By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Before we start, I just want to make sure we're talking about the same thing.
Some are actually out here suggesting that the Patriots -- the same team that beat "the best wild card team ever" in embarrassing fashion in the divisional round, knocked off the best team in the AFC on their own frozen turf for the AFC crown, and then held the high-powered Rams offense to just three points en route to their sixth Super Bowl last season -- are somehow the repeated beneficiaries of an easy schedule? Cool. Cool, cool, cool. Totally normal thing to do after their sixth title in 17 years. You know what they say, you don't find out the truth until the sixth championship.
Now, while the heads will scream that it's unbiased data that says this, we all know that this is an argument drummed up on feelings and carnival barker monologues designed to get you angry. "That carny with the megaphone just called me a bobo! I'll show him, I'll pop all of those balloons and win the jumbo Minion stuffed animal!"
But we also know it doesn't make it any less annoying.
So let's debunk this nonsense so I can die in peace already.
Start with the Patriots' 2018 schedule, which began with the Texans, Jaguars, Lions, Dolphins, Colts, Chiefs, and Bears. Four of those seven teams qualified for the postseason later that season, while the Jaguars hosted the Patriots in what was a rematch of the previous year's AFC Championship Game. We consider it easy because the Patriots went 5-2, not because of the level of competition they faced, which is a fundamentally flawed way to look at a schedule. And when the schedule further intensified with a six-game stretch that featured head-to-heads against the always-dangerous Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings (a 13-win team and NFC finalist the season before), and road games against the Dolphins and Steelers, we panicked into an "it's all over!" take meltdown instead of realizing that their schedule only toughened even after that aforementioned, better-than-Felger-would-admit seven-game start.
Nevertheless, they preserved, won (without that Gillette advantage), and then won it all as previously mentioned.
You know what, let's go back to 2017. The Patriots started that season with the Chiefs on Thursday night, then went on the road against Saints, came back home against the Texans and Panthers, traveled to Tampa for a short-week, Thursday Night Football game against the Bucs, played the Jets, and then had a Super Bowl rematch against the Falcons. Another way to look at that? The Pats began the year against the second-best team in the AFC the season before, a team that won over 62 percent of their home games with Brees under center to that point, a division winner from the year before, a team that played in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, a short week road game against a team with a winning record the year before, a division rival, and then a head-to-head with the defending NFC champion.
That schedule was only easy because they went 5-2 (again), and because they went to another Super Bowl (again).
And because I'm a slave to the facts, let's go back to 2016. The Patriots began that season without Tom Brady for the first four games due to his Deflategate suspension, and their opponents over that four-game start to the year included the Cardinals (13-3 the year before) and AFC South-best Texans. Then when Brady came back, the Patriots had head-to-heads with the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers. The Bengals were a 12-win team the year before, while the Steelers qualified for the postseason at 10-6. That year's schedule featured six matchups against playoff teams from the season prior.
You were too busy watching the Patriots go 14-2 and win another Super Bowl to notice the difficulty of that schedule.
We've essentially decided to retroactively call their schedules easy because... well... they're the Patriots and they've won at a historic rate for the last two decades. (Seriously, and I say this knowing that I'm not exactly the oldest dude around, but I was 11 the last time the Patriots failed to win double-digit games in a season. 11! I can probably still fit into my Tedy Bruschi jersey from back then, though it'll definitely have a more Michael Bennett kind of fit today.)
But now a graph says they have the easiest schedule in the NFL this year, so now we're accepting graphs as all we need.
This is also hilarious because the divisions the formula assigned the Patriots this season involves the AFC North and NFC East. These are two divisions that are frequently brought up as tough divisions, if only because all the teams are typically close together. That's sorta what happens when you have a bunch of average to slightly above average teams jostling. They're crabs in a bucket nine times out of 10, but we act like having two, sometime three teams fighting for a 10-6 division crown is somehow more admirable that curb-stomping your entire schedule like the Patriots have again and again and again. But those "tough" divisions now make up what we consider the league's easiest schedule. OK then.
Explain the schedule and Thursday Night Football perks then, fanboy!
One of the truly bizarre complaints when it comes to New England's schedule is that they're at home for the majority of their league-assigned Thursday Night Football games.
OK. Well, let's just first acknowledge that the Patriots were on the road for a Thursday Night Football game just two seasons ago, so this idea that they're always at home for a Thursday night game is already off to a rough spot. Oh, and they also tend to host Thursday Night Football games when raising a championship banner, so I mean, unless you want them to have that game on the road, there's really not much that can be done to fix that "problem."
But sure, let's acknowledge the fact that the Patriots have played seven of their last eight TNF games at home. Take the banner-raising nights out of the equation and that's still five out of their last six TNFs coming with the benefit of home field advantage. I'm a slave to the facts, and can't hide from it. So I'm totally OK with acknowledging this, so long as you acknowledge that the 49ers have played six of their last seven TNFs at home, that the Jaguars have played six of their last nine TNFs at home, and that the Bengals have played five straight Thursday Night Football contests in Cincinnati.
If home field is all it takes, can you please explain to me why those teams are a combined 8-9 at home with that help?
The answer, and this will be a common one here, I admit, is that the Pats win at a rate unlike any other team. (And if you don't believe that, just keep in mind that they've won their last four Thursday road games dating back to 2002, and are a staggering 12-3 in all Thursday games since Belichick took over as the team's head coach.)
There's also a totally random element at play when it comes to the schedule.
It's made a year in advance, in fact.
For example, you already know that the 2020 schedule will see the Patriots go against the AFC West and the NFC West. You even know which games will be on the road and which ones will be at home. The NFL could not make their formula any easier to understand. You play within your division six times, you play one NFC division, one AFC division, and then two AFC teams who finished in your respective place the year before (the Patriots play the Chiefs and Texans this year because those teams finished first in their divisions last year, just like the Patriots finished first in theirs).
Again, this is a ridiculously easy formula to follow.
Anybody mad about a schedule is actually mad at a formula you can see coming 365 days (if not more) in advance. And thinking it favors just one team ignores idea that all teams have the ability to prepare for their future opponents and improve their team as they see fit. Crying bias or favoritism is basically like thinking PEMDAS is out to get you.
But, but, the AFC East, you honk!
First of all, demanding that the Patriots pay for the sins of the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins is truly insane.
Since the start of the Brady-Belichick Era, the Bills have gone through 10 different head coaches and 18 different starting quarterbacks. The Dolphins have gone through 10 coaches as well, and Week 1 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the 19th different quarterback to start for the Dolphins over this run. The Jets, meanwhile, have been the most stable team next to the Patriots, with just 14 different starting quarterbacks and six different head coaches since 2001.
I've yet to see a logical case built as to why it's New England's fault that Chad Pennington, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Rex Ryan have been the greatest threats in this division behind Brady and Belichick over the last 18 years.
It just seems odd to hold that against the Patriots while also failing to strip credentials away from the Ravens or Steelers for getting to play the two-headed monster of 21st Century Ohio Disappointments four times a season. It also forgets that the Jets made appearances in back-to-back AFC title games in the Brady-Belichick Era, and that the Dolphins and Bills have both made postseason appearances in recent seasons. Oh, and there's also the fact that the AFC East is one of the more competitive divisions in football when you take out the first place team. I'm not even kidding!
Record in games played outside the division, eliminating division winners:
Since division realignment in 2002
NFC East: .467
AFC East: .463
AFC North: .458
NFC South: .450
AFC West: .439
AFC South: .429
NFC North: .427
NFC West: .378
— Brent (@BrentGardiner) August 31, 2019
But this "The Patriots dominate because the AFC East sucks!" also attempts to establish a correlation that isn't there.
Over the last 10 years (and excluding postseason play), the Patriots have posted a 47-13 record against their AFC East rivals. The Patriots have a 76-24 record against every non-AFC East opponent over that same stretch. That's a .792 winning percentage against the AFC East, and a .760 winning percentage against everybody else.
Now use those percentages and imagine that the Patriots play an AFC East-only schedule over the course of a full 16-game season. That would work out to 12.53 victories for the Patriots. Now imagine they play a 16-game schedule against everybody except the AFC East. That'd work out to 12.16 victories for the Patriots. This means that playing in the AFC East gives New England a truly whopping 0.37 more wins per 16 games than a non-AFC East schedule would.
(This, my friends, is going to bring the NFL to its knees. I'm pretty sure Belichick is gonna have to go to jail now.)
In other words, you can relegate the rest of the AFC East to the XFL and nothing changes.
The Patriots are still the Patriots, and over the last 10 years, they are a ridiculous 123-37 against the opposition.
In fact, here's New England's record against each division since 2009, ranked by winning percentage:
- NFC North: 10-2 (83.3%)
- AFC South: 18-4 (81.8%)
- AFC West: 15-4 (78.9%)
- AFC East: 47-13 (78.3%)
- NFC South: 9-3 (75.0%)
- NFC East: 6-2 (75.0%)
- AFC North: 14-5 (73.7%)
- NFC West: 4-4 (50.0%)
Based on these numbers, you could put the Patriots in any division with the exception of the NFC West (those Seahawk losses skew those figures in a major way) and everything about the NFL would be the exact same.
This really shouldn't surprise anybody with even the slightest clue. I mean, any talk of taking the Patriots out of the AFC East and putting them against 'real' competition forgets one crucial detail: You're talking about a franchise led by the greatest coach-quarterback combination of this generation, and a 53-man program that makes 'Bama seem like Pop Warner. You're essentially talking about an all time team. Unless you're as smart as they are (and we've come to learn that few are, and nobody's come to matching their longevity), they'll turn your 'competitive' division into a wasteland.
It's almost like the Patriots are equal-opportunity asskickers.
And have been for almost two decades now.
But hey, a graph says it's all in the schedule, and it's not like there's five (six beginning next Sunday) banners at Gillette Stadium, as well as countless records, to tell me otherwise.