Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The fourth team to be analyzed is… the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS!
The 2016 Patriots: New England’s Dynasty is Reborn
After winning Super Bowl XLIX over the Seattle Seahawks and narrowly missing another Super Bowl berth with their loss to the Denver Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship, the Patriots entered the 2016 offseason ready to make another championship run under head coach Bill Belichick. During the free agency period, Belichick would sign several key players including wide receiver Chris Hogan from Buffalo, defensive end Chris Long from St. Louis, cornerback Eric Rowe from Philadelphia as well as tight end Martellus Bennett and linebacker Shea McClellin from Chicago. The Patriots front office also used the NFL Draft to select key starters Joe Thuney (offensive lineman, NC State), Malcolm Mitchell (wide receiver, Georgia), Elandon Roberts (linebacker, Houston), and Jacoby Brissett (quarterback, NC State) to provide depth on their playoff experienced roster.
However, even with these new additions, the Patriots would be without their starting quarterback, Tom Brady, for the first four weeks of the 2016 regular season due to Deflategate allegations from the 2014 AFC Championship against the Colts. But, despite this setback, the Patriots dominated the AFC and finished with a 14-2 record after rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett as well as Jimmy Garoppolo began the year 3-1 during Brady’s suspension. With Tom Brady, running back LeGarrette Blount as well as wide receiver Julian Edelman leading the NFL’s 3rd ranked offense, the Patriots finished with an 8-0 record on the road while linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Devin McCourty led the league’s No.1 ranked scoring defense during the season.
After finishing the regular season with seven straight wins, the Patriots playoff run began with a 34-16 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round before taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship. In their first AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh since 2004, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a convincing 36-17 win over the Steelers as New England advanced to their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history.
With a chance to win their 2nd Super Bowl in three years, the Patriots struggled in the first half of Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons and trailed 21-3 at halftime. But, after allowing another scoring drive midway through the 3rd quarter, the Patriots started to come back and wear down Atlanta’s defense. After cutting the score to 28-12 with under 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, New England’s Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower forced a critical fumble that led to another Patriots touchdown along with a two-point conversion to make the score 28-20.
As the Patriots defense forced the Falcons to punt late in the 4th quarter, Tom Brady took the field with 3:30 on the clock and began driving down the field. After a miraculous reception from Julian Edelman just before the two-minute warning, New England’s offense scored another touchdown and converted another two-point conversion to force the first overtime in Super Bowl history. With the Patriots receiving the ball to start overtime, New England’s dynasty was about to be reborn as Tom Brady led another touchdown drive to erase a 25 point deficit and win Super Bowl LI by the score of 34-28.
2016 PATRIOTS OFFENSE
Pro Bowl Selections: QB Tom Brady
Strengths: Balanced offense and lack of turnovers. After running a pass heavy style of offense since Stevan Ridley’s breakout season in 2012, Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator for the Patriots, changed his offensive philosophy in 2016 and used running back LeGarrette Blount consistently throughout the year to complement his passing attack. However, after Tom Brady returned in Week 5, the Patriots started to lean on their passing attack more, but still rushed over 100 yards six times in their final 12 weeks of the regular season (New England also had over 100 rushing yards in Weeks 1-3).
The 2016 Patriots also committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL (11; 9 lost fumbles, 2 interceptions) and had a disciplined offense with only 93 penalties (4th fewest in the league). With New England’s 4th ranked passing attack and 7th ranked rushing attack wearing down opposing defenses, the Patriots offensive line played a big role in 2016 by allowing 24 sacks (5th fewest in the NFL) and led the way for LeGarrette Blount to rush over 1,100 yards during the year.
Weaknesses: Running back depth. Despite LeGarrette Blount leading the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns and rushing over 1,000 yards for the first time since 2010, the 2016 Patriots averaged only 3.9 yards per carry during the regular season (24th in the league). With Blount’s power running style and James White’s receiving ability out of the backfield, New England did not have an explosive offensive attack, but Josh McDaniels played under a ball control philosophy that allowed the Patriots to average 2:45 per drive in 2016 (7th in the NFL).
2016 PATRIOTS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Pro Bowl Selections: MLB Dont’a Hightower, FS Devin McCourty, ST Matthew Slater (All-Pro)
Strengths: Rushing defense. After experiencing a difficult 2013 season with the 30th ranked rushing defense in the NFL, Matt Patricia, the Patriots defensive coordinator, turned New England’s defensive line and linebacker units into one of the league’s best over the next two years. In 2016, Patricia and his Pro Bowl linebacker, Dont’a Hightower, had the NFL’s 3rd best rushing defense by limiting their opponents to 88.6 rushing yards per game and allowed only six rushing touchdowns during the regular season (fewest in the league).
In the playoffs, Patricia and Hightower continued their regular season success by holding the Steelers to 54 rushing yards in the AFC Championship before limiting Atlanta’s 5th ranked rushing offense to 104 rushing yards in Super Bowl LI.
Weaknesses: Passing defense and overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s No.1 scoring defense in 2016, Patricia had the league’s 12th ranked passing defense and struggled to pressure quarterbacks during the season with only 34 sacks (16th in the NFL) as well as 13 interceptions (15th in the NFL). Despite a Pro Bowl season from Devin McCourty, the Patriots secondary unit had difficult stretches during the season as well as the postseason by allowing 190 first downs in 2016 (13th in the league) and allowed 751 passing yards in their three playoff games.
The 2016 Patriots also struggled with their special teams unit, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski was the AFC’s 3rd leading scorer with 127 points while punter Ryan Allen had a quiet year with 72 punts (17th in the NFL) while averaging 44.7 yards per punt (22nd in the league) and Matthew Slater earned Pro Bowl/All-Pro honors as a gunner on New England’s special teams unit (tackling specialist). However, New England struggled to find a solid and consistent kick/punt returner during the regular season as Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and 2nd round draft pick Cyrus Jones (cornerback, Alabama) split punt return duties while Joe Judge, the Patriots special teams coordinator, used nine different players to return kickoffs in 2016.
UP NEXT… THE STORY OF THE 2007 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS!