 2004.
The Patriots didn’t miss Milloy, as free agent signing Rodney Harrison stepped in seamlessly at safety. Along with the rest of the holdovers from the 2001 defense, New England allowed the fewest points in the league (238, or 14.9 per game).
#3 - 2014 (Super Bowl XLIX)
Regular season: 12-4
Postseason: Won 35-31 vs. Baltimore Ravens, divisional round; Won 45-7 vs. Indianapolis Colts, AFC Championship Game; Won 28-24 vs. Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl XLIX
Offensive rank: 11 | Defensive rank: 13
Did the 2014 Patriots take it a bit too literally when it came to the idea that November and December are more important than September? You bet. When analyst Trent Dilfer now infamously said “let’s face it, they’re not good anymore” after the Patriots fell to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 4, 41-14, he wasn’t necessarily wrong.
Order was restored when New England, then 2-2, blew out the Cincinnati Bengals the following week and the rest is history. The Patriots lost only one meaningful game the rest of the way (Week 17’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, with homefield advantage already sealed up, doesn’t count) as a promising mix of young defensive players such as Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins mixed with mainstays Devin McCourty and Vince Wilfork and highly-touted imports Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to form a defense far more daunting than its metrics suggest.
Not that it factors in the final ranking, but the postseason this year also made for the best theater of this run by far. Multiple comebacks from 14-down against the Ravens and the entire fourth quarter against the Seahawks – which featured a 10-point New England comeback – made for two of the best all-around games, while the laugher against the Colts launched the 19-month soap opera known only as #DeflateGate. Add in the fact that this was New England’s first title in 10 years, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
#2 - 2007 (Super Bowl XLII)
Regular season: 16-0
Postseason: Won 31-20 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, divisional round; Won 21-12 vs. San Diego Chargers, AFC Championship Game; Lost 17-14 vs. New York Giants, Super Bowl XLII
Offensive rank: 1 | Defensive rank: 4
Unquestionably, the greatest offense not only in team history, but perhaps in NFL history. New England scored a then-NFL record 589 points, Brady threw for a then-record 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss hauled in a still-record 23 touchdowns and Wes Welker ignited the slot receiver renaissance. If not for a career special teamer making what would be the final catch of his NFL career in the Super Bowl, the 2007 Patriots would sit not only atop of these rankings, but be atop the list of the greatest NFL teams ever assembled.
Warning signs were present throughout the second half of the season that the Patriots weren’t infallible, though. Those pesky Giants gave New England all it could handle in a Week 17 game which completed the unbeaten regular season for the Patriots in a 38-35 victory at the Meadowlands. Even though Brady completed a league record 92.9 percent of his passes in the divisional game against the Jaguars, the game was tied at the half. Brady threw three picks in a sloppy win over the Chargers to get to the Super Bowl.
After averaging 36.8 points per game in the regular season, the Patriots mustered only 14 in their rematch with the Giants.
So many times under Belichick, New England has played its best football of the season in November and December after finding itself in September and October. The reverse was true in 2007, and they still came this close to being the only 19-0 team in league history.
#1 - 2004 (Super Bowl XXXIX)
Regular season: 14-2
Postseason: Won 20-3 vs. Indianapolis Colts, divisional round; Won 41-27 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, AFC Championship Game; Won 24-21 vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl XXXIX
Offensive rank: 7 | Defensive rank: 9
By 2004, Brady had proven that he was no fluke. His numbers still weren’t the flashiest and pale in comparison to what we’re used to today, but they didn’t need to be that season. Not with a bona fide No. 1 option at running back in Corey Dillon.
After years and years of production only accompanied by misery with the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillon exploded for a career-high 1,635 yards rushing, a number which remains the franchise record for a single season. The presence of Dillon alone is enough to bump the 2004 team over its immediate predecessor in 2003, which featured many of the same stars on defense.
Ty Law tore up his foot in the middle of the season, which wound up being the end of his tenure in New England, but the core of the ’01 and ’03 defenses remained intact. A young nose tackle out of the University of Miami named Vince Wilfork also came aboard as one of the team’s first-round picks in the draft.
Brady’s status as an all-time great was cemented when the Patriots captured their third Super Bowl in four seasons, even at the ripe age of 27. He’s cemented himself as the greatest to ever play the position by now, regardless of what happens on Sunday or in subsequent seasons.
Knowing Brady, there’s a pretty good chance these rankings could need a revision around this time next year.