Maybe you’ve noticed that there’s been an abundance of nostalgia recently regarding the 2007 Patriots and their unfulfilled quest to go 19-0.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote about how the “nearly perfect team changed the NFL,’’ providing context on their place in history. The Ringer’s Kevin Clark, like Barnwell a insightful observer of the NFL, wrote about how their offensive innovations live on around the league today.
Humorously and quasi-relatedly, Ryan O’Hanlon, also at The Ringer, opined that Bill Belichick is the best Jets coach of the 21st century despite resigning at his introductory news conference, a lovely joke and a cruel truth at once.
But the celebrations of the ’07 Patriots also must include this disclaimer: They cannot be the greatest team of this enduring dynasty, because unlike five other Patriots teams since 2001, they did not win a championship. To be considered the best Patriots team of the Belichick/Tom Brady era, that team has to be a Super Bowl winner.
It’s what they play for, and as spoiled as this sounds, it’s also the remarkable reality: anything less is a disappointment.
With that in mind, let’s ride this Patriots nostalgia wave and rank each team of the Belichick era, worst to first. The worst is obvious. The first should be too, now that we’ve established it’s not ’07.
17. 2000 Patriots (5-11, last in AFC East, minus-62 point differential)
On Aug. 1, two days before the official start of his 18th training camp as HC of the NEP, Belichick reminisced as only he can about his first camp with the franchise, when times were much different in Foxborough:
“Well, I mean, I’d say first of all, the biggest difference is in 2000, a quarter of the team couldn’t pass the conditioning run, so that wasn’t a very good start. We don’t really deal with that now or haven’t dealt with that in a while. Yeah, I don’t think there was a lot of commitment with that group. We obviously made a lot of changes from 2000 to 2001, and a lot of the guys that we stuck with from that team became pillars of the program, the organization in later years.”
I’m not sure Belichick can offer a more damning comment about a team than saying there was not a lot of commitment with the group. Comments lead you to a curious scan of the roster for the reminder of who was gone after that season. Bruce Armstrong, Chris Slade, Henry Thomas, Chad Eaton . . . man, did those guys miss out.
16. 2002 Patriots (9-7, second in AFC East, plus-35)
The champs started 3-0, so the hangover wasn’t immediate. But then they lost four straight, including a frustrating Week 6 loss to the Packers in which Kevin Faulk failed to hustle after screen pass that the recovering Packers defense recognized was a lateral. I recall writing that Faulk should be cut after that careless blunder, since he was redundant with J.R. Redmond anyway. I also recall Belichick kept him around. Not sure how it worked out. I’ll research it.
15. 2009 Patriots (10-6, lost to Ravens in wild-card, plus-142)
The least-likable team of this era, a dubious distinction that became apparent to us when watching the “A Football Life” two-part documentary on Belichick from the ’09 season. During a 38-17 loss to the Saints in Week 12, he’s captured in a moment of jarring candor late in the game while talking to Brady on the sideline. “I can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can’t do it. It’s so [expletive] frustrating.”
14. 2008 Patriots (11-5, second in AFC East, plus-101)
This team is remembered well, and it should be. But we must also remember them for what they were — a decent feel-good story thanks to Matt Cassel, but no contender — rather than what they could have been had Bernard Pollard’s helmet not intersected with Brady’s knee halfway through the first quarter of the first game of the season.
13. 2005 Patriots (10-6, lost to Broncos in divisional round, plus-41)
It’s fitting that the most memorable play of the season — Benjamin Watson sprinting the length of the field to knock the football away from interceptor Champ Bailey in the playoff loss that ended their three-peat bid — ended up merely delaying the inevitable.
12. 2006 Patriots (12-4, lost to Colts in conference championship, plus-148)
The leaders in receptions were: 1. Reche Caldwell, 61; 2. Watson, 49; 3. Faulk and Troy Brown, 43 each. Sticking Brady with this underwhelming cast of so-called weapons was one of the most regrettable developments of Belichick’s tenure.
11. 2013 Patriots (12-4, lost to Broncos in conference championship, plus-106)
No shame in how this one ended. It’s tough to win in Denver even when the varsity is healthy. Brady targeted Austin Collie, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Slater, Matthew Mulligan, and Michael Hoomanawanui a combined 14 times in a 26-16 loss. The varsity was not healthy.
10. 2012 Patriots (12-4, lost to Ravens in conference championship, plus-226)
That point differential is their second-largest during this era, trailing only the ’04 team. They were an offensive juggernaut — raise your hand if you remember Stevan Ridley ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. But they were derailed by Rob Gronkowski’s broken arm, which he reinjured in a playoff win over the Texans.
9. 2015 Patriots (12-4, lost to Broncos in conference championship, plus-150)
If anyone dares to question Brady’s toughness, show them his fearless performance in the AFC Championship game loss at Denver, when he ended a 2-point conversion shy of tying the game on the final possession despite being under constant siege by Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Derek Wolfe. Imagine the injury report Giselle could provide on all the damage he suffered in this game. On second thought, don’t.
8. 2010 Patriots (14-2, lost to Jets in divisional round, plus-205)
One of the most interesting Patriots teams — at one point, they had Gronkowski, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Julian Edelman on the roster at the same time. The shocking, ugly ending to the Jets kept Rex Ryan employed well past his expiration date.
7. 2011 Patriots (13-3, lost to Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, plus-171)
Gronkowski was an injured decoy, Welker’s hands betrayed him, and the Giants ruined the ending.
6. 2003 Patriots (14-2, beat Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, plus-110)
The ultimate confirmation that 2001 was not a fluke but a beginning. Also, further confirmation that whatever pumps through Adam Vinatieri’s veins is something chillier than ice water.
5. 2014 Patriots (12-4, beat Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, plus-155)
I get called hyperbolic whenever I tell anyone this, but considering the magnitude of the Super Bowl, the improbability of it happening, and the effect it had on so many legacies. I truly believe Malcolm Butler’s interception is arguably the biggest clutch play in the history of American professional sports.
4. 2016 Patriots (14-2, beat Falcons in Super Bowl LI, plus-191)
Sorry, couldn’t tell you what happened here. Turned off the game and went to bed with 2 minutes 8 seconds left in the third quarter and the Falcons up, 25.
3. 2001 (11-5, beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVII, plus-99)
Go ahead, tell me I’m overvaluing this. They were just 11-5. They started a bunch of veteran free agent who’s-hes?, used-to-bes, and alleged never-weres. They were rudimentary on offense and viciously efficient, but nothing more on defense. It’s all true, sure. And then I’ll ask you a question: How could this, a practically unfathomable true-life tale of how it all began, possibly be overvalued?
2. 2007 Patriots (16-0, lost to Giants in Super Bowl XLII, plus-315)
Funny how this works. Had David Tyree’s helmet not been a football magnet, the Patriots probably would have prevailed in the Super Bowl and come to be regarded without much debate as the greatest team in NFL history. But Tyree’s helmet . . . well, it was a football magnet, and the aging defense couldn’t make a play in the final two minutes, and so a monstrous team that went 18-1 is regarded as a disappointment. I didn’t say it was ha-ha funny.
1. 2004 Patriots (14-2, beat Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, plus-177)
There have been few more complete teams in NFL history. Brady further confirmed his status as a genuine superstar, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour led a ferocious defense, and Corey Dillon ran for more than 1,600 yards as the Patriots started 6-0. A Week 7 loss in Pittsburgh ended their record 21-game winning streak, but that was a mere speedbump — they went 11-1 the rest of the way, with the only loss a bizarre 1-point defeat at Miami in Week 12. The 2017 Patriots may be drawing way-too-premature comparisons to their team of a decade ago. But the 2004 team? That’s the team they should try to be. It’s the best the Patriots have ever had. For now.