Death, taxes, and the New England Patriots earning a first-round postseason bye: between 2010 and 2017, few bets in pro football were as safe as the Patriots being among the top two teams in the AFC and consistently having one of the best records in the NFL. 2018 — at least 15 weeks in — is different in this regard. After losing yesterday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots will finish the regular season no better than 11-5.
While this might still be enough to earn the team a first-round bye after all, it is a drop-off when compared to the eight-season stretch outlined above — one during which New England set a ridiculous standard of excellence and finished the average regular season with a 12.75-3.25 record. The last of the team’s versions not to win at least 12 of its 16 regular season contests is the now-infamous 2009 squad.
The story is well known. The team, getting quarterback Tom Brady back from a season-ending ACL injury, struggled with maintaining a consistent level of performance and mental toughness all year long. While they ultimately went 10-6 and recaptured the division title, the 2009 Patriots saw their season come to a devastating end in the wild card playoff round: the Baltimore Ravens blew the team out 33-14 at Gillette Stadium.
But while the 2018 Patriots are now the first team since the 2009 squad to not reach 12 victories, Bill Belichick will not compare the two. “It’s a lot different from 2009,” the Patriots’ head coach told WEEI earlier today. “We’ll see what happens. There’s still a lot of football left this year. I know our guys are very dedicated, work hard. Nobody feels good today, nor should we. We’ll see what we can do this week.”
The dedication and work ethic Belichick mentions are probably the main difference to a 2009 team that lacked clearly-defined internal leadership structures after veteran players like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel all left during the offseason. And even though Belichick will not say anything bad about the present-day team, it is not hard to see why he feels different about the 2018 roster and its long-term outlook.
“I think it’s a tough group of players,” Belichick said during a conference call earlier today when asked about the mental toughness of the current roster. The Patriots, of course, again do have leaders in the mold of the Bruschis and Harrisons of the world in players like Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower, and Devin McCourty. The existence of a similar leadership void like in 2009 is therefore unlikely to impact the team like it did nine years ago.
“Like anything, like every year, there’s always room for improvement and that’s the way it is every year,” Belichick continued. “We always try to perform at our best in every area, whether that’s mental toughness, situation football, running game, passing game, kicking game, you name it. I mean, we always try to perform at our best, and being physically and mentally tough is a big part of this game.”
That being said, the 2018 team still struggles with some of the same on-field issues the 2009 squad had to deal with — especially when it comes to consistency. It is therefore no surprise that a clip taken from the NFL Films documentary A Football Life: Bill Belichick filmed in 2009 appears to ring true in 2018 once more: “I just can’t get this team to play the way I want it to play,” Belichick told Brady during a loss in New Orleans that year.
And while the head coach won’t compare the two squads — at least publicly at this point in time — it is not hard to see some similarities at the surface. The next two weeks and the start of the postseason after them will reveal in which category this 2018 team will ultimately end up in: sharing the “disappointing”-label with a squad like 2009’s, or rather being a championship contender again like the Patriots were from 2010 to 2017.