For all the concern revolving around the Patriots’ offense, it might surprise some fans that this year’s unit has scored more points than its Super Bowl-winning counterpart did in 2016.
The Tom Brady-led Patriots of 2017 scored 458 points this regular season, good for second in the NFL. Last year, New England finished third in the league with 441 points.
Just like last season, the Patriots have a bye week to start the playoffs. With three teams — Kansas City, Buffalo, and Tennessee — in the running to face the Patriots in the Jan. 13 divisional round game at Gillette Stadium, Bill Belichick and Co. may take the next several days to look in the mirror, self-scouting and focusing on areas the Patriots want to fine-tune.
“I think this week’s a little bit more about us, about doing the things that we can do better, about each individual player and coach trying to look for areas of improvement for himself or his group or what he does,” Belichick said on Tuesday morning’s conference call. “Hopefully, be able to apply that in some way to whoever our next opponent is. There are a lot of things that if we do better it doesn’t really matter who the opponent is.
“There are just things that we need to understand better, or execute better, or just practice and get a better timing and maybe relationship, or things like that on those plays that would help us no matter who we play. I think those are some of the things that we’ll spend a little more time on this week.”
Last year is last year, as Belichick likes to say, so self-scouting doesn’t exactly mean looking at last season’s statistics and figuring out where the Patriots have gotten better or worse. But the Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions so there are certainly worse benchmarks to consider than the 2016 team’s outputs.
There are plenty of similarities. On offense, the Patriots have been explosive while avoiding turnovers, having given the ball away 12 times this season after doing so 11 times last season. That’s not because of an overly conservative approach, either, given Brady’s 8.2 yards per attempt in 2016 and 7.9 in 2017. At 40 years old, Brady’s 66.3 completion percentage was a bit under his 67.4 mark last year.
One concern is that Brady, who may have benefited from having four games off at the beginning of 2016 because of his suspension, has been hit far more in 2017 than he was last season. The Patriots’ offensive line surrendered 24 sacks — Brady absorbed 15 — last season and 35 in 2017, and Brady has dealt with Achilles’ tendon and left shoulder injuries.
The Patriots’ running game looks different, certainly, with Dion Lewis taking over for LeGarrett Blount as the lead back after spending most of 2016 injured, but the numbers are pretty much the same: 1,872 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2016; 1,889 and 16 in 2017.
On defense, the Patriots have followed an extreme version of the same blueprint they used in 2016: giving up yards between the 20-yard lines and tightening up in the red zone.
Last year’s group finished first in the NFL in points allowed (250) but eighth in yards (5,223). This year’s team is fifth in points (296) but 29th in yards allowed (5,856). It has been similarly hard to run on the Patriots in the red zone this year and last, as the team allowed just six rushing touchdowns in both seasons, but overall, the run defense has been far less stout (20th overall with 1,836 yards allowed) in 2017 than in 2016 (tied for third overall with 1,417 rushing yards allowed).
To make up the difference, New England has been tougher to score on in the red zone, where opponents converted 43.8 percent of opportunities in 2017. In 2016, that mark was 52.3 percent. Both years, a solid red-zone conversion rate on offense (63.3 percent in 2016 and 60 percent in 2017) helped the Patriots rack up a strong point differential (plus-191 in 2016, and plus-162 in 2017).
Unlike 2016, the Patriots haven’t been able to help themselves much on third downs. They still have converted a higher percentage of their own on offense (40.6) than they’ve allowed opponents (39.4), but that’s far closer than last season, when New England converted 45.8 percent of its third-down opportunities while holding opponents to 36.3 percent.
As is almost always the case with Belichick-coached teams, the Patriots’ special teams have given them good field position. Last season, the average starting field position of Patriots opponents was their 25-yard line, where a touchback would automatically place the ball, while the Patriots started at their own 30.9. This year, opponents would have been better off with a touchback every time, starting on average at their 24.8 while the Patriots started at their 28.5.
Belichick and his assistants are far more likely to spend time this week going over the finer points of punting than they are discussing 2016. But within the numerical comparison lie some of the areas — third downs, run defense — the Patriots will be taking a look at this week while they wait to learn their next opponent. The past may be in the past, but they would like the outcome to be the same.