I’ll admit that has to be the dumbest title possible. Let me explain how I think those contradictory terms might apply to the Patriots in 2011. First, the regress part. The Patriots won 14 games last year, and they did so, despite playing a pretty difficult schedule, by doing all the little things right, being uber-efficient, and taking advantage of opponent mistakes. The defense was far from dominating, but the team still finished at #1 in the league in point differential. The main reasons a team that did not completely shut down opponents finished that high: a ridiculously extreme turnover margin, great efficiency in the scoring zone on offense, and of course, the constant through all that, Bill Belichick.
The +28 Turnover Margin for New England last year was the second best mark since the merger, behind only the 1983 Redskins. The other teams in the 16-game era that had at least a +20 turnover margin averaged a 2.8 win drop the following season, going from 11.9 wins to 9.1 the next season. Only one of them, the 1986-1987 San Francisco 49ers, met or exceeded the previous year’s win total.
Of course, that’s not exactly saying much in New England’s case because we shouldn’t expect any 14-2 team to meet or exceed the win total, regardless of how they got there. If we apply that average decline for extreme turnover teams, we get 11.2 wins, right around the 11.5 wins offered by Vegas. Belichick teams usually do well in turnovers, but they don’t do that well. Tom Brady has been better than the league average at avoiding interceptions every year of his career. That has been more like 12.4 interceptions a season, though, and not the ridiculously low 4 interceptions on 492 passes last year. If we project him more in line with his career averages, that’s about 8 more interceptions right there.
The other thing is yardage, and this is somewhat tied to the turnovers. Earlier, I talked about the Dolphins and how they were decent at gaining or preventing yards but not points. The Patriots were the anti-Dolphins, cashing an average yardage profile into league leading point differential. They weren’t the only playoff team that fits this mold, as Atlanta and Chicago are also there, and Tennessee, despite going 6-10, was another team that did much better in points than yards.
Reversing the study I did in the Dolphins post, I looked at all teams since 1990 that were at least ten spots better in their point differential ranking than their yardage differential ranking. These teams declined by an average of 1.4 wins the next season. We may want to narrow that down a bit more, though, and look at playoff caliber teams. Focusing on those teams that won 11 or more games with a much better point to yards profile, those teams dropped from 11.9 to 8.9 wins the next season, a 3 win drop on average.
So, there’s lots of reasons to think that the Patriots will be more of an 11-12 win team this year, if breaks don’t go there way, if the turnovers normalize, and they aren’t quite as efficient at converting those yards to points. Which brings me to the other half, reloading. Even though I think they are a candidate to regress, they will still be a strong playoff contender and double digit winner. The Patriots have been paired with the Colts for the last decade, and would have exceeded the playoff streak but for twice being eliminated on division tiebreakers.
Unlike the Colts, I have greater confidence that the Patriots have reloaded and still have the presence of Bill Belichick. They’ve accumulated draft picks and turned over the roster besides Brady. Randy Moss has come and gone. Various veteran defenders have been let go. The team has transitioned from the defensive groups of the earlier part of the decade to a team driven by offense. That young defense needs to improve, but I think it will. The only major concern I have for more than just typical regression from a great season is the offensive line. The receiving group and running backs on offense are full of depth and don’t rely on any one player. The offensive line, which was a strength last year and gave Brady a clean pocket to work his magic, has three players–Koppen, Light, and Neal–who will be 32 or older this year. You never know when age hits hard in football, and if one or two of those guys drop off considerably, that’s the one area I could see causing more than just a 2-3 win fall back.
Assuming that doesn’t happen though, this is still a Super Bowl contender. Whether they get the #1 seed again, or have to go on the road to the Super Bowl, will depend on the little things that all went New England’s way last year.
2011 NFL PREVIEW: Chicago Bears
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[photo via Getty]