Yes, it appears: Another season, another Patriots Super Bowl. Yet there must be some way to beat New England. Let’s try to find one.
First, we’ll convince you that the oddsmakers are right that the Patriots are the big favorites.
This week, while the Minnesota Vikings are 3-point favorites in Philadelphia against the Eagles, the Patriots are a comfortable 9.5-point pick at home over the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s nothing new: The Patriots were favored in every game this season, with spreads from 2.5 to 17 points.
The Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls and a minimum of 10 games for 15 consecutive seasons. The other contenders don’t have anything like that record of success. Entering this season, the Jaguars had six consecutive seasons with five or fewer wins. The Eagles were coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons. Last week’s miracle victory over the New Orleans Saints was the Vikings’ first playoff win in eight years.
And Super Bowl wins? The three other teams that hope to win the trophy this year have a grand total of zero among them.
We can hear Patriots haters saying: “Ugh. Give them the trophy already.”
But wait. The Pats were 13-3 this season. Ignoring the 13, what about the three?
— CHIEFS 42, PATRIOTS 27: Break Some Big Plays
In the first NFL game of the season, the Patriots fell to the Kansas City Chiefs after leading by 6 after three quarters. A few excited commentators started saying the collapse was a sign that the Chiefs were an elite team and that the Patriots’ dynasty was over. (It didn’t work out that way.)
Kareem Hunt, a Chiefs rookie, had 246 yards from scrimmage, which wound up being the third-highest total of the year. Key to the win were several big plays: a 75-yard Tyreek Hill reception and a 78-yard reception and a 58-yard run by Hunt. Make big plays like those and the Patriots may be in trouble.
Whatever the Pats were doing wrong, they corrected it. Those three big Week 1 touchdowns wound up being three of the five biggest ones against the team all season.
— PANTHERS 33, PATRIOTS 30: Get a Top-Notch Quarterback Effort
In October, the Pats lost at home again, to the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton was 22 for 29 with three touchdowns. By rating, it turned out to be his second-best game of the year. (The Chiefs also benefited from their quarterback: Alex Smith had his best game of the season in the opener, a 28-for-35, 368-yard, four-touchdown performance.)
Now, is Nick Foles, Blake Bortles or Case Keenum up to the challenge? Among the 44 NFL quarterbacks with three or more starts, they ranked 37th, 21st and 11th in adjusted yards per pass. (Brady was fourth.)
— DOLPHINS 27, PATRIOTS 20: Catch Them on a Bad Night
Perhaps the most surprising loss came in December at Miami. The Patriots were 10.5-point favorites, but lost. Brady threw two picks, his only multiple-interception game of the season.
The 5-7 Dolphins seemed an unlikely candidate to upset the 10-2 Pats. But because Miami took a 27-10 lead, the Patriots were forced to pass. They ran only 10 times, by far the fewest of the season. The Patriots somehow did not convert a third down for the first time since 1991 (they lost that game, too).
“It was a bad night,” said Brady, and it’s hard to see it as much more.
So, what are the keys to beating the Patriots?
— Exploit the Defense
As a team, the Patriots shone in many areas. At 40, Brady was again one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Rob Gronkowski was again an elite tight end, and receiver Brandin Cooks was another top weapon. The team’s top rusher, Dion Lewis, averaged 5 yards a rush and was a top returner. Stephen Gostkowski was among the kicking leaders.
Put it together, and the Patriots were third in yards per play, fifth in net yards per pass and second in points scored.
But their defense had some weaker numbers. It surrendered the fourth-most yards. It was second worst in yards per play and yards per rush. It was better against the pass, but still not great: 20th in net yards per pass, 18th in interceptions.
The Patriots did not have a single defensive player on the All-Pro team and only two in the Pro Bowl.
— Get to Brady and Stop Gronk
The Chiefs and the Panthers recorded three sacks in their wins. The Houston Texans sacked Brady the most, five times, and lost by 3.
Historically, there are more relevant precedents that provide the formula for preventing another Patriots Super Bowl parade. In their two Super Bowl upsets of the Patriots, the New York Giants sacked Brady a combined seven times — and also benefited from a safety when Giants pass rushers forced Brady into an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone. In the week before the first of those games, in 2008, the focus of the Giants’ defensive game plan was not only to badger Brady, but to distract him with contact in the pocket.
“We told the guys that even if Brady has thrown the ball, try to get a hit on him,” Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said after the game. “And for every time I told the guys that, Michael Strahan told them it another four times.”
Strahan considered the assignment to harass Brady a personal mission.
“We all have respect for Tom Brady, but no quarterback likes to be on his back every time he throws the ball,” he said. “We were tired of being thought of as a bit part in another feel-good story about the Patriots.”
Brady threw for only one touchdown in the game and was hit while passing 15 times. He spent most of the day ducking and moving in the pocket, backpedaling while throwing and generally looking out of rhythm. If there is a tried-and-true defensive recipe for defeating a Brady-led team, it is the same as it is for many quarterbacks: Make him uncomfortable. But in Brady’s case, it especially seems to be the kryptonite.
As for Gronkowski, he had two receptions for 26 yards in the second Super Bowl loss to the Giants. He did not play in the first. In this season’s three defeats, Gronkowski had a decent 80 yards against Carolina, but only 33 against Kansas City. He didn’t play in the third loss, against Miami, because of a suspension. Perhaps that was not a coincidence.
When Gronkowski does get to 100 yards, forget about winning. Over the last four seasons, the Patriots are 14-0 in those games.
— Can the Jaguars Do It?
The first team to try to stop the Patriots is Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon.
The Jags are going to run they ball; they did so more than any other team this season. And they have Leonard Fournette, a 1,000-yard rusher.
That might work: Hunt’s crazy season opener led to a win, and Kenyan Drake had 114 yards in the Miami loss. But 100-yarders from Melvin Gordon and Le’Veon Bell against the Patriots wound up being in losing efforts.
The Jaguars made their name with defense. Defensive end Calais Campbell will be looking to add to his 14 1/2 regular-season sacks. The Jaguars were second in sacks overall. It is a defensive unit that looks like a replica of the ones crafted by former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who is now the Jaguars’ executive vice president. Someday, Coughlin has a good chance to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the architect of the only two Super Bowl defeats of the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era. If his Jaguars stop the Patriots in this year’s AFC championship game, Coughlin will become a shoo-in for that honor. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey may be the player who tries to stop Gronkowski.
— Can the Vikings?
Minnesota would also have to win with defense. (The Vikings and the Jaguars were 1-2 in fewest points allowed.) Everson Griffen is their Calais Campbell, and look for the first-team All-Pro Xavier Rhodes on Gronk.
Keenum seems to be the quarterback best equipped to throw up a monster game, though there are some who still doubt his breakthrough season after several mediocre ones.
The Vikings would also have home-field advantage in the Super Bowl — something of an x factor, since it has never happened before.
— Can the Eagles?
With Nick Foles, instead of injured Carson Wentz, an epic quarterback performance is unlikely, although coach Doug Pederson seems to have figured out how to maximize Foles’ production. Philadelphia’s defense as a whole is not in Minnesota’s or Jacksonville’s class, although Fletcher Cox is frightening to offenses.
If the Eagles make the Super Bowl they will have won two games playing as underdogs at home; there is not a lot of respect for the Wentz-less Birds, and it would take an unexpected thumping of Minnesota for the Eagles to get any.
There are no easy answers. Beating the Patriots this season, as in most recent years, is a tall order. A deep dive into the numbers doesn’t reveal some magic bullet. But an early lead, some big running yardage and a lockdown defense with some sacks might be a formula for an upset.