When Tom Brady's final pass of the year fell incomplete, it sealed the fate of the 2017 New England Patriots: they would end the season in second place, defeated in Super Bowl LII by the Philadelphia Eagles. What is following the loss on the game's biggest stage is an offseason of questions – most of them surrounding a defense that gave up 41 points – and likely personell turnover both on the field and on the sidelines.
It is, unfortunately, a familiar place to be in for a Patriots franchise that has lost three of its eight Super Bowls of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. New England, of course, bounced back relatively well from both previous losses: In 2008, coming off an upset defeat at the hands of the New York Giants, the team went 11-5 and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker; in 2012, the Patriots reached the AFC Championship Game.
As has been the case for most of the NFL's salary cap era, the Patriots are the exception to the rule as other Super Bowl losers have not fared that well during the seasons that followed:
1994 Buffalo Bills (7-9; missed playoffs): After four straight Super Bowl losses, Buffalo finished the first year under the newly introduced salary cap with a 7-9 record and just the fourth place in the AFC East. The Bills, who were uncharacteristically inconsistent on defense, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1987.
1995 San Diego Chargers (9-7; wild card playoff loss): Following their first-ever trip to the Super Bowl, the Chargers decreased slightly in 1995. Coming off an 11-5 campaign that saw the team rank in the top ten in scoring on both sides of the football, the offense took a step back. The team still reached the playoffs but lost at home in round one.
1996 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6; divisional playoff loss): Pittsburgh went 11-5 in 1995 and 10-6 in 1996, all behind one of the NFL's best defenses. However, with Mike Tomczak as the new starting quarterback – Neil O'Donnell left in free agency –, the offense became more prone to mistakes and did not play at the same level it did one year earlier. It all showed in the 28-3 divisional round loss against the Patriots.
1997 New England Patriots (10-6; divisional playoff loss): Head coach Bill Parcells left the Patriots after their loss in Super Bowl XXXI and was replaced by Pete Carroll. New England still fared well under Carroll and for the first time ever defended a division title. However, after a hot start to the year, the team – especially on offense – cooled off significantly and was ultimately eliminated from the playoffs in the divisional round.
1998 Green Bay Packers (11-5; wild card playoff loss): After going 13-3 the prior year, Green Bay took a slight step back in 1998 but was still able to finish the year 11-5. It was not enough to win the division title, though, as the Packers were swept by the Minnesota Vikings and thus had to play in the wild card round. The team lost the game and did not return to the playoffs until the 2001 season.
1999 Atlanta Falcons (5-11; missed playoffs): Just one year removed from its first-ever Super Bowl and a 14-2 campaign that featured top five units on offense and defense, the Falcons finished 1999 with a losing record. One of the reasons for the disastrous campaign was multiple core players from 1998 no longer being on the team due to injury or free agency. The remaining players were unable to string together consistent play.
2000 Tennessee Titans (13-3; divisional playoff loss): The Titans came up “one yard short” in Super Bowl XXXIV but were able to repeat their 1999 regular season performance the following season. However, Tennessee ran into the eventual Super Bowl champions in the divisional round and the team's up-and-down offense scored only 10 points against the Baltimore Ravens.
2001 New York Giants (7-9; missed playoffs): Despite Michael Strahan setting an all-time record with 22.5 sacks, the 2001 Giants' defense was unable to play on the same level it did just one year earlier. As a result – and with the offense also taking a step back – New York went just 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
2002 St. Louis Rams (7-9; missed playoffs): After their upset loss at the hands of the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Rams regressed mightily the following year. St. Louis, with an ailing Kurt Warner at quarterback and a struggling defense, started the year 0-5 and was never able to recover – the “Greatest Show on Turf” era was officially over.
2003 Oakland Raiders (4-12; missed playoffs): Age and injury started to catch up with the Raiders after the team's Super Bowl loss just one year earlier. As a result, the team would win only four games and missed the playoffs in what turned out to be the final season of head coach Bill Callahan as well as wide receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown.
2004 Carolina Panthers (7-9; missed playoffs): In 2003, the Panthers were the NFL’s surprise team all the way to a Super Bowl berth. However, the team was unable to follow up with another successful campaign as injuries and inconsistencies caught up to it. Ultimately, Carolina finished in just third place in the NFC South and out of the playoffs.
2005 Philadelphia Eagles (6-10; missed playoffs): The 2005 Eagles became the fifth straight Super Bowl loser to miss the playoffs the following year. As has been the case with other teams before them, a combination of injuries and bad play – particularly on a defense that slid from second in scoring in 2004 to 27th in 2005 – led to the team's demise.
2006 Seattle Seahawks (9-7; divisional playoff loss): Neither Matt Hasselbeck nor Shaun Alexander were able to play at the level they did one year earlier when Seattle had the league's top offense, but the Seahawks were still able to win nine games in 2006. And while the team registered four fewer victories than in 2005, it was enough to win the NFC West and advance to the divisional playoff round.
2007 Chicago Bears (7-9; missed playoffs): Chicago went 13-3 in 2006 but was plagued by inconsistency en route to the Super Bowl – inconsistency that did not get any better the following year: The Bears, with a revolving door at quarterback and a defense that lost its coordinator from the previous season, won only seven games and finished in last place in their division.
2008 New England Patriots (11-5; missed playoffs): One quarter into the 2008 season, reigning league MVP Tom Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury. While the Patriots, retaining a sizeable portion of their 16-0 2007 roster, still came within a tiebreaker of winning the AFC East behind backup Matt Cassel, the team ultimately missed the playoffs.
2009 Arizona Cardinals (10-6; divisional playoff loss): Behind an improved defense, the 2009 Cardinals were able to improve their record from the previous year – a season that ended with a Super Bowl berth – and earn another division title. Arizona looked poised to make another run at the title but was eliminated from the postseason by the eventual champions New Orleans Saints.
2010 Indianapolis Colts (10-6; wild card playoff loss): Led by Peyton Manning, Indianapolis' offense was its usual productive self. However, the team's defense regressed in 2010 and as a result, the AFC South champions had to go through the wild card playoffs. There, they ran into a talented New York Jets defense that limited Manning and company to 16 points and came away with an upset win.
2011 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4; wild card playoff loss): The polar opposite of the 2010ish Colts, the Steelers featured the league's top defense in both 2010 and 2011 but an offense that was not always able to help out. Still, Pittsburgh finished 12-4 again and only lost the division title on a tiebreaker. Therefore, the team had to travel to Denver in the wild card round where it was upset in overtime by the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.
2012 New England Patriots (12-4; AFC championship loss): Despite winning one fewer game than the 2011 Super Bowl team, the 2012 Patriots were a more complete team – one that featured the league's top offense and ninth-ranked defense. However, the team chose the AFC title game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens to play its worst game of the season and was eliminated from the playoffs.
2013 San Francisco 49ers (12-4; AFC championship loss): Like the 2009 Cardinals before them, the 2013 49ers were able to improve their record from the Super Bowl previous season. However, it was not enough to win the NFC West title against the upstart Seattle Seahawks – the team that ultimately ended San Francisco's title game hopes with a win in the conference championship.
2014 Denver Broncos (12-4; wild card playoff loss): In 2014, one year after fielding the statistically best offense of all time, the Broncos were still among the best teams in the NFL. However, they once again fell short of the ultimate goal as the season came to a crashing halt behind yet another lackluster performance by Peyton Manning and the team's offensive unit.
2015 Seattle Seahawks (10-6; divisional playoff loss): Statistically, the 2015 Seahawks were equally impressive as the 2014 team that was one Malcolm Butler interception from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. However, the numbers did not translate into wins as Seattle won two fewer games and was ultimately knocked out of the postseason in the divisional round.
2016 Carolina Panthers (6-10; missed playoffs): As impressive as the 15-1 Panthers were in 2015, as disappointing was their 2016 season. Both the offense and the defense – despite retaining all coordinators – took a step back and as a result Carolina started the year with a 1-5 record. The team played slightly better after its bye week but never was able to gain any momentum towards a playoff spot.
2017 Atlanta Falcons (10-6; divisional playoff loss): After their historic collapse in Super Bowl LI, the 2017 Falcons made it back to the tournament as a wild card team: Even though the offense under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian was not as successful as it was in 2016, Atlanta went 10-6 behind an improved defense. Unfortunately, the team came up short against the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
How will the 2018 Patriots compare to the list of Super Bowl losers above? Will they be added to the teams – 10 in total so far – that missed the playoffs? Or will they become the salary cap era's first squad defeated on the biggest stage to return the following season? Those are the million dollar questions; questions that can and will not be answered in late February.
When looking at the list above, though, we can recognize patterns that led to each team's performance the following season. Just look at the early 2000s when five straight Super Bowl runner-ups missed the playoffs due to a combination of injuries and aging rosters. Or one of the trends on the recent teams to lose the Super Bowl but still be successful the following year, consistency at coach and quarterback as well as a fairly young roster especially on defense.
New England has the latter things in place with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady returning and a relatively young team in all three phases of the game. And while, yes, some core contributors are up for free agency, the Patriots appear to be in a financial position to either keep them (Nate Solder) or replace them (Malcolm Butler) through the open market or the draft.
The Super Bowl hangover, statistically speaking, is certainly real: No second-place team of the salary cap era made it back to the big dance the following year, while only two were able to improve their regular season records. As noted above, 10 missed the playoffs altogether. However, this does not mean that New England's fans should automatically look to the 2019 season as the next best chance to earn a title.
After all, the Patriots have a) the pieces in place to make another run at a title in a conference that lacks clear-cut competitors, and b) bucked trends all Belichick/Brady era long. It would therefore not be a surprise to see the team – barring unforeseen injuries, of course – make another run at ring number six in 2018.