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Alex Speier

Do the Patriots improve after ‘ugly wins’?

Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia confer during Saturday’s win over the Texans.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

In the wake of the Patriots’ less-than-dominant victory over the Texans in the NFL’s divisional playoff round, a common line of thinking emerged: This was exactly the sort of ugly win coach Bill Belichick would use to inspire the team to prepare with greater purpose and precision going forward.

But is there any truth to the idea?

Anecdotally, the Patriots need to look back only two years to recall an instance where an abomination of a game — a 41-14 pounding at the hands of the Chiefs in which they turned over the ball four times — gave way to inspired play. The Patriots followed that defeat with the “On To Cincinnati” 43-17 demolition of the Bengals in which they didn’t turn the ball over once. That season concluded with the fourth Lombardi Trophy of the century for New England.


Yet while that game seemingly crystallized the idea that the Patriots can use careless play — such as Saturday’s three-turnover performance against Houston — as a springboard for excellence, evidence beyond it is murky.

Since 2001, there have been 39 games in which the Patriots turned the ball over three or more times. They managed a 16-23 record (.410) in those contests — a shocking rate of success in the face of such sloppy ball-handling relative to the rest of the NFL. No other team in the league has a winning percentage of better than .341 since 2001 when turning the ball over three or more times.

The league average winning percentage in such games is .208 — roughly half of the Patriots’ mark. Still, a .410 winning percentage is also roughly half that of the Patriots’ success in all of their other games over the last 16 regular seasons. It’s a formula for bad results, and the turnover-obsessed Patriots know it, which helps to explain the subdued locker room tone in the wake of Saturday’s win.


So what happened in the past in the wake of such contests, aside from the sight of a player like Stevan Ridley being forced to cradle a football every waking moment?

Typically, the Patriots have been excellent after three-turnover games. They have a 30-9 record (.769) following such regular-season contests, while trimming their turnovers from an average of 3.5 in the offending contests to 1.0 the subsequent week.

The winning percentage, while seemingly dazzling, is more along the lines of a return to the norm than a sign of unusual excellence, given that New England has an overall winning percentage of .766 in the regular season since 2001.

That said, New England has won each of its last six and 10 of its last 11 regular-season “game afters” dating to 2009, committing one turnover or none in all but one of those follow-up contests. In the last eight seasons, there are just four instances where the Patriots have had multiple turnovers in at least two straight games.

However, that’s the regular season — when the level of competition following a sloppy game is random. In the playoffs, there is at least in theory a funnel that creates stiffer competition in every round.

The Patriots have managed to overcome sloppy playoff games in the past. With their win over the Texans, they are now 4-3 under Belichick when turning the ball over three or more times in the playoffs; the rest of the NFL since 2000 is 12-78 (.133) in such contests.


That said, in the three other January instances in which the Patriots “won ugly” — the 2006 divisional win over the top-seeded Chargers, the 2007 conference championship against the Chargers, and the 2011 conference championship win over the Ravens — New England lost its next game, falling to the Colts in the 2006 conference championship, and losing to the Giants in a pair of Super Bowls.

In each of those three games, the Patriots reduced their turnovers, with one in each of the “game-after” contests. But if Belichick proved capable of using one sloppy win to motivate his roster in the subsequent practices, it didn’t show up in the outcome.

The inability to follow a sloppy, turnover-laden win with another victory in the playoffs has been a common theme in the NFL this century. Prior to Saturday, 14 teams since 2000 had won a conference playoff game when turning the ball over three or more times. The record of those teams in the following game is a combined 3-11 (.214).

What followed sloppy playoff wins
How teams that won playoff games with 3-plus turnovers fared in the next round (2000-2016)
Team Year Round Opponent Result Turnovers Next Game TOs in next game
Patriots 2016 Division Texans W 34-16 3 ? ?
Seahawks 2014 Conference Packers W 28-22 5 Loss 1
Panthers 2014 Wild Card Cardinals W 27-16 3 Loss 3
Colts 2013 Wild Card Chiefs W 45-44 4 Loss 4
Patriots 2011 Conference Ravens W 23-20 3 Loss 1
Patriots 2007 Conference Chargers W 21-12 3 Loss 1
Patriots 2006 Division Chargers W 24-21 3 Loss 1
Colts 2006 Wild Card Chiefs W 23-8 3 Win 2
Seahawks 2005 Division Redskins W 20-10 3 Win 0
Steelers 2004 Division Jets W 20-17 3 Loss 4
Titans 2003 Wild Card Ravens W 20-17 3 Loss 1
Titans 2002 Division Steelers W 34-31 4 Loss 2
Steelers 2002 Wild Card Browns W 36-33 3 Loss 1
Giants 2000 Division Eagles W 20-10 3 Win 2
Dolphins 2000 Wild Card Colts W 23-17 3 Loss 4

Perhaps this year’s Patriots represent an outlier within that group given that they led the NFL in fewest turnovers during the regular season. But it’s worth noting that other teams that excelled at ball protection during the regular season such as the 2013 Colts (fewest turnovers in the NFL in the regular season) and the 2004 Steelers (fifth-fewest turnovers) continued to cough up the ball the week after their sloppy postseason victories, with both teams getting bounced from the playoffs while turning over the ball four times.


Perhaps the Patriots will indeed tighten up their play Sunday against the Steelers, in a way that dissolves the disappointment they expressed after the game against Houston. However, their own track record and that of other playoff teams suggests that week-to-week postseason improvement is anything but a given, and may even prove an exception rather than the norm.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.