The 2015 Patriots by Patriots Standards

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The New England Patriots again look like one of the best teams in the league. They are 4-0 after their first four games. Unlike some of their undefeated brethren, they are winning in dominant fashion. They have outscored their opponents by 73 points, most in the NFL, and have held a three-score lead in the third quarter of every game.

This is far from the first great-looking Patriots team we have seen in the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. Just how does this team compare to those other great teams? How is it the same? How is it different? What do those teams suggest about how likely this team is to keep up its greatness?

Comparing Past Patriots Teams Through Four Games

This Patriots team is really good, even by the standards of past Patriots teams. Table 1 has the basic details, including comparisons to every New England squad over the past decade that has earned a first-round bye.

Table 1. Patriots Bye Teams Through Four Weeks, Conventional Statistics

Season Early Record Margin Record in Last 12 Games Final Record
2007 4-0 +100 12-0 16-0
2015 4-0 +73 ? ?
2013 4-0 +32 8-4 12-4
2011 3-1 +37 10-2 13-3
2010 3-1 +35 11-1 14-2
2012 2-2 +42 10-2 12-4
2014 2-2 -10 10-2 12-4

This is just the third unbeaten team through the first quarter of the season. The unbeaten 2013 Patriots were a normal unbeaten, like this year’s Carolina and Denver squads, with a number of close wins — 2007, though, was on a different level. This year’s Patriots has taken big leads in every game, but allowed Pittsburgh and Buffalo to narrow the gap for eventual one-score wins. In 2007, by contrast they won each of their first four games by at least 21 points.

Advanced stats concur with the basic details of the table above. Here are those same squads as of the same time in the season by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Table 2. Patriots Bye Teams Through Four Weeks, Advanced Statistics

Season DVOA Through 4 Games (rank) Final DVOA (rank)
2007 73.4% (1st) 52.9% (1st)
2015 55.9% (1st) ?
2013 13.4% (7th) 18.9% (5th)
2011 29.1% (2nd) 22.8% (3rd)
2010 32.5% (1st) 44.6% (1st)
2012 31.6% (3rd) 34.9% (3rd)
2014 -5.8% (23rd) 22.1% (4th)

The 2015 team comes out roughly equidistant from the ridiculous greatness of the early season 2007 Patriots and the more normal greatness of the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Patriots. These teams all had flaws (the 2012 Patriots were just 2-2), but each had pretty decisively defeated a couple opponents.

What Makes This Patriots Team Different

It probably comes as no surprise the 2015 Patriots have the best offense in the league through the first five weeks of the season. It should not have. This is actually the fifth time in the seven seasons we are considering they are the best through four games. But football is about more than having a great offense. What makes this Patriots team better than some of the editions from the recent past is their defense.

Table 3 shows the same Patriots teams and their DVOA through their first four games for each of the three phases of football.

Table 3. Patriots Bye Teams by Offense, Defense, and Special Teams DVOA Through Four Weeks

Season Offensive DVOA (rank) Defensive DVOA (rank) ST DVOA (rank)
2007 46.6% (1st) -20.9% (3rd) 5.9% (9th)
2015 38.1% (1st) -8.7%(9th) 9.1% (3rd)
2013 2.6% (15th) -5.0% (14th) 5.8% (4th)
2011 38.4% (1st) 11.3% (27th) 2.0% (11th)
2010 32.2% (1st) 13.4% (27th) 4.6% (4th)
2012 33.2% (1st) -1.7%(18th) -3.3% (24th)
2014 -17.0% (28th) -8.0% (10th) 3.2% (9th)

This year’s offense is good, no question, but it was just as good in 2011 and nearly as good in 2010 or 2012. The special teams unit is particularly good, but it has been good most years. What sets this Patriots team apart from most of the non-2007 squads is the defense, which is the best it has been.

Just how good the defense has been early has been a surprise, since it seemed reasonable to expect the Patriots’ defense to decline with the losses of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington. One of the league’s best pass-rushes has helped cover up for the revamped secondary, and the pass defense on the whole has been outstanding. And, no, Brandon Weeden is not too big a factor; looking just at the other games, the Patriots still have a top ten pass defense.

What It Means for the Rest of the Season

Looking at Table 2, the good news is most Patriots teams have actually gotten better as the season goes on because Bill Belichick is one of the best coaches in the league and learns and adapts more to what that year’s personnel grouping does best.

The past 26 seasons of DVOA suggest, though, that it is difficult to be powered too much by one unit, and the best teams are outstanding in all three phases. The 2007 team is a great example of that. The offense was outstanding all year, but the defense declined. For that team to finish 16-0 required a number of close calls, and they faltered when the offense put up just 14 points in the Super Bowl.

The best team since 1989 by DVOA is actually 1991 Washington. Joe Gibbs’ last Super Bowl outfit was not incredibly dominant in any single phase, but instead had the league’s best offense and special teams and the third-best defense.

The key for just how good this year’s Patriots can be is whether the defense can hold up for all 16 games, like last year’s unit but unlike 2007’s. The early season offensive struggles in 2013 and 2014 suggest keeping Rob Gronkowski healthy is pretty important, too. Do both of those, and another 16-0 season is on the table.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL