Despite the fact that the New England Patriots currently sit in third place in the AFC with a record of 5-1, one would still have a hard time making a case that the Patriots are a dominant team. Perhaps on defense they can make a claim for dominant play, but overall, their victories have been less than impressive. For their five victories, the Patriots have an average winning margin of seven points; yet, even that is skewed because of their one blowout win of the season when they beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by 20 points in Week 3 of the season. Take that game away and the Patriots have won four games by an average of 3.75 points, not exactly delivering any beatdowns to their opponents.
What one can call the Patriots, though, is incredibly resilient. Even when they have put on lackluster performances, mostly from the offensive side of the ball, they have still been able to emerge victorious from 83.3 percent of their contests. Yesterday’s win over the New Orleans Saints was a prime example as the Patriots did not score the winning touchdown until there were just five seconds left off the clock, capping off one of the most improbable comebacks one will see.
In fact, to give some idea of how improbable the result of the game was, the comeback factor of the game, which is the inverse of the lowest win probability the winning team had during the contest, was 100. To put it in more easily understood terms, in the fourth quarter of the game, there was a point when the Patriots had just a 0.01 percent chance of winning the game, according to Advanced NFL Stats’ win probability chart (1/.01=100). The nadir of the Patriots’ win probability came with 30 seconds left on the clock and the Patriots trailing 27-23 when Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass on 3rd and 4 that was targeted for wide receiver Julian Edelman.
However, the Patriots were not completely finished as they took full advantage of the fact they even had a slim chance of reversing their fortune, converting their fourth-down opportunity with a nine-yard completion from Brady to wide receiver Austin Collie. Brady then spiked the ball to stop the clock before finding wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown catch and the winning score, going from a win probability of 0.01 to one of 0.95 in the span of three plays.
Still, even with the spectacular game-winning drive that covered 70 yards in eight plays, which was really 70 yards in five plays since three of the plays did not gain any yardage, it was another inconsistent day from the offense. The Patriots were able to sustain a few long scoring drives, scoring points on six of their 13 possessions, but that leaves seven possessions on which the Patriots accomplished very little. On five of their possessions, the Patriots offense failed to even get a first down.
Overall, the Patriots offense finished the day having gained just 4.5 yards per play and 28.92 yards per drive. What saved the day for the unit and made the offensive performance look better was the way in which they finished their most productive drives. On five trips into the red zone, the Patriots scored every single time with two field goals and three touchdowns, helping them to achieve the distinction of scoring 2.31 points per drive during a season where they have continually failed to score on their drives.
Even more notable than the rate at which the Patriots offense scored was the way in which the Patriots defense held the vaunted Saints offense in check for the majority of the game, making a prolific offense look pedestrian. The Saints entered the game having gained 37.04 yards per drive, scored 2.33 points per drive, and run 6.33 plays per drive. When the final whistle blew in Sunday’s contest, the Saints had gained 30.08 yards per drive, scored 2.25 points per drive, and run 5.42 plays per drive, failing to meet any of their season averages.
The Saints did experience more success in the second half of the contest; there was rarely a point during the game in which it could be said the Saints offense was clicking on all cylinders. Gumming up their offensive engine was the blanketing defense being played by the Patriots, who continue to impress and keep the team in every game. Shutting down Drew Brees and the Saints offense, especially on third down where the Saints only converted five of their 14 third-down opportunities, showed the Patriots defense has not just been benefiting from playing mediocre quarterbacks; the unit is solid against all opponents.
A victory like the one the Patriots had on Sunday provides further evidence that this is a team capable of handling each opponent they face and will probably never be blown out of any contest. They might not be dismantling their opponents in truly elite or aesthetically pleasing fashion, but more often than not, the Patriots will be the team that makes enough plays to win. Just like they did against the Saints on Sunday.