By now, we’ve learned to expect greatness from the New England Patriots. Winning is our default expectation for them. Bill Belichick & Co. have been favored in more than 90% of Tom Brady’s starts since the future Hall of Famer returned from his torn ACL in 2009. They are 2-0 this season, and unless you firmly believed that New England was subject to some sort of Miami curse after dropping five of its previous six games on the road against the Dolphins, you’re probably not surprised.
Even by the lofty standards set by the Patriots, though, they’re off to a spectacular start. They followed a 33-3 win over the Steelers in Week 1 with a 43-0 shellacking of the hapless Dolphins in Miami on Sunday. They have outscored their two opponents by 73 points. If that seems like a lot, consider that the last time an NFL team outscored its opponents by 73 points or more during the first two weeks of a season was in 1975. Belichick’s team is off to the third-fastest start for any franchise in NFL history.
This is about as good as any football team will play over a two-week span. Going back through the beginning of the Belichick-Brady dynasty in 2001, the Patriots have won back-to-back games by 30 points or more only once, back in 2012. (The second of those two victories was the Butt Fumble game.) The Pats haven’t ever produced a plus-73 point differential over a two-week span; the closest they came was in 2007, when a 21-point win over the Dolphins and a 45-point victory over Washington got the Patriots to 8-0.
You probably remember that team, of course; the 2007 Patriots became just the second team in NFL history to go undefeated during the regular season, starting 16-0 before eventually losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots’ first half of that regular season is still the most dominant two months of pro football I’ve ever seen, and it changed the league forever.
Those Pats never had a two-game stretch as dominant as the one we’ve just seen this team piece together to start the season. The parallels between the two aren’t particularly subtle. The ’07 Pats could do everything, but Belichick transformed his offense by adding impact wide receivers. The 2007 team retained Jabar Gaffney and added Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and a mercurial star who had washed out in Oakland by the name of Randy Moss.
These Patriots, on the other hand, started with a much better returning wideout in Julian Edelman. They got Josh Gordon back from suspension in August and then added Antonio Brown once the Raiders ended their brief relationship with Brown before Week 1. New England also has first-round pick N’Keal Harry waiting in the wings, although the Arizona State product is on injured reserve and will miss at least the first half of the season.
We’ve only seen Brown, Edelman and Gordon on the field together for one game, and it was against a Dolphins team that might very well be one of the horrific NFL teams of this era. It wasn’t the same sort of dominant passing day we saw from the 2007 Patriots, who seemed to respond to the Spygate scandal from Week 1 by lighting their opponents on fire. A dominant passing attack wouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it was in 2007, when Brady leveled up and became one of the best passers in league history.
It’s wild to predict that any team that starts 2-0 will eventually go 16-0, and I’m not trying to do so here. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the Patriots have just a 1.9% chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. To put that in context, FPI gave the Dolphins a 14.1% shot of beating the Patriots outright on Sunday, while the money line at the Caesars Sportsbook implied Miami’s odds were at 8.7%. You saw how unlikely Miami’s chances actually were if you watched the game Sunday.
And yet, it’s not too early to point out that there’s the opportunity for something special to happen here. The Patriots are about as well-positioned to get off to a hot start as any team in recent memory. Given their current level of play, that could make things very scary for the rest of the NFL.
Reasons to get excited about 16-0
We knew things were expected to be easy for the Pats heading into the season. FPI projected them to enjoy the league’s second-easiest schedule in 2019, with only the Jets going up against an easier slate. They already have one of their two Dolphins games out of the way, but their schedule — especially during the first half of the year — now seems easier than it did before the season began. Consider what their next few weeks look like:
The Patriots play a Jets team in Week 3 that won’t have Sam Darnold, who is out with mononucleosis. New York won’t have C.J. Mosley and Quinnen Williams against the Browns and will be coming off a short week because it plays on Monday Night Football, so it’s unclear whether Mosley and Williams will be ready for Sunday. Starting linemen Kelvin Beachum and Brian Winters are questionable, while Le’Veon Bell will play through some shoulder trouble. Would-be starters Quincy Enunwa and Avery Williamson are also out for the year.
Week 4 will see the Pats face the Bills, who have looked dominant defensively in getting out to a 2-0 start. This is likely a tougher game than it seemed before the season.
Seven days later, the Pats will face a Washington team that hasn’t yet convinced star tackle Trent Williams to end his holdout and return to the organization. Jay Gruden’s team has started 0-2 and has been outscored by 15 points; it might well be transitioning from Case Keenum to rookie Dwayne Haskins by Week 5.
In Week 6, the Patriots host the Giants on Thursday night.
After a long week, the Pats get the Jets again; while Darnold is expected to be back on the field by then, it’s unlikely the second-year passer will be back at 100 percent after losing weight while recuperating.
In Week 8, the Patriots host a Browns team that got blown out at home in its season opener after an offseason of hype. It’s still way too early to count Cleveland out from contending, of course, but the Browns didn’t impress in their first game under Freddie Kitchens as head coach.
After that, the schedule admittedly gets tough. Over a six-week stretch, the Patriots host the Cowboys and Chiefs and travel to face the Ravens, Eagles and Texans, with a bye week thrown in. They finish up by traveling to face a Bengals team that is already riddled with injuries before coming home for two final games against the Bills and Dolphins.
Stephon Gilmore picks off Ryan Fitzpatrick and runs it back 54 yards for a touchdown. On the next drive, Jamie Collins intercepts the ball as well and takes it back 69 yards for another Patriots touchdown.
I don’t like the check mark way of projecting a team’s future record, which is the thing we all do when a team’s schedule comes out and we run through their week-by-week slate. Too many unforeseen things happen. Every Browns fan on the planet would have expected to beat the Titans at home in their opener, and Cleveland lost by 30 points.
By FPI, though, the Patriots have a 30.1% chance of making it through the first half of the season undefeated. They have gone undefeated through their first eight games of the season only twice during the Belichick era. One of those seasons was 2007, obviously, while the other came in 2015, when they started 10-0 before losing to the Broncos. Denver then beat New England in their playoff rematch.
Likewise, there are reasons to think the Patriots are a much better team than we expected even as the preseason began. It wasn’t clear whether they were going to get Gordon back at any point for the 2019 season, but he was allowed back into the NFL in mid-August after he applied for reinstatement over the summer. He’s still likely not in football shape, but Gordon has shown an ability to strike up a connection with Brady. After his first three games in a Patriots uniform, Gordon averaged 74.5 receiving yards per game during his final eight appearances in 2018. He added 73 yards and a touchdown in the opener before a quiet day against the Dolphins. You can count the receivers in the NFL who have Gordon’s athletic ability on one hand.
As unlikely as Gordon’s presence in a Patriots uniform might have been, Brown was on another level. It would have been absurd to script his path to the Patriots over the past month, but the former Steelers star officially made his debut in a Patriots uniform Sunday. He took no time to make his presence known, catching three passes on the opening drive before adding a 20-yard touchdown later in the half. Brown would have had a second touchdown if it weren’t for an uncharacteristic underthrow from Brady. He was targeted on eight of Brady’s 28 pass attempts, a surprisingly large ratio for a wide receiver who is still realistically learning a complex Patriots scheme. The 31-year-old was targeted on 57.1% of the routes he ran, which seems at odds with the postgame suggestions from Belichick that the Patriots weren’t trying to force Brown the football.
This was a team that was already expected to contend for a Super Bowl this season, even after losing Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson without signing any veteran replacements. Pats fans were talking themselves into guys like Maurice Harris and Jakobi Meyers in the preseason; now, they’ve upgraded with significantly more talented receiver options. New England’s ceiling is unquestionably higher with Brown and Gordon at receiver.
Why 16-0 is unlikely
The Patriots have a better shot of going 16-0 than any other 2-0 team in recent memory. Those chances are still extremely small, even if I’m more optimistic than FPI’s prescribed odds of 1.9%. So many things had to go right for those Patriots to go 16-0 in 2007. Counting on all of those things to happen again is a tall order:
The 2007 Patriots stayed healthy. No team can go all season without any injuries, but those Pats came pretty close. Richard Seymour started the year on the PUP list, and starting guard Stephen Neal missed time with a shoulder injury, but the only starter to hit injured reserve with an injury suffered during the season was Rosevelt Colvin, and he wasn’t lost until Week 13.
The modern-day Patriots already have lost one starter for the season in center David Andrews, who was placed on injured reserve with blood clots. The offensive line is quickly becoming a concern, as right tackle Marcus Cannon missed the Dolphins game with a shoulder injury. The Pats signed veteran Marshall Newhouse on Wednesday and inserted him into the starting lineup; when left tackle Isaiah Wynn was ruled out with a foot injury, the Patriots then shifted Newhouse to Brady’s blind side. If Wynn’s foot injury is serious, they will have major concerns protecting Brady, no matter how good his receiving corps looks.
Their opponents weren’t healthy. The Pats ran into five backup quarterbacks during their 16-0 season; Cleo Lemon started twice for the Dolphins, A.J. Feeley suited up for the Eagles, and Kyle Boller sat in for Steve McNair with the Ravens. J.P. Losman technically started the Week 3 game for the Bills, but he was knocked out after the opening series and replaced by Trent Edwards for the majority of the game. The Patriots beat the Feeley-led Eagles and the Boller-led Ravens by only three points each. They might very well have lost if the Eagles had Donovan McNabb or the Ravens had McNair. Brady also threw three interceptions in the AFC Championship Game against the Chargers, but the Patriots’ defense held a Chargers team that lost LaDainian Tomlinson in the first quarter and had Philip Rivers playing through a torn ACL to 12 points.
Belichick is likely to face his first backup quarterback of the season on Sunday in the Jets’ Trevor Siemian. It’s impossible to project anything further beyond that point, but tough games down the line against teams such as the Chiefs, Eagles and Ravens wouldn’t be anywhere near as difficult if their starting quarterbacks were injured.
The 2007 Patriots caught some breaks. As dominant as the Patriots were during the first half of the season, it’s easy to picture a number of their games going the other way with a few small moments going the other way. In one of the games of the century against the Colts, Peyton Manning turned the ball over down 24-20 at midfield on a third-and-9 with 2:34 left. In the Eagles game, Feeley drove Philly to the Pats’ 29-yard line with 3:58 to go, only to throw an interception to Asante Samuel.
The most memorable narrow victory was the 27-24 win over the Ravens, which included Ed Reed fumbling away an interception return in what would have been field goal territory at the end of the first half. With the Pats trailing 24-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots false-started on a fourth-and-1 play that went for a loss. Brady scrambled to convert the ensuing fourth-and-6, then picked up a fourth-and-5 via a holding penalty. They scored on the ensuing play, and while Boller hit Derrick Mason on a Hail Mary on the final play of the game, Mason caught the ball at the 2-yard line and wasn’t able to score.
The 38-35 victory over the Giants wasn’t quite as close as people remember — the Giants scored a touchdown with 1:08 to go to get within three — but you can see just how little it would have taken for things to swing the other way and for the 16-0 season to turn into a 14-2 or 15-1 campaign. Even if the Patriots are as good as they seem right now, they’ll have a game or two where they’ll need a penalty flag at the right time or a gift from their opponents.
The receivers the Patriots have now might not be the receivers the Pats have in December. Moss’ fit with the Patriots wasn’t as rosy as it’s been later depicted. There were rumors before Week 1 that the Patriots were about to release him after he struggled with a hamstring injury during preseason. That didn’t happen, and Moss pieced together one of the best seasons from any wide receiver in league history. There are more significant concerns with New England’s additions. Gordon has missed 59 games since the start of 2014 as a result of multiple suspensions. Brown’s behavior on the field and in the facility over the past 12 months has been curious at best, and he was recently accused of sexual assault in a civil case. Even Edelman, who served a four-game PED suspension in 2018, would be subject to a 10-game suspension if he failed a second test.
Brady was 30 in 2007, and he’s 42 now. As incredibly as Brady has aged, and as much as he has developed over that time frame, every single quarterback on the planet is going to be better at 30 than he is at 42. This doesn’t mean that Brady has somehow become a liability or that I’m counting out his chances of accomplishing anything in 2019 whatsoever. (I’d like this on the record in case Brady busts out “everyone thinks we suck” again during his postseason interviews.) He is still an upper-echelon quarterback, of course, but it’s going to be harder to throw and recover as the season wears on with 12 more years of wear and tear on his body. That’s only going to be more difficult if the Pats can’t keep their starting offensive linemen healthy.
The defense might not be as good as it seems. The Patriots finished 16th in defensive DVOA last season and then lost their best pass-rusher, Trey Flowers, to Detroit in free agency. They traded for defensive end Michael Bennett, brought back linebacker Jamie Collins, and drafted pass-rusher Chase Winovich in the third round, but Belichick didn’t make any other significant additions on defense.
New England has now allowed three points through two weeks. It is the best defense in football after two games, and it has even chipped in 14 points on interception returns. Given that the Pats are relatively talent-neutral with a defense that was middle of the pack last season and haven’t fielded a top-10 defense by DVOA since 2006, I don’t think they’re going to continue to be the best defense in football over the remainder of the season. We’ll need to see them against a real offense to confirm this hypothesis, but the Pats might not go up against an above-average offense until they get the Browns in Week 8.
If I had to pick a record for the Patriots right now, I’d go with 13-3, even after this molten start. FPI, meanwhile, also projects them to win 13 games.
Does it actually matter?
The Patriots’ legendary pairing of coach and quarterback usually isn’t hard to read. They both want to win more than anything else, which is why Belichick opened the locker room to Brown and Brady literally offered the four-time All-Pro the option to stay at his house during the season. Nobody gets sick of winning the Super Bowl, and the Patriots enter every season in Super Bowl-or-bust mode.
I wonder, though, whether an undefeated season would mean more to Belichick and Brady now than it would have in 2007. What else do they need to prove? New England has won six Super Bowls during this dynasty. The Pats have more Super Bowl rings than any other coach (Belichick’s eight) or player (Brady’s six) in football history. The one thing they came close to accomplishing but failed to achieve was a perfect season. To call it a blemish on their record would be wrong, but it’s also the one thing Brady and Belichick might look back and wish they had accomplished as a duo. Going 19-0 might have seemed impossible before 2007. Twelve years later, while it’s still not likely, the Patriots know an undefeated season is possible.