The New England Patriots have ranked in the top ten of point differential for 12 of the past 13 seasons (sorry, 2005) and finished in the top four in 9 of the past 12 (2005, 2008, 2013). A lot of credit goes to the offense, which has finished in the top four in each of the past six seasons, but I want to talk a little bit about an underrated aspect of the Patriots dominance.
I don’t think anyone would confuse any Patriots defense of the past decade to the 2002 Buccaneers, 2005 Bears, or 2006 Ravens. I would argue that even though the Patriots have had many really good defensive squads over the years (2004, 2007, 2015 for starters), New England has only had two truly transcendent defenses under head coach Bill Belichick- 2003 and 2006.
According to my seasonally adjusted Points per Drive metric- which accounts for the fact that offenses were scoring far fewer points in 2001 than they are are in 2015- the Patriots have had an above-average defense in all but four seasons under Belichick- 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2011. And this leads to a fact that I think might surprise some folks.
The New England Patriots have allowed the 3rd fewest points in the entire league since 2000, behind just the Steelers and Ravens. The Patriots have allowed the 3rd fewest points in the league over the past decade, also behind just the Steelers and Ravens. The Patriots have allowed the 5th fewest points in the NFL over the past five seasons, behind the Seahawks, Steelers, 49ers, and Ravens.
Of course, keep in mind that the rankings change when you look at it on a per drive level. The Patriots still rank 3rd when you look back to 2000, but the Ravens jump ahead of the Steelers for first place. The Seahawks leap into 3rd, just ahead of the Patriots, when looking at the past decade.
The Patriots fall to 8th when looking at per drive rates over the past five seasons, trailing the Seahawks, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers, Texans, Broncos, and Ravens.
But this means that even though the Patriots haven’t fielded a top five defense by points since 2009, they still remain one of the top units in the league. There might not be an elite defense to pair with the elite offense, but the defensive is consistently one of the best in the league.
Keep in mind that the Patriots offense ranks first on per drive levels over all three time frames, so a consistently very good defense is more-than-enough to compete on an annual basis.
I think that this speaks to the brilliance of Bill Belichick. His defenses have evolved over the years, from the 3-4 to the 4-3 to the 4-2, and yet they are always competitive. He doesn’t benefit from having a defensive equivalent of Tom Brady, yet he continues to put quality units on the field with vastly different personnel.
The offense and Brady certainly deserve a large share of the credit for the team’s success over the years. Just remember that the defense continues to be one of the best in the league, regardless of the players on the roster.