The Patriots gave up fewer points than any other team in the NFL this year, but who’s counting? Well, for starters, the Patriots’ defensive players were.
“It’s something we were mindful of, for sure. I’m not going to lie to you. We wanted that,” cornerback Logan Ryan told reporters after the Patriots beat the Dolphins on Sunday to finish the year with an NFL-low yield of 15.6 points per game. “We felt like we were constantly slept on all year. Doubted all year. So for a group that didn’t have a lot of great players and gave up too many passing yards and didn’t really create enough turnovers, to be the best scoring defense in the last [three] years I think speaks for itself.”
But does it – particularly as it relates to the sort of performance that the Patriots might deliver in the weeks to come?
There are certainly promising precedents for New England. The last team to limit opponent scoring to the same extent as the 2016 Patriots was the 2013 edition of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” a team that sustained its regular season defensive dominance (14.4 points per game) en route to a triumph in Super Bowl XLVIII. And of the 26 Super Bowl winners since the playoff format expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1990, seven (27 percent) led the NFL in points allowed during the regular season.
Bill Belichick has been part of three teams that led the NFL in points allowed. Unsurprisingly, when entrusted with the right chess pieces, he’s proven capable of taking control of the board.
Two of the three Belichick teams to lead the NFL in points allowed – the 2003 Patriots and 1990 Giants – proved capable of shutting down some prolific offenses en route to Super Bowl titles. The 1994 Browns beat the Patriots in the wild card round before falling in the division round.
All 26 teams that led the league in points allowed in the 12-team playoff era reached the playoffs. On average, those teams claimed 1.3 wins each in the playoffs, with a combined winning percentage of .648.
But not all stinginess in points allowed is created equally. The problem in assessing the quality of the Patriots’ defense comes in the form of their schedule, or what colleague Dan Shaughnessy might call the March of the Tomato Cans.
As measured by Football Outsiders, the Patriots faced by far the worst group of offenses in the NFL this year. Indeed, according to Football Outsiders, New England’s defense had the easiest schedule (with their opponents collectively 7.1 percent below average) of any team in the NFL over the last six years. None of the Patriots opponents this year finished in the top seven in points scored.
And so, it’s difficult to look at the Patriots simply in terms of their points allowed and to reach the conclusion that they featured the best defense in the NFL this year. Football Outsiders calculates Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) by comparing a team’s defensive performance on every play to a league-average outcome while adjusting for the context of the game situation and quality of opponent.
In terms of DVOA, the Patriots had just the 16th-best defense in the NFL this year – the worst mark in the era of the 12-team playoff format (1990 to present) for any team that led the league in points allowed. There have been six Super Bowl winners since the 1990 season that finished 16th or worse in the Football Outsiders metric. Most recently the 2012 Ravens, who were decimated by injuries during the regular season, finished 19th in defensive DVOA but saw enough parts come together in January to roll through four playoff wins.
That said, of those six Super Bowl winners with Patriots-like DVOA ranks, five of those featured a top-10 defense (in terms of DVOA) the year before winning the Super Bowl – including those 2012 Ravens, who led the NFL in DVOA in 2011. That suggests a team with a solid defensive core that may have been affected by various factors, including injuries.
Four of those six finished in the top five in the year before they hoisted the Lombardi. The only exception was the 2009 Saints, a prolific turnover-generating group that ranked 17th in DVOA (one year after finishing 26th) en route to a championship … and infamy in the form of the Bountygate scandal.
What to take from all of this? It’s hard to say, given the uniqueness of the Patriots’ path to leading the NFL in points allowed, not to mention their path forward – where the rest of the AFC field features offenses that were decidedly mediocre this year.
The fact that the Patriots gave up the fewest points in the NFL this year represents a noteworthy accomplishment, but not, as Ryan suggested, one that “speaks for itself” when it comes to the team’s performance or playoff outlook.
In many ways, as has been so often the case in New England, the true measuring stick of defensive excellence will come based on whether the Patriots finish the year with a Lombardi trophy in hand.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.