Tomato Can Rating: The Good, Bad, & Ugly of Patriots Playoff Opponents

Somebody call Dan Shaughnessy, because I’m about to extinguish the fire take that is the ‘Tomato Can’ games.

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Somebody call Dan Shaughnessy, because I’m about to extinguish the fire take that is the ‘Tomato Can’ games.

For those who are not familiar, Shaughnessy and others looking to diminish the Patriots accomplishments have affixed the ‘Tomato Can’ designation to opponents they feel cannot put up a real fight against the Pats. That on the surface is fair, the Patriots at times are worlds ahead of their competition, and young, inexperienced teams sometimes don’t stand a chance coming into Gillette Stadium. That being said, people have gotten loose with the definition of ‘Tomato Can’ teams. Observers have twisted the idea to instead claim that despite a near 70% winning percentage under Bill Belichick, the Patriots dynasty is a product of no worthy opponents, instead of being a quality team.

To be fair, part of the problem is there is no concrete definition of what a ‘Tomato Can’ team is. I would assume Shaughnessy borrowed the term from the boxing world, where severe differential in skill is much more common. With a lack of a textbook definition of the term, I set out to find a more solid indicator of which opponents should be legitimately feared, and which we can throw away in the context of Patriots domination.

What I came up with was a formula which factors in a team’s skill set on both sides of the ball, experience, familiarity to their opponent, and more. To be clear, this is to measure not how good a team is, but how tough of a matchup they are for their opponent. What I was left with is a number, out of a total of 95, which for fun let’s call the Tomato Can Rating. A higher number means a tougher matchup, and a lower score indicates a sure-thing, or ‘Tomato Can’ game. After running through all 20 of the Patriots opponents over this 8-year Championship Game run, here are the results, ranked toughest to easiest…

2013 Broncos: 59.4
2018 Chiefs: 58.7
2014 Seahawks: 58.5
2015 Broncos: 46.9
2014 Ravens: 45.9
2011 Ravens: 45.9
2017 Eagles: 45.5
2016 Steelers: 43.6
2012 Ravens: 42.6
2015 Chiefs: 41.6
2018 Chargers: 41.5
2012 Texans: 39.9
2016 Falcons: 39
2017 Jaguars: 38.9
2011 Giants: 38.4
2014 Colts: 37.9
2013 Colts: 33.9
2017 Titans: 17.4
2016 Texans: 15.4
2011 Broncos: 7.9
Average Opponent TCR: 39.94

Before we jump to conclusions…some numbers going inside the data:

Patriots vs…
50+ TCR: 1-1 (Pending Chiefs)
40-50: 5-3
30-40: 5-1
<30: 3-0
Average TCR by round:
Divisional: 30.44
AFCCG: 44.59
Super Bowl: 45.35
Average by Super Bowl run:
2011: 30.73
2014: 47.43
2016: 32.67
2017: 33.93

First to the original question. What is a ‘Tomato Can’ opponent? It’s tough to say the Patriots lost a ‘Tomato Can’ Super Bowl in 2011, but that would mean the 2012 Texans were a team to be taken seriously. It also is too easy to make that the cut-off and say the ‘Tomato Can’ games are the ones the Patriots didn’t lose. On the surface, the easier opponents should be the ones who are ‘below average’. Plus, it’s my formula, so I’m going to give myself the final say. A ‘Tomato Can’ opponent is any team with a TCR lower than 40. Again, this number is not meant as a way to predict the game, or indicate how good a team is, but to show how tough of a MATCHUP they are for their opponent.

So yes, the Patriots have played in not one, but two ‘Tomato Can’ Super Bowls since 2011. However, when you look at the circumstances surrounding the games, it’s not surprising. In both cases, the Patriots had an extra week to prepare. In the Falcons, you had an inexperienced team that was only elite on one side of the ball. With the Giants, you had a team that brought in little playoff experience (just three playoff games in three years leading up to that Super Bowl) and only half a season of high-level play (they lost 5 of 8 entering the playoffs).

What else do the numbers tell us? This week’s matchup with the Chiefs is as hard of a test as the Patriots have had during Dynasty 2.0. What puts them ahead of the 2014 Seahawks, who were probably the better football team? A true road game. No extra week to prepare. A team that already saw the Patriots during the regular season. All factors that make this as difficult a matchup as Bill Belichick has had to deal with since the record setting 2013 Broncos. That’s not a comparison Patriots fans should want to hear. That 2013 Denver matchup had a lot similarities to this year’s Chiefs (on the road, a record-setting offense, defense full of playmakers despite lackluster numbers), and handed the Patriots one of only two double-digit losses during this run.

One more thing to keep an eye on when it comes to TCR. If the Patriots to manage to pull it out in KC, things will only get tougher. My early projection for a potential matchup with the Saints indicates they could end up being the first 60+ TCR team the Patriots face during this run. While the Rams number is lower, it still shouldn’t dip into ‘Tomato Can’ territory. The Patriots have yet to reach a Super Bowl without facing at least one ‘Tomato Can’ team. 2014 came closest, with the Colts TCR for the AFCCG coming in just a shade under 40 (37.9). Between the Chargers (41.5 TCR), Chiefs, and either the Saints or the Rams, this has the potential to be the most difficult postseason run the Patriots have endured in this 8-year stretch.

Finally, some other TCR numbers to put this in context:

2018 Patriots (vs Chiefs): 54.6
2018 Saints (vs Rams): 62.1
2018 Rams (vs Saints): 41.1
2016 Patriots (vs Falcons): 69.9
2014 Patriots (vs Seahawks): 60.7
2007 Patriots (vs Giants): 84.7 [This is the highest TCR of all the teams I calculated]

Unfortunately due to certain stats not being kept before 2007, I can’t get on exact number on older teams, but the approximate TCR of the Patriots first 3 Super Bowl opponents are:

2004 Eagles: 55
2003 Panthers: 34.3
2001 Rams: 73.8 [The highest TCR of any Patriots opponent calculated]