NBC Sports

Curran: Pats just might be the safest bet in unpredictable AFC

NBC Sports

I don’t know if the Patriots are the best team in the AFC. But they are the most trustworthy, predictable and -- somehow, despite the mammoth roster overhaul in the offseason -- the most consistent.

That could be seen as damning with faint praise given the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the other teams sniffing around the AFC playoff pod.

Just look at the whole mess.

2021 AFC Standings

Twelve of the 16 teams are 5-5 or better. Every current playoff qualifier has at least three losses. The No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans -- the Patriots' upcoming opponent -- have lost to two of the worst teams (Jets and Texans). The presumed AFC East favorite -- Buffalo -- lost to the other worst team in the conference (Jacksonville) and got blown out by the Colts. The AFC North-leading Ravens lost to the Dolphins, the worst team in the conference not named Jets, Texans or Jaguars.

The Chiefs lost to every current AFC playoff qualifier they’ve played -- Baltimore, Tennessee, Chargers -- and have scored more than 20 points once in their past five games (41-14 over Vegas).

NFL Playoff Picture: Where Patriots stand entering Week 12

The Ravens lost to the Dolphins and got waxed by the Bengals who got crushed by the Browns who got ripped by the Patriots. The Chargers beat the Ravens and the Chiefs and the Browns but got hammered by the Patriots.

So what about the Patriots and their four losses? All of them at Gillette Stadium? Do those hold up under scrutiny? I think so. The first loss came in the summer. The opener against Miami. That Patriots team doesn’t exist anymore.


The other three losses? One came against Tampa Bay -- a superior team in an emotionally-charged game -- that actually (for all the moral-victory deniers out there) put the fuel of self-belief in the Patriots tank. One came against Dallas, an overtime loss against a team with more talent and continuity but one which provoked self-disgust since the win was in their hands and the Patriots blew it.

The other loss was a mistake-plagued, never-really-showed-up loss to the Saints. That’s the only "WTF" performance the team has had all year.

Why are the Patriots a more predictable team than the rest? Because they are built in a functional way. Their offensive and defensive lines are very good. They have a punishing and productive running game. They are -- to borrow a baseball cliché that most definitely applies in football -- strong up the middle with Christian Barmore and Lawrence Guy (and others), Donta Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley and Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.

Their weird special teams blue period is over. They are fifth in punt return average (12.3 yards per return), third in field goal percentage (92.86%).  

They have yet to lose on the road (5-0). They have one loss in the conference (5-1). Here’s a litany of their defensive rankings.

Total YPG 313 (3rd)
Rushing YPG  101.7 (8th)
Passing YPG 211.5 (6th)
Interception rate 4.75 (1st)
Sacks/Pass attempt  7.39 (8th)
Third down success rate 35.46 (6th)
Red Zone TD percentage 48.28 (3rd)
Points per game 16.1 (1st)

The capture below shows you the Patriots' offensive and defensive stats relative to the rest of the league. Offensively, they are above the league average in all but three categories. Defensively, they are below (or above, since defense is about prevention) the league average in every single category.

Patriots Plus-Minus 2021

I understand the implications of comparing anything to 2001. It’s a loaded topic in that people who happen to be stubbornly moronic will bastardize the point thusly: “SO YOU’RE SAYING THEY WIN THE SUPER BOWL?!?!?! YOU’RE SAYING MAC JONES IS GOING TO BE BETTER THAN TOM BRADY?!?!?!”

Yeah. Exactly. These Patriots are going to beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl and Adam Vinatieri’s going to kick the game-winner. You absolute rube.

With that out of the way, back to live action. The similarities between the teams both in performance and architecture are ... astounding.

Next Pats Podcast: Why Mac Jones is good enough to win the AFC East... and maybe more | Listen & Follow | Watch on YouTube

Young quarterback who makes some mistakes but also thrives in highly-competitive situations thanks to accuracy and acumen. Maybe he won’t go out and win you a game on his own but he sure as shit won’t blow one for you. Punishing running game. Smart, physical, opportunistic. Very good special teams.

Those Patriots started 1-3. These Patriots started 2-4. Those Patriots were 5-5 and never lost again after a tight loss to the defending Super Bowl champions. These Patriots have lost once since their loss to the defending Super Bowl champions dropped them to 1-3.


Honestly, this 2021 team is statistically superior to the 2001 team and has waaaayyyy more well-compensated high-end talent at some spots (tight end, edge rusher).

Patriots Plus-Minus 2001

Does history repeat? I don’t know. It’s a little far-fetched. And there’s an incredibly intriguing regular season still ongoing.

But every little thing that’s happened with this team since 1993 -- the owner, the head coaches, the quarterbacks, the players, the themes, the stadium, the triumph, tragedy, controversy, timing and coincidences -- have all been part of the same thread that’s now run through almost 30 years of NFL history. A thread you never realized was being strung until you looked back and saw all the moments and all the overlap.

Did this year’s team discover itself in Foxboro against the defending Super Bowl champions? Just like the one from 20 years ago? Has this team -- just like that one -- realized their whole is better than the sum of its parts? Have all these newly-added players mixed with the good ones who were here to create lightning-in-a-bottle momentum that really only comes the first time around?

It’s too early to say, right? Maybe we can ask somebody who was there in 2001 who saw it up close and intimately. Like Mike Vrabel? He’ll be on the other sideline this weekend. Coaching the AFC’s top-seeded (for the moment) team. Because of course he would be, right?