FOXBORO — The Patriots are good, therefore they play in a lot of playoff games.
That makes sense, right? It’s basic reasoning. I don’t need to prove that to you. But consider, for a second, the inverse. Is it possible that the Patriots are as good as they are BECAUSE they play so many playoff games?
Is it possible that the New England dynasty, in some ways, is self-sustaining? Bill Belichick is known for his attention to detail and being ready for every situation, but perhaps this is because of the extra time he is afforded due to his team’s success. Let’s go inside the numbers…
On average, NFL teams practice three times a week. (This is an important number, the rest of the math from here is based on this average). That means from the start of the regular season, including the bye week, a team practices about 51 times during the regular season. Once a team’s season is over, the CBA prohibits them from hosting organized practices until the spring. If a team makes the playoffs however, they are granted the extra practices that come with the extra weeks. That is where one of the most unsung aspects aiding the Patriots dynasty comes into play.
As we enter the divisional round of the 2018-2019 season, the Patriots will be playing their 38th playoff game since 2001. Added up, that gives the Patriots over two seasons of extra football in the last two decades. On top of those games, you can add the 13 first round bye weeks, and seven pre-Super Bowl bye weeks (the NFL instituted the extra week before the Super Bowl in 2002, a year after the Patriots first championship), brining the total number of post season weeks the Patriots have had on their run to 58.
With over a calendar year of playoff time at their disposal, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have met for an NFL-best additional 174 practices since the 2001 season. To put that number in context, assuming a team doesn’t qualify for the playoffs, it would take them almost three and a half seasons to accumulate that much practice time.
Now it is worth noting that the Patriots are not the only team who makes the playoffs, and other franchises get this bonus time as well, but is it enough to matter? After New England, the Steelers have played the most playoff games since 2001, with 25 extra contests on their record. Add in five first round byes, and three pre-Super Bowl weeks, they’ve had 33 extra weeks to practice, or 99 extra practices; 75 less than the Patriots.
It is also important to remember that the Steelers, like 30 other teams, have gone through coach and quarterback turnover in that span, while all of the Patriots practices have been conducted with the same game planner and signal caller for the last 18 years.
EXTRA PRACTICES SINCE 2001, ASSUMING 3 PER WEEK Patriots: 174 Steelers: 99 Colts: 90 Seahawks: 90 Eagles: 87
To be fair, even with the same coach-quarterback combo, there was been plenty of turnover in Foxboro during that time. As a more accurate measuring stick, we can look at the same number since 2010, when “Patriots Dynasty 2.0,” as my colleague Mike Petraglia likes to call it, began (It was around this time the team added cornerstones of their second Super Bowl runs such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, and Dont’a Hightower, and the return of Josh McDaniels as the Patriots offensive coordinator).
Since then, the Patriots have had 33 extra weeks of football, good for 99 practices. The next closest team is the Seattle Seahawks, who’s two Super Bowl appearances in the decade helped earned them 57 extra practice sessions. The next closest AFC team is the Denver Broncos, who’s 48 extra practices is still less than half of the Patriots during that span.
EXTRA PRACTICES SINCE 2010, ASSUMING 3 PER WEEK Patriots: 99 Seahawks: 57 Packers: 54 Broncos: 48 Steelers: 42
When people ask ‘Where does Belichick get the time to practice any and every possible situation he wants?’ this is, in part, where that time may come from. “We just take every opportunity we have, try to get the most out of them…Whatever it is, whatever those opportunities are, they are. We’ll do the best we can with them” Belichick said last week.
Tom Brady echoed that sentiment on Friday.
“This is about regardless of who we play,” Brady told reporters” We need to play well…we just all got to stay on top of what we’re supposed to do…It’s good [to] get a chance to really evaluate ourselves and put our best out there.”
Essentially, the bye weeks allows the Patriots extra time for self-scouting and self-improvement, as well as the ability to key in on the vast range of situational drills they preach so often.
Take as an example Antwan Harris. Even though he was far from the best player on the roster, Harris was a big part in one of the key plays that launched the Patriots dynasty, thanks to Bill Belichick’s focus on situational football. In the 2001 AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris helped return a blocked field goal for a touchdown, a major momentum shifting play in that game.
After the kick was blocked, Harris didn’t scramble to the ball, like most players would, or even get up field to block for Troy Brown, which would have been useless on the play. Instead, he knew to get into position behind Brown, who had recovered the kick, and was able to take the lateral as the kicker, the last man of defense, dragged Brown to the ground. That kind of synergy doesn’t come in the spur of the moment, but rather weeks of focus in practice.
Want a more modern example? How about Danny Amendola’s back of the end zone touchdown catch in last year’s AFC Championship Game? Brady had to throw that ball into a pinhole of a window, but threw with such conviction and confidence you had the feeling he’s made that play a million times before. Well, that’s probably because he has. Brady threw that pass knowing exactly where Amendola could and couldn’t make a play on it, because those two had ran countless goal line reps in practice and had gotten that play down to a science.
“But no Alex, Tom Brady is just good!”. Ok yes, Tom Brady is good, but you think he became the GOAT by NOT practicing? How come after LESS practice time in this year’s preseason (missing OTAs), Brady didn’t seem on the same page as his pass-catchers the first few weeks? The extra reps help Tom Brady and his more veteran receivers look like they are working with the same brain, a lot of that is thanks in part to how many extra throwing sessions they get in January and February.
So is this the formula for a self-sustaining dynasty? In short, no. The #1 thing you need to win in the NFL is talent throughout your organization. Through injuries, retirement, et cetera, players and coaches will come and go. The consistency the Patriots have had with Brady and Belichick will probably never be replicated. But, looking at it from New England’s point of view, when those two leave, the experience gained by everyone else on the team doesn’t just disappear.
Assuming New England could find capable replacements at QB and coach relatively quickly, the meter wouldn’t reset to zero, and all that extra practice experience doesn’t just disappear.
Back to the original question; do the Patriots play in so many playoff games because they’re so good, or are they so good because they get so many extra weeks in the playoffs? Like I said before, you don’t succeed in the playoffs without talent, so it’s not quite a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario.
Looking at the numbers though, it is hard to deny that the Patriots bonus prep time hasn’t helped them get the most out of each player on the field in every situation they face. The only person who would truly know if it makes a difference is the coach, and when asked about it during yet another bye week, all Belichick had to say was “hopefully we won’t have a team to compare that to any time soon”.
SHOWING THE MATH: Here are the bonus practice statistics for the seven teams that have played 20+ playoff games since 2001, including this divisional round, and the complete chart with the numbers for all 32 NFL teams since 2001 & 2010. (assuming three practices a week, via ProFootballReference.com)…
Patriots: 38 playoff games, 58 weeks, 174 extra practices (20/33/99 since 2010)
Steelers: 25 games, 33 weeks, 99 practices (11/14/42)
Colts: 25 games, 30 weeks, 90 practices (9/9/27)
Seahawks: 24 games, 30 weeks, 90 practices (15/19/57)
Eagles: 23 games, 29 weeks, 87 practices (7/9/27)
Packers: 24 games, 28 weeks, 84 practices (15/18/54)
Ravens: 20 games, 23 weeks, 69 practices (11/13/39)