It’s hard to say what the best Patriots team ever assembled was.
The 2007 team – but for a handful of 50-50 plays that went against it – would be hands-down the greatest team in NFL history. Instead, they are the greatest team that didn’t win a Super Bowl. But there was that handful of plays.
And the 2016 team, even without Gronk, pulled off the most amazing win in Super Bowl history.
The 2003 team was a defensive menace.
Hell, if you really want to get into the weeds, take a look at the roster of the 1976 Patriots that went 11-3, handed the Super Bowl champion Raiders their only loss (by 32 points) and got jobbed in Oakland in the playoffs.
We could unspool mythical matchups all month if you want … but right now, let’s get after what I consider to be the two most talented Super Bowl winning teams, the 2004 Patriots against the 2014 Patriots. We are presuming full strength for both teams so Ty Law is full-go for the 2004 team, Jerod Mayo is on the field for the 2014 team
Let’s hit the numbers.
The 2004 team went 14-2. Its losses were at Pittsburgh after a 6-0 start, a defeat that snapped their NFL-record winning streak dating back to the previous year. That’s the game that Law went down. They also lost inexplicably to the 4-12 Dolphins on a Monday night in December when Tom Brady threw a pick from his ass.
The ’04 team scored 437 and allowed 260, rolling up 5,722 yards of offense while allowing 4,972. In the playoffs, they beat the Colts 20-3, crushed the Steelers in Pittsburgh 41-27 and dusted off Philly 24-21 to win the Super Bowl.
It was a different NFL in terms of what was allowed in pass defense and the numbers reflected it. Tom Brady threw for 3,692 with 28 touchdowns and 14 picks, completing 61 percent of his passes with 7.8 yards per attempt.
Deion Branch missed a chunk of games as well so he finished with just 35 catches. David Givens led the team with 56 for 874 and David Patten had 44 for 800. The tight ends were Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham with Mike Vrabel pinch-hitting.
This team’s offensive heartbeat was Corey Dillon who carried 345 times for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. He carried 65 more times for 292 in the playoffs. For those that never got to see Dillon live, compare him to Marshawn Lynch or Ezekiel Elliott. The 1,635 remains a Patriots record and is the 46th most in a season in NFL history. The 345 attempts are 63rd in NFL history but only three players older than the 29-year-old Dillon ever carried more in a season (Walter Payton, Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber). As a team the Patriots ran for 2,134.
On special teams, Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown split punt returns and they were meh. Bethel Johnson was a threat on kickoff return. The Patriots allowed a lot on punt returns (11.8 yards) and were fine on kickoff returns. Adam Vinatieri had an All-Pro season making 31 of 33 field goals and Josh Miller was a better-than-average punter.
The defense is what puts this team where it is in NFL history. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Keith Traylor and Jarvis Green were the front in the Patriots 3-4. The linebackers were Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin and Roman Phifer.
The secondary was Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson, Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay. They had 20 picks, 16 fumble recoveries and 45 sacks. They allowed 18 touchdown passes and 38.8 percent third-down conversions.
Let’s be honest, that’s a stupidly good defense. All those guys are at the height of their powers in terms of age except Phifer and Traylor. They were smart as hell, played brilliantly together and had Romeo Crennel as their defensive coordinator.
Man-for-man, this defense is better than the 2014 defense.
The 2014 team reflected the change that happened in a decade’s time. They went 12-4 losing the opener in Miami, getting walloped by the Chiefs, losing a great one at Green Bay and mailing it in against the Bills in Week 16.
They scored 468 and allowed 313. They put up 5,848 yards of offense but allowed 5,506. A much better Brady threw for 4,109 with 33 touchdowns and just nine picks. He completed 64 percent of his passes and averaged 7.1 per attempt.
They were really tough to match up with. Julian Edelman had 92 catches for 972 yards, Gronk had 82 for 1,124, Brandon LaFell had 74 for 953, Danny Amendola had 27 for 200 and Shane Vereen leaked out for 52 passes for 447 yards. The evolution of offense would have made the Edelman/Amendola combo a pain in the ass at the second level for 2004 the Patriots linebackers.
The running game in 2014 was useful but not really “good.” Jonas Grady led the team with 412 yards, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount all ran for more than 280. Blount would not have enjoyed going against this defense and probably wouldn’t be on the field too much in this mythical matchup.
Special teams coverage and returns were better in 2014 with Edelman and Amendola splitting returns and the Adam Vinatieri/Stephen Gostkowski contest had Gostkowski by a nose.
Defensively, there’s some damn talent. The front was Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at the ends, Chris Jones and Wilfork inside along with Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and Dominique Easley. Linebackers would be Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo as the starters with Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in the mix.
The secondary would be Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Malcolm Butler at corner with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung at safety.
So how would this one go? Almost like the Seattle Super Bowl.
The 2014 Patriots damn sure wouldn’t run on 2004 so everything would come down to ‘14 Brady trying to dissect with Edelman and Vereen while dealing with an incredibly disciplined defense that didn’t give up catch-and-run opportunities.
How would you like to watch a Harrison-Gronk matchup all day? Or Phifer-Gronk? Or Law on Edelman. LaFell could be a problem for Samuel with his size and strength (and Poole).
Belichick would take away Edelman first, then Gronk. Then he’d see if the Amendola-Vereen-LaFell group could beat them and the ’04 defense would be asked to beat them up.
And while the ’04 Patriots may have chewed up Peyton Manning with regularity, they’d never seen anything like the 2014 Brady.
When the ’04s have the ball? There’s Revis on Branch so bye Deion. And the strength of Browner can deal with the strength of Givens. Alan Branch, Wilfork, Mayo and Hightower make it miserable for Dillon.
So who does it come down to for yards. Kevin Flippin’ Faulk. Just as he was a pain in the posterior for the Eagles, Steelers and Colts in the playoffs, the smarts and suddenness of Faulk is something the 14s wouldn’t be ready for.
And the battle of wits between Charlie Weis and Matt Patricia? I’d take Weis.
So how’s it end? Like this. It’s 17-14 after a Stephen Gostkowski field goal from 57 yards. The Patriots get it back with 1:30 left and – chip-chip-chipping away with Faulk and a rejuvenated Troy Brown to get inside the ‘14s 20-yard line with three ticks left.
Obviously, overtime. UNTIL!!!! Mike Vrabel leaks off the sideline in a trick play similar to the one the 04s ran against the Rams that year and Vinatieri finds Vrabel all alone on the doorstep of the end zone …
But wait … that’s Malcolm Butler’s music!!!
Both teams at full strength, who wins a game between the 2004 Patriots and the 2014 Patriots?— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) June 28, 2019
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