Only in New England could the first question asked after the loss of a receiver the caliber of Julian Edelman be, “Can they still go 19-0?”
It’s taken a truly perfect storm for the 19-0 talk to re-emerge. The Patriots were 35 seconds away from finishing with a perfect record in 2007 before Eli Manning exploited the mismatch between Ellis Hobbs and Plaxico Burress to dash the initial dream.
In the nine seasons since then, the Patriots have gone back to the Super Bowl three times, won it twice and averaged over 12 wins per season. The faces have changed – only Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski remain from the Super Bowl XLII runners-up – but the only sign of a fade in New England is when Brady looks to Rob Gronkowski on the goal line.
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Yet it took almost a decade for legitimate hopes of a 19-0 campaign to manifest themselves once again.
At the end of the day, the perfect season hardly matters. The Patriots could suffer any number of additional catastrophic injuries in the regular season, finish 8-8 but still win what should be a historically awful division (even by AFC East standards) then all of a sudden catch fire in the playoffs and win Super Bowl LII in Minnesota next February. Lombardi Trophies are the end goal.
Still, perfection absolutely remains on the table. Here are three reasons why the Patriots can most certainly finish 19-0, as well as three reasons why they may fall short once again.
Why they will: It’s all Brady and Belichick have left
Brady stands alone with his five Super Bowl victories as a quarterback. Ditto for Belichick as a head coach. No active quarterback has won more than two, no active coach more than one. Those records are safe for the foreseeable future, if not forever.
Arguments against Brady and Belichick being at the very top of their respective professions were pretty much over even before the Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons. An unprecedented sixth title together won’t just create more separation between Brady, Belichick and the rest of the NFL... it’ll take them to the apex of athletes and coaches across the sporting universe. And if they do it by going 19-0? Game over.
Why they won’t: Belichick knows better
The stress of chasing perfection can take its toll on a team. There’s a reason it’s only been done once. Of the 16 teams to get out to even a 10-0 start since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only five of them have gone on to win the Super Bowl; the 1972 Miami Dolphins are still the only team to finish the job with an unblemished record.
Belichick has coached two of the 11 teams to fall short of winning the Super Bowl after a 10-0 start – not only in 2007, but in 2015 as well. The 2015 Patriots were dealt brutal hits near the end of the regular season with Edelman’s foot injury and Gronk’s knee scare. Those Patriots suffered their first loss in – where else – Denver.
Injuries had little to nothing to do with the 2007 Patriots coming up short. Up until the Colts game in Week 9, a 24-20 win, no team had finished within three scores of the Patriots. They were beating teams by an average of 25.5 points per game.
After the Indy game, some blowouts remained – most notably, a 56-10 undressing of the Buffalo Bills out of the bye week – but the margins of victory shrunk significantly. From the Bills game up until Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots still beat everyone on their schedule, but by only 8.1 points per game.
Whether it was truly the pressure or not that caused the ’07 Patriots to come up short is hard to say. Legend has it the week of practice leading up to the Super Bowl in Arizona was awful. The Giants were perfectly constructed to beat those Patriots with a prolific pass rush. And it still took a career special teamer in David Tyree making what would be the final catch of his NFL career to put the Giants in a position to win.
Why they will: the 2017 Patriots are deeper on offense than the 2007 Patriots
Admittedly, Edelman’s injury throws a wrench into this theory.
Still, Brady is Brady. One of the greatest wide receivers of all-time in Randy Moss is cancelled out by one of the greatest tight ends of all-time in Rob Gronkowski. Edelman and Wes Welker would have cancelled out, making the 2017 unit a no-brainer; now it becomes a question of preference between Brandin Cooks/Chris Hogan/Danny Amendola/Malcolm Mitchell/Phillip Dorsett vs. Welker/Donte’ Stallworth/Jabar Gaffney/Ben Watson. Welker at his best is probably more important to New England’s offense than of the other players mentioned, but he was hardly established prior to 2007. The stable of running backs this season (James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis) is deeper than ’07 (Lawrence Maroney, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris).
This year’s depth is hard to top on paper, which speaks to why the Patriots should be able to overcome Edelman’s injury in the first place. An injury to another pass catcher – namely Gronk – would tilt the scales back in 2007’s favor. For now, the firepower is still there to chase perfection.
Why they won’t: The defense isn’t up to snuff with 2007
Many big names from the 2007 defensive unit – Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Roosevelt Colvin, just to name a few – were on the back nine of their respective careers. This isn’t to say they were bad players, just not what they were during their primes. Certainly not what they were for the Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
The ’07 defense did still have Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel and Ty Warren in their primes, however. Throw in the one positive season for Adalius Thomas in New England and even with the aging veterans, the 2007 defense gets the nod.
This year’s secondary for the Patriots projects as stronger all around than in 2007, but that’s it. Other than Dont’a Hightower, could any linebacker from this season have played with the ’07 group? Save for Alan Branch and Trey Flowers, do any of the linemen – interior or exterior – look like guys who could fill a gap or get after the passer in ’07?
Why they will: The AFC as a whole is weaker now than it was in 2007
In 2007, Peyton Manning and the Colts were defending their lone Super Bowl title of the era. The San Diego Chargers featured LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates still in their primes, with Philip Rivers ready to enter his. Rookie head coach Mike Tomlin had the Pittsburgh Steelers a year away from winning another championship with Ben Roethlisberger.
Of course, the Colts gagged at home against the Chargers in the divisional round, only for Tomlinson to check out of the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro after two carries. The AFC playoffs were a massive letdown that year.
That doesn’t mean the threat wasn’t real. This year, those same Steelers featuring Tomlin and Roethlisberger still lurk... sort of. The Patriots eviscerated them in the AFC Championship Game in January, 36-17, in a game that really wasn’t even that close.
Beyond Pittsburgh, the Houston Texans are in decent shape, provided Tom Savage and/or DeShaun Watson are an upgrade over Brock Osweiler. But neither the 2017 Steelers nor Texans pose anywhere near the threat the rest of the upper class of the AFC did in 2007. Beyond Pittsburgh and Houston, good luck finding another team that could have even the slightest of chances to win in Foxboro in January.
Why they won’t: The AFC may be weaker, but the schedule has its tough stretches
The bye weeks are similarly timed – it was Week 10 in 2007 and comes in Week 9 this year. The spacing allows for a true break at the halfway mark this season, as the Patriots have exactly eight games both before and after the bye.
The 2007 splits were nine games pre-bye and seven games after, but the Patriots were home for four out of the seven. This year, the Patriots play five of their eight games after the bye on the road, but that only tells part of the story.
The Patriots will play exactly one home game between Oct. 29 and Dec. 24. After facing the Los Angeles Chargers at home prior to the bye, the Patriots hit the road to Denver, where Brady is 3-7 as a starter (including the playoffs). Next up is a trip to Mexico City to play the Oakland Raiders – an intriguing team in their own right. Not a team that could dethrone the Patriots in January, but a frisky team in the regular season. Between the destinations, the Patriots will be playing back-to-back games at altitudes of a mile or more (the Broncos play at exactly 5,280 feet above sea level, while Azteca Stadium is exactly 2,000 feet higher than Denver.)
New England returns home to face the Dolphins on Nov. 26 but goes right back on the road to Buffalo, followed by a Monday night game in Miami – another (relative) house of horrors for Brady, where he’s 7-8 lifetime. A third straight road game is next, this time in Pittsburgh. Brady hasn’t lost to the Steelers in any venue since 2011 and is 10-2 against them (including postseason) in his career. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh is a talented team and facing it at this particular juncture, when the Patriots will be playing their fifth road game in six weeks, may create a scenario in which the Steelers can knock them from the ranks of the unbeaten.
All that truly matters for the Patriots is to be hoisting up another Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 4, 2018. If it’s for their 19th win, 18th win, 17th win…it hardly matters, so long as they are there.
Brady and Belichick have already won three Super Bowls in a four year span together. They’ve won a Super Bowl as double digit underdogs (Super Bowl XXXVI vs. the St. Louis Rams), and they’ve come back from multiple double digit deficits to win Super Bowls (XLIX and LI) together.
Who knows what the future holds beyond this season. Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract expires at year’s end, and with the somewhat stunning trade of Jacoby Brissett on Saturday, it’s not necessarily a reach to draw the conclusion that Garoppolo is in the plans for the Patriots sooner rather than later.
The quarterback situation is another story for another time. For now, Brady and Belichick are taking a second crack at something most quarterbacks and coaches never come even close to achieving once: the 19-0 season.
They’ll both tell you it doesn’t matter and they wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s something about taking one last shot at something which should’ve happened in 2007 that feels so right.