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The Patriots and the First-Round Playoff Bye: Taking a Trip Down Memory Lane

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The Patriots have earned a first-round playoff bye 10 times. Let's take a look back.

Do your job, Bill!
Do your job, Bill!
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Wild card weekend is right around the corner, and for the fifth consecutive year, the New England Patriots will not participate in the first playoff round: the team has earned a first-round bye after winning their week 16 game against the New York Jets.

The 2014 season marks the tenth time since the current playoff format was instituted by the NFL in 1990, that New England will not play on the first weekend of playoff action. Over that 24-year time span, no other team has earned a first-round bye as often as the Patriots, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers coming closest with eight byes apiece.

Let's take a look at the Patriots' previous nine first-round byes and how successful they were in the playoffs.

1996: The Second Trip to the Super Bowl

Seed: 2

Record: 11-5 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost Super Bowl XXXI

Entering the 1996 playoffs, the Patriots' last postseason win dated back to 1985, when the team won the AFC Championship Game to reach the franchise's first Super Bowl. 11 years later, the Patriots would reach their second Super Bowl after earning the AFC's number 2 seed and a first round playoff bye.

Bill Parcells' team started the playoffs well: led by running back Curtis Martin's 166 yards and three touchdowns, the team steamrolled the visiting Steelers 28-3. The next week, the Patriots hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the second straight week, the team did not give up a touchdown and won 20-6 to advance to Super Bowl XXI. However, the Patriots were unable to win their first Lombari trophy against the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe turned the ball over four times, while the team gave up three 50-plus-yard-touchdowns; New England lost 21-35.

After the Super Bowl, Parcells left Foxboro to join the New York Jets (taking Martin with him). He was replaced by 49ers defensive coordinator Pete Carroll.

2001: The First Super Bowl Win

Seed: 2

Record: 11-5 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Won Super Bowl XXXVI

Bill Belichick was in his second year as New England's head coach and Tom Brady was in his first year starting, when the Patriots won their first Lombardi trophy. After winning the AFC East with an 11-5 record and securing a first round bye (oddly enough, the Patriots had two bye weeks in a three-week-span; the first coming in week 16, the second during the Wild Card round), the Patriots hosted the Oakland Raiders in what is now known as the Tuck Rule Game.

The story is well known: a lost Tom Brady fumble was reversed into an incomplete pass and the team would go on to tie the game at 13 five plays later, thanks to an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Vinatieri then would kick the game winner in overtime, securing a 16-13 victory and a trip to Pittsburgh to face the number one seeded Steelers. The Patriots won 24-17 and advanced to the franchise's third Super Bowl, in which the team beat the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams 20-17

The defense played a physical game against the Rams' potent offense and registerd three takeaways. The offense, on the other hand, was efficient and did not make a major mistake. Furthermore, Brady orchestrated the game winning drive with 1:21 left on the game clock (and no timeouts). The rest, as they say, is history.

2003: The Second Super Bowl Win

Seed: 1

Record: 14-2 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Won Super Bowl XXXVIII

After missing the playoffs in 2002, the Patriots were back in the tournament the following year. The team went 14-2 and earned the first number one seed in franchise history. After the bye, the Patriots hosted the Tennessee Titans and co-MVP Steve McNair. The defense held the fifth ranked offense in the league in check, while Charlie Weis' offense did enough to give the Patriots a 17-14 win.

One week later, the team faced another co-MVP, when Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts came to Foxboro. The Patriots once again beat a high-powered offense by playing physical, opportunistic and smart football. Cornerback Ty Law had three of the team's four interceptions and the Patriots won their fourth AFC title 24-14.

In one of the most entertaining Super Bowls ever played, the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 to win their second Lombardi trophy. Tom Brady delivered another MVP-performance, while Adam Vinatieri kicked his second Super Bowl winning field goal and linebacker Mike Vrabel registered two sacks, one forced fumble and one touchdown reception.

2004: The Third Super Bowl Win

Seed: 2

Record: 14-2 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Won Super Bowl XXXIX

The 2004 Patriots held the number two seed in the AFC after finishing the season 14-2. After their first round bye, a familiar opponent visited Gillette Stadium: Peyton Manning, who threw a then-record 49 touchdown passes in 2004 and led the league's highest scoring offense. However, the Colts were able to score only three points against the Patriots, who once again out-muscled their opponent.

Just like in 2001, the AFC Championship Game was played in Pittsburgh. One week after holding the league's number one offense to a mere three points, the Patriots were able to score 34 against the league's number one defense. The Patriots, who also scored on a Rodney Harrison interception return, won the game 41-27 and advanced to their third Super Bowl in a four-year span.

Just like the Patriots' last two title games, Super Bowl XXXIX was a close affair in which the team played complementary football at its best. The offense was efficient and the defense opportunistic, coming away with four takeaways and four sacks. Wide receiver Deion Branch caught a then-Super-Bowl-record 11 passes and was named MVP.

2007: Perfect Season's Greetings

Seed: 1

Record: 16-0 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost Super Bowl XLII

The Patriots cruised through the regular season undefeated; winning the average game by almost three touchdowns. The machine that the 2007 Patriots were, however, would start to slow down by the end of the year.

After their first-round bye, Tom Brady played one of the best postseason games of his career (26/28, 262 yds, 3 TDs) and the Patriots beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-20. The next week, the Patriots struggled offensively against the visiting San Diego Chargers, but still remained undefeated; winning 21-12, while not giving up a touchdown. The winning-streaking, however, would not continue in Super Bowl XLII.

2010: One-and-Done

Seed: 1

Record: 14-2 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost Divisional Playoff Game

For the third time in franchise history, the Patriots earned the number one seed in the AFC. They would, however, not take advantage of it. Instead, the team went one-and-done for only the second time in the Brady-Belichick era (the first one coming the year before), as they lost their divisional game against the visiting New York Jets 21-28. It did not help that Tom Brady was sacked five times, nor that tight end Alge Crumpler dropped a first quarter touchdown pass. The Patriots had a hard time moving the ball on offense, while being unable to stop the Jets on defense.

2011: Another Trip to the Super Bowl

Seed: 1

Record: 13-3 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost Super Bowl XLVI

Just like the year prior, the Patriots entered the playoffs as an offensive powerhouse, scoring the third most points in the league. This strength was on full display after the first-round bye, in a 45-10 dismantling of the visiting Denver Broncos on divisional weekend.

In the AFC Championship Game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens, however, the Patriots would struggle on both offense and defense (a unit that featured receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater as defensive backs), turning the ball over three times, while coming one Sterling Moore-strip in the end zone away from losing the game. Yet, the Patriots still won 23-20, thanks to Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left in the game.

New England once again advanced to the Super Bowl, where the team once again lost to the New York Giants.

2012: Ravens' Revenge

Seed: 2

Record: 12-4 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost AFC Championship Game

The Patriots looked dominant in 2012, winning games by an average of two touchdowns, while scoring the most points in the NFL. Due to this, the team went 12-4 and earned another first-round bye. Just like the year before, the team would blow out its divisional playoff opponent; this time it was the Houston Texans, whom the Patriots defeated 41-28. The team, however, lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season due to a broken arm.

And just like the year before, New England would struggle in the AFC Championship game: the visiting Ravens, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the game convincingly 28-13. The Patriots had problems on offense and defense, and were shut out in the second half, 21-0.

2013: An Injury Riddled Season

Seed: 2

Record: 12-4 (1st AFC East)

Season Result: Lost AFC Championship Game

Last year's season was similar to 2012: New England dominated its divisional opponent before losing the AFC Championship game. The Patriots, who missed starters on both sides of the ball entering the playoffs, started well after their first-round bye: they cruised past the visiting Indianapolis Colts 43-22; rushing for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the process.

The following week, the team had to travel to Denver. The Patriots lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense and were unable to get into any sort of rhythm. Thus, the team lost its second consecutive AFC title game; this time 16-26.

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To sum up, the Patriots' playoff results after earning a first-round bye have looked as follows:

Season End Point

Quantity

Divisional Round

1 (2010)

AFC Championship Game

2 (2012, 2013)

Lost Super Bowl

3 (1996, 2007, 2011)

Won Super Bowl

3 (2001, 2003, 2004)

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Past performances, of course, are not indicative of future events. However, they do show us that anything is possible come playoff time, and that the margin of error is slim.

There are various reasons why the Patriots were or were not successful in years past. Injuries, one particular unit not playing its best football, or questionable coaching decisions – all those things can derail a team's quest for the Lombardi trophy.

Thus far, the 2014 Patriots have looked mostly solid in all areas, and have laid a good foundation to build upon. Let's hope that the team's development continues and in the end yields the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title.

Mission IV is underway.