FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots don’t lose back-to-back games often, so it stood out when they did twice this season. Back in December, the Patriots reeling after losses to the Dolphins in Miami, then the Steelers in Pittsburgh, a clip from the NFL Network documentary “A Football Life: Bill Belichick” started circulating.
In the clip, from a 2009 blowout loss to the Saints in New Orleans, Belichick stands dejected on the sideline with Tom Brady and says:
“We just have no mental toughness, we go on the road, we have no mental toughness.”
The clip surfaced as a possible window into the Patriots’ struggles on the road this season. They finished 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, their worst road record since, you guessed it, 2009 (2-6). It doesn’t diagnose those struggles specifically — even if it did, it wouldn’t be applicable, as the problems of 2009 were different from the problems of 2018 — but it does acknowledge that they exist. That’s satisfying, since it’s something Belichick won’t always do publicly.
“Yeah, I mean, we play half our games on the road, half at home,” Belichick said this week. “We’ve been in those situations, both ways, plenty of times as have all of our opponents. It is what it is.”
But as the clip shows, Belichick knows that playing on the road is a different challenge than playing at home. Why? Is it the screaming crowd, something the Patriots will surely have to handle at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday in the AFC Championship game? Travel? Foreign field conditions? Home field advantage is real in the NFL — home teams won 57 percent of regular-season games from 2010-18, less than NBA or NHL teams but more than MLB teams — but what exactly causes it?
“I just look at those games individually and I know why we haven’t won those games individually,” said Brady on Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s a broad, sweeping thing.”
There are individual factors that contributed to each loss, but the broad picture is this: 3-5 on the road, 8-0 in the regular season and, now, 9-0 at home. It might take “A Football Life: Tom Brady” for us to hear him say it, but that seems pretty sweeping.
Some factors can be nailed down. The Patriots’ problems on the road this season have mostly come on offense. They’ve averaged 33.8 points per game at home but 21.6 on the road. The defense has been better at home, too, but by a slimmer margin: 17.9 points versus 24.
The kicking game also has been worse on the road. Stephen Gostkowski is 92.9 percent (13 for 14) on field goals and a perfect 32 for 32 on extra points at Gillette Stadium this season. He’s 77.8 percent (14-of-18) on field goals and 94.4 percent (17-of-18) on extra points on the road.
On offense, both the running game and passing game have been worse away from Gillette Stadium, but the running game has taken a larger hit. The Patriots have averaged 157 rushing yards and 4.50 yards per carry in home games this season and 98 rushing yards and 3.93 yards per carry in road games. Tom Brady has a 69.8 percent completion rate and a 101.7 passer rating at Gillette Stadium this year. Those numbers fall to 63.1 and 94.5 on the road.
This aligns with common perception, which tends to view the offensive line as the unit most impacted when playing on the road, particularly in loud environments where a silent snap count is needed. A less-coordinated offensive line should produce a less effective running game, but evidence doesn’t uniformly back up the notion that these issues arise on the road.
According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, between 2009 and Week 15 of this season, home teams averaged 4.37 yards per carry. Road teams averaged 4.27 — slightly worse, but only by a tiny margin. The same analysis found no evidence that road teams commit more false starts than home teams: Teams committed false starts on 1.4 percent of plays at home and 1.34 percent of plays on the road.
Anecdotally, though, the Patriots did commit their most penalties (14) and their most pre-snap penalties (8) in Pittsburgh, the loudest road environment they played in this season.
“Noise can throw teams off and throw guys off but like I said, it goes to being together as one unit, honing in to the small details and going about our business,” said right guard Shaq Mason.
Mason added that the loudest NFL environment he’s been in was in Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship game. In college, games at Georgia got pretty loud, but Mason, from Georgia Tech, hates acknowledging that and giving Bulldog David Andrews, the Patriots center, “that satisfaction.”
Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer thinks the difficulties of using a silent count are overrated. Hoyer believes home-field advantage is insignificant, but that most NFL games are more even matchups than most believe, making tiny advantages more likely to prevail.
“It’s hard to win home, road, Mexico, London, wherever. I think people forget that everyone in this league is good,” Hoyer said. “It doesn’t matter what your record is, it’s not college football. We’re not going to play, with all due respect, Florida International University. We’re going to play an NFL team with NFL players and NFL coaches. You have to come every week, and just because we’re the Patriots doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and win every game.”
“I’ll take a win however we can get it,” Hoyer said. “Home, road, 3-0, 42-41. I think that gets lost, and I’m sure the numbers are there because there are obviously some advantages, but I think if you’re a good team, you can’t really focus on that. You just worry about beating the team you’re playing no matter where the game is.”
Historically, road playoff games have been trouble for the Patriots: Brady and Belichick are 3-4 together in such contests. Three of those four losses, however, came in Denver, where altitude joins crowd noise and travel as factors that can hurt a visitor. At Arrowhead, they’ll have to contend with a grass field in a season where the Patriots are 1-4 playing on that surface.
There are variables galore. Win or lose, it’ll be impossible to know which played a significant role. This season, the Patriots have exhibited most of the traits typically ascribed to struggling road teams, even though those traits seem to be overstated in general. If you need a takeaway, that probably bodes well for their ability to buck those bad habits on Sunday.
Draw specific conclusions at your own peril, though. If there was a crystal clear answer, wouldn’t the Patriots have found it already?