Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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Saints Domination

As I was watching Drew Brees line up under center late in the fourth quarter with another 2+ score lead and in complete control of the game, yelling his signature cadence with his signature voice before handing the ball off to his RB for what was sure to be another first down, the players on the other team just watching solemnly knowing there is nothing they can do, I couldn’t help but feel I had seen this before. It seems that at least half of the primetime games I’ve watched in the last 2 1/2 years have been the Saints just completely destroying the other team. It seems that if you get the Saints in New Orleans during primetime (sunday or monday, specifically), it’s almost guaranteed to be a blowout. Chris Collinsworth said that it almost doesn’t matter who the other team is anymore in these situations. While that may sound silly at first, it really does feel true. I wondered if I was just selectively remembering the games where the Saints dominated in these situations. In definitely hasn’t always been the case, but more often than not, especially as of recent, it does hold true. In 2008 (I haven’t looked before then) the Saints had 2 primetime games at home. One was a 27-30 loss to the vikings; the other, a 51-29 rout of the Packers. That’s 1/2 games where the Saints dominated (Keep in mind the Saints were 8-8 that year with a pretty bad defense. Keep in mind also I’m not working with a formal definition of “dominated”.) In 2009 the Saints had 2 primetime sun/mon games: A 35-27 defeat of the Falcons and a 38-17 rout of the Patriots. Even though if my memory serves correctly the Falcons would have had to recover an onside kick to win, I still won’t count that game because it was only a one score win. So that’s 1/2 games the Saints dominated. 2010, the “superbowl hangover” year, was not a great year for the Saints or Drew Brees, (by normal Saints/Drew Brees standards) and they really did not dominate many teams that year, primetime or daytime. In primetime sun/mon games, they had a 14-9 win over the vikings and a 20-10 win over the Steelers, neither overly impressive. However, 2011 is where we really start to see this pattern emerge. The Saints had 4 sun/mon primetime home games that went as follows: Beat the colts 62-7, beat the Giants 49-24, Beat the Lions 31-17, Beat the Falcons 45-16. Oh, and let’s not forget about their home playoff win (albeit on Saturday, if my memory serves correctly) where they beat the Lions 45-28. So thats 4/4. (5/5 if you include the playoffs, although I am breaking my “only sun/mon” rule, which I really only put in place to discount NFL Network games such as the 2009 loss to the cowboys, which was really not as big a deal as the 2011 playoff win, because it was a reg season game, the Saints had already locked up a playoff spot, and who really likes NFL Network games anyway. So maybe the rule should be ESPN or NBC games? I don’t know. Moving on.) 2012 was another so-so year for the Saints, who lost Sean Payton for the year thanks to the Bounty Scandal. In primetime at home they beat the Chargers 31-24 and beat the (later would be 4-12) Eagles 28-13. Neither amazingly impressive, although the Chargers game was a pretty good game by Brees, who broke the record for cons. games with a TD (in the reg season only? you’ll have to check that one) that night.

Now here we are again in 2013, and all the Saints have done is destroyed the Dolphins 38-17 on Monday Night, and just now finished off their 49-17 defeat of the Cowboys, breaking the record for most first downs in a game. It’s not the first record that has gone in these situations, as I just mentioned the cons. TD record against the Chargers, and then there was the night against the Falcons in 2011 when Brees broke Marino’s record for most passing yards in a single season. I’m sure if you dug deep enough, you’d find plenty of other Brees records in these situations.

So there were the impressive Packers (2008) and Patriots (2009) wins and the Superbowl hangover 2010 season, but 2011 is where we see this streak really start to take off (we can also judge a pattern better due to the fact that the Saints simply had more primetime games this year). This is discounting 2012, which I think it’s fair to do as it’s pretty clear that Sean Payton is the mastermind behind this offense and it would be foolish to expect the same results without him in the mix.

The whole team seems to click in these situations, with defense, the running game, and the passing game often at their best. But most impressive in these situations is Drew Brees. In the aforementioned Packers (2008) and Patriots (2009) games, Drew Brees had a perfect passer rating. Against the Packers he was 20/26 for 323 yards and 4 TD. The Patriots? 18/23 for 371 yards and 5 TD. Against the Colts in 2011, he was 31/35 for 325 yards and 5 TD. He threw for 300+ yards and 3 or more TD’s in all the other 2011 home/primetime games. And the playoff game against the Lions that year? He went 33/43 for 466 yards and 3 TD’s. He definitely set at least one playoff record in that game, although I don’t remember what. (My best guess would be most passing yards.) In all the games I just mentioned except for the Atlanta game (broke Marinos record but threw 2 picks), Drew Brees had zero interceptions. Tonight he was 34/41 for 392 yards and 4 TDs. Oh yea, and no picks. I could go on and on, but you get the point. He finishes with ungodly, unhumanlike, numbers for completion percentage AND touchdowns AND total yards AND TO ratio. Most quarterbacks that have good games may finish with one, two, or even three of those, but rarely all four. For most quarterbacks, ONE game with any of these statlines would be a career game, but he does it again and again and again.

Again, are we selectively remembering the Saints and their good games? There are certainly other teams that have been consistently dominant as of recent–whose quarterbacks put up great numbers, who just completely destroy the opponents–namely the Packers and the Patriots. However, and I can’t completely put my finger on it, there’s something about the Saints that when they do it, it just seems more impressive. Again, it goes back to what I feel like Chris Collinsworth was trying to say. You just get the sense when watching them that they CAN’T be stopped, that the other team has absolutely no chance, that they’re just so damn relentless. I feel this more or at least more often when watching the Saints than I do when watching the Packers and/or Patriots. The way the Saints do it is unique. I’ll leave it to the analysts to figure out why.

People have said for a while now that the Saints, and especially Drew Brees, have an advantage because they play in a dome. You almost get the sense that people try to use this fact to detract from the Saints’ greatness. For example, when QB arguments come up, people have said that Tom Brady is better than Drew Brees because Drew Brees plays in a dome. (Just an example, not trying to start a QB argument.) Now, I don’t know for sure, but it does seem like playing in a dome does give you some sort of advantage. However, I think we have to keep some perspective here. There is a difference between saying playing in a dome gives you an advantage and saying playing in a dome is the reason that you are so dominant. Using the dome to justify the way that the Saints play is completely ridiculous. At the end of the day, they are the way they are because the players are incredibly talented, execute at an amazing level, and because the coaches (and by coaches I mean Sean Payton) game-plan and communicate like no other. You know what other team plays in a dome? The Rams. They haven’t had a winning season since 2003.

The amazing part (and maybe one of the reasons they are different from the Packers/Patriots) is it’s not like the Saints are beating up on weak teams. The 2008 Packers went 6-10, but the Saints loss was by far their largest margin of defeat. 2 of their losses were by two scores, the other 6 by one score. The Saints loss was their only 3 score loss. The 2009 Patriots were a 10-6 team, with all other losses coming by one score. The Saints loss was also their only 3 score loss. Going into the Saints game, they were 7-3. The same can be said for the 2011 Giants and the 2011 Falcons: Both of those teams suffered their only 3 score loss of the season by the Saints. The 2011 Falcons would move onto the Playoffs, and the 2011 Giants would win the Superbowl. Not to beat a dead horse, but what Cris Collinsworth said really sums it up: The opponent just doesn’t matter. It’s another reason why these wins are so impressive. Looking back, it seems like outside of the later to be 2-14 Colts, most of these wins were against decent opponents.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Drew Brees and the Saints are not only CAPABLE of putting together supernatural performances; they are doing it time and time again to the point where we expect it. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that what we are witnessing is truly special. We should enjoy it and not take it for granted, because what these Saints have been doing in these situations is unique, and there will come a day where the juggernaut does not exist anymore, and we will be lucky to have been able to witness it.

NOTE/UPDATE: I personally don’t really enjoy watching these Saints games. I’m not a Saints fan, and I get tired of seeing them run away with it again and again. I’d much rather watch a close game. But I do recognize that regardless of whether I  enjoy it or not, what they’re doing is very impressive, and I guess that’s my real point.