FOXBOROUGH — It began, somewhat surprisingly, with a 24-20 home loss to the New York Giants last season.
Streaks have to start somewhere, and the Patriots’ record-setting run of offensive production was born in last-minute defeat. Since then, every time the Patriots play a regular-season game, their fans can expect a few things: The team will defer if it wins the opening coin toss; Tom Brady will throw a touchdown pass; and New England will walk off the field with at least 350 yards of offense.
Dating to that Nov. 6 game with the Giants, the Patriots have eclipsed 350 offensive yards in 16 consecutive regular-season contests, which ties the NFL record set by the St. Louis Rams in 1999-2000. Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that the Patriots claim the record for themselves by beating the Rams on Sunday in London’s Wembley Stadium.
For those trying to convince someone that a consistently high-powered offense still lives in Foxborough, 16 straight is a pretty strong reference point.
“We have a good quarterback and a lot of good players you can give the ball to,” said tight end Aaron Hernandez. “As long as some of them come to play, then we’re going to have a lot of yards.”
The Patriots have had their share of close calls during the streak. Last Sunday, for one, when the Jets took a 26-23 lead into the final minute.
A field goal on the last play of regulation by Stephen Gostkowski forced overtime. At that point, the Patriots had just 333 yards, but then added 48 in overtime, finishing with 381 and extending the streak.
It’s not the lowest yardage total during the 16-game streak. The Patriots finished with 362 in a 31-24 win Dec. 4 over the Colts, and 380 in a 34-3 victory Nov. 21 against the Chiefs.
Good thing the league specifies regular-season streak, because if it included the playoffs, the number of Patriots games with at least 350 yards would have ended at 10. The Patriots failed to hit 350 in each of their last two playoff games: a 23-20 win in the AFC Championship against Baltimore (330 yards), and a 21-17 loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI (349).
Reaching the threshold hasn’t always meant wins. During the 16-game streak, the Patriots are 12-4; that’s the same record the ’99-’00 Rams — dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” — had during their streak.
“I’m a lot more concerned about wins than yards. I don’t really care about the stats,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Whatever we did or didn’t do in the past against somebody else or last year, great, whatever it was. But we just have to do a great job this week against a good football team. I just care about scoring more points than the other team.”
The Patriots have done a lot of that during their streak, averaging 33.0 points per game.
Ever since Brady became one of the best quarterbacks in the league, the Patriots have had an offense that’s been able to move the ball. So, what’s allowed them to do it so consistently over the past 12 months?
“When you have smart players, which the Patriots have, and you have the most complete head coach in football, and then you’ve got Tom Brady, and you got a Wes Welker and a [Rob] Gronkowski and a Hernandez and a [Deion] Branch, you can have a lot of success,” said Heath Evans, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, played with the Patriots from 2005-08, and is now an analyst with NFL Network. “They’re so diligent in their approach, and this year, when they want to, they’ve added this brutal up-tempo running game.”
Evans meant brutal in a complimentary way, because the rushing attack has helped the Patriots pile up the most total yards in the NFL this season, with 3,053 through seven games.
The Patriots have done it, at least this year, with offensive balance. Stevan Ridley is seventh in the league in rushing yardage, with 589; Brady is second in passing, his 2,104 yards just 5 behind Eli Manning of the Giants.
The positive gains are what have placed the Patriots on the verge of an NFL record. But Brady points to something else as equally important.
“There aren’t a lot of negative plays. I think last week there were only two negative plays out of 80, which is pretty good,” Brady said. “If you’re not going backwards and killing yourself with penalties and turnovers and really not beating yourself, you can usually put yourself in a good position to win the game.
“Gaining yards is certainly important, but scoring points is more important. You’ve got to be able to move the ball well enough to put yourself in the positions and ultimately make the plays down in the red area.”
Twelve years ago, those high-flying Rams had Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az-Zahir Hakim. Weapons at every skill position.
“One word I would use would be explosive,” Belichick said. “All those players, they could score pretty much from anywhere on the field.”
The current Patriots might not be built that way, but they’ve generated enough offense for 16 games now to overcome a shaky defense and win their share of games. Sometimes it’s been with the run, but it usually has been through the air, using Brady’s skill and experience to slowly slice up a defense.
“Offensive football is about 11 guys being on the same page,” Brady said. “No matter what you call, you don’t call plays that aren’t designed to gain significant yards. If you execute them the right way, they’re productive.”