Remember when the Patriots started 2-2, the defense was playing awful, and the sky was falling after a headline-filled offseason that over-inflated expectations? Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Here we are in December and the Patriots find themselves in the same situation as they did a year. The Patriots are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Minnesota Vikings for the NFL’s best record, the defense has kept opponents under 17 points for 8 straight games, and the team is primed to make a run at defending their Super Bowl title. September may have been a speed bump for everyone, but the train is well on schedule as expected.
The New England Patriots currently rank 2nd on my NFL Rankings spreadsheet, less than half a point behind the top-ranked Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots fell to as low as 5th going into Week 10, but some of the top teams in the NFC have taken losses when they played each other in addition to the Patriots playing their best stretch of football. They have been the AFC’s best team since I started tracking in Week 8, and this is how each score breaks down for Week 14:
Schedule 87 (2nd): The Patriots hold the best record in the NFL at 10-2, as previously stated, but also have a .500 or better strength of schedule (.517) and strength of victory (.500). The Patriots are very close to the top-ranked Vikings, who have a slight edge due to a better strength of victory (.509) despite a weaker strength of schedule (.511). The Patriots’ only above .500 opponent left on the schedule is the 10-2 Steelers in Week 15, which could decide Home Field Advantage for the AFC Playoffs. The first order of business is snuffing out a terrible Miami Dolphins team without All Universe TE Rob Gronkowski, who is serving a 1-game suspension due to a stupid decision to body slam a defenseless Bills player.
Offense 74 (1st): An OK game from Tom Brady plus inconsistent red zone offense docked a point from the Patriots score, but they are still easily the top offense in the NFL by every per drive metric. The Patriots have the best points per drive, yards gained per drive, lowest turnover rate, and highest scoring rate in the NFL. The Patriots offense has been balanced with the running game becoming a major factor behind the two-headed monster of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead carrying the rock. The Patriots certainly aren’t perfect as given by only a slightly above average red zone score of 58. This may be the most dynamic offenses the Patriots have had since 2007.
Defense 53 (10th): It’s amazing how much the defense has improved this season. A unit that couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the first 4 games is top 10 on the spreadsheet after 12 games. The Patriots are 9th in points per drive allowed (1.60), 11th in turnover rate (12.8%), and 11th in TD% (19.2%) on the season, all of which due to amazing play from the secondary. Stephon Gilmore is playing like the elite shutdown corner the Patriots thought they signed, almost singlehandedly ending a Bills red zone drive with 0 points. The defense isn’t going to completely shut down opponents, but they are good enough that with an elite offense and special teams making things easier for them. With the best offense in the AFC field being arguably the San Diego Chargers, the Patriots could improve their score against bad offenses.
Special Teams 63 (5th): The Patriots have all their special teams scores above 50 once again after the punt unit fell under that total in Week 12. The Patriots return units are scoring in the mid 60s, ahead of their kick coverage units (59 and 51). The Patriots punt grade is somewhat impacted by their low net punting but that could be a function of field position more than anything else since the Patriots gain the most yards per drive and have the highest rate of drives that have at least one first down and/or score. Dallas, Baltimore, Los Angeles Rams, and Detroit are the four teams that have better special teams scores although that’s not surprising considering they each have really good punters.