In order for a team to win a Super Bowl, it must play at least three quality opponents in a row. ¬†Some teams, like the 2007 New York Giants, have to play four quality opponents in a row, if they don’t get a first round bye. ¬†That is a daunting challenge, to defeat three very good teams in successive games. ¬†Generally speaking, two evenly-matched teams will have approximately an equal chance of winning a game. ¬†Thus, winning three games, each at 1:2 odds, means there is about a one in eight chance of pulling off the trifecta.

Of course, we know that football games are not like fair coin flips, and the odds are not exactly 50-50, but you get the idea.  Winning one game against a tough opponent is a challenge.  Winning three (or four!) straight is a tremendous accomplishment.

Now, Patriot fans obviously want to see New England win another Super Bowl, and the early success of the team under the Belichick/Brady combination has created some lofty expectations for the franchise. ¬†What’s wrong with the team? ¬†Why can’t they win the “big one” any more? ¬†Why is Brady playing worse than he did early in his career in the playoffs? ¬†These are questions that routinely come up when the Patriots fall short of their fourth Lombardi. ¬†I thought it would be interesting to analyze Brady and the Pats in a specific context. ¬†I wanted to see how Brady and the Pats did when playing three consecutive games against quality opponents. ¬†Let me lay out some definitions to help us understand the numbers.

First, a “quality” opponent is any team that finished the regular season at 8-8 or better. ¬†Only one team has made the playoffs with worse than an 8-8 record, but there have been a lot of 8-8 or 9-7 playoff teams. ¬†Therefore, 8-8 is the cutoff point for this study.

Second, a “quality” passing performance is one where Brady finished with a passer rating of 90.0 or better. ¬†That number may seem a bit random, but we all think of Brady as an elite QB, and a “quality” performance should reflect that. ¬†Early on in his career (pre-2004), when the rules were tighter, his passer ratings were lower, and as the league opened up the passing game in general, Brady’s ratings have gone up. ¬†In 2012, the #10 QB in the league in terms of passer rating was Tony Romo at 90.5. ¬†Thus, a 90.0 rating represents essentially a top 10 rating.

The first thing I wanted to find out was just how many times in Brady’s career (not counting 2008 – I completely eliminated that season from this study) the Patriots played three consecutive games against quality opponents. ¬†It is okay if there was a bye somewhere in there, but I didn’t want to have two quality opponents sandwiched around a non-quality opponent, because in the playoffs, the Patriots would never face a non-quality opponent. ¬†So I needed to see how many times the Patriots played three consecutive games in the same season against quality opponents.

It turns out that there have been 35 times in Brady’s career, including playoffs, where they have played three straight quality opponents. ¬†Sometimes they played more than three in a row, but in that case, I took that into consideration as follows.

In 2006, for example, in games 15 and 16, plus three straight playoff weeks, they played quality opponents:

  • Game 15 – at Jax
  • Game 16 – at Ten
  • Game 17 – vs NYJ (playoffs)
  • Game 18 – at SD (playoffs)
  • Game 19 – at Ind (playoffs)

In this case, game 17 represented one specific three-game stretch against quality opponents.  Game 18 represented another specific three-game stretch.  And game 19 represented a third specific three-game stretch.  So in this five-game stretch, there were three instances where the Pats played against quality opponents in three consecutive games.

So the Patriots under Brady have played 35 such three-game stretches against quality opponents.  The average regular season records of those opponents was 10.1 wins and 5.9 losses.  That means that these opponents won 63.1% of their regular season games.  As you can see right off the top, winning three straight games against opponents who tended to win 63.1% of their games is a difficult chore.

With that in mind, I then wondered how many times the Patriots won all three of these games.  There are only 9 such instances.  Here they are:

  • 2001 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Oakland (10-6), Pittsburgh (13-3), and St. Louis (13-3) in their first Super Bowl run.
  • 2002 – Games 1, 2, and 3. ¬†They beat Pittsburgh (10-5-1), the NY Jets (9-7), and Kansas City (8-8).
  • 2003 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Tennessee (12-4), Indianapolis (12-4), and Carolina (11-5) in their second Super Bowl run.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†As a team, this is probably the most impressive 3-game stretch of the Belichick/Brady era.
  • 2006 – Games 15, 16, and 17. ¬†They beat Jacksonville (8-8), Tennessee (8-8), and the NY Jets (10-6).
  • 2006 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat Tennessee (8-8), the NY Jets (10-6), and San Diego (14-2).
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5).
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6).
  • 2011 – Games 4, 5, and 6. ¬†They beat Oakland (8-8), the NY Jets (8-8), and Dallas (8-8).

So out of the 35 opportunities to beat three quality teams in a row, the Patriots have managed to pull that feat off 9 times (25.7%). ¬†Thus, 3 out of 4 times, they haven’t succeeded at the trifecta.

Now let’s talk about Tom Brady. ¬†He is obviously a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, one of the best to ever play the game. ¬†But playing well against quality opposition is a challenge even for the great ones. ¬†How has Brady fared against the better teams in the league? ¬†Well, in his career (including postseason), he has played 119 games against quality teams. ¬†The Patriots have won 80 of those, for a winning percentage of .672. ¬†That’s an amazing number. ¬†As an individual, here are Brady’s stats in these 119 games against quality opponents:

2712-4288 (63.2%), 30,952 yds, 211 td, 90 int, 92.5 rating

We can look at that in two parts as well:  2001-2004 (the SB-winning era) and 2005-2012 (the non-SB-winning era):

2001-04:  911-1473 (61.8%), 9,842 yds, 63 td, 29 int, 87.5 rating

2005-12:  1801-2815 (64.0%), 21,110 yds, 148 td, 61 int, 95.1 rating

It is interesting to note that Brady’s individual statistical performance against quality opponents in the non-SB winning years has been significantly better than it was in the SB-winning years, though there is something to be said for the rule changes that have led to increased passing across the board. Nonetheless, it is clear that Brady has emerged as a mega star with his increased passing numbers.

I wondered how Brady has performed in three successive games against quality opponents. ¬†How often did he produce a quality passing performance? ¬†Recall that I defined a quality passing performance as a rating of 90.0 or better. ¬†I took the three successive games and totaled the numbers, and then figured out the passer rating from those. ¬†In the 35 times the Pats played three consecutive quality opponents, Brady had a cumulative rating of 90.0 or better a total of 18 times. ¬†That’s just over 50%, which isn’t bad at all.

Interestingly, of the 9 times the Patriots won all three games, Brady had a quality passer rating in 6 of them.  Here they were:

  • 2002 – Games 1, 2, and 3. ¬†They beat Pittsburgh (10-5-1), the NY Jets (9-7), and Kansas City (8-8). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†93-132, 973 yds, 9 td, 2 int, 107.9 rating.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in the playoffs. ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†55-81, 587 yds, 5 td, 0 int, 109.4 rating.
  • 2006 – Games 15, 16, and 17. ¬†They beat Jacksonville (8-8), Tennessee (8-8), and the NY Jets (10-6). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†65-97, 686 yds, 4 td, 0 int, 101.1 rating.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†80-103, 827 yds, 7 td, 3 int, 110.6 rating.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†63-93, 858 yds, 8 td, 0 int, 125.6 rating.
  • 2011 – Games 4, 5, and 6. ¬†They beat Oakland (8-8), the NY Jets (8-8), and Dallas (8-8). ¬†Brady’s numbers were: ¬†67-104, 836 yds, 5 td, 3 int, 93.3 rating.

There were 12 other times where Brady amassed a cumulative passer rating of 90.0 or better but the Patriots lost at least one of the three games.

I then wondered, of the 35 games against these quality opponents, how many three-game sets were against teams with a combined winning percentage of .625 or better.  A 10-6 record is a .625 percentage, and I figured these represented the cream of the crop, the elite.  These represented the hardest of these challenging sequences.  Of the 35 instances where they played teams with 8-8 records or better in three consecutive games, there were 18 instances where the cumulative winning percentage of their three opponents was .625 or better.  And in six of those 18 instances, the Patriots won all three.  Here they were:

  • 2001 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Oakland (10-6), Pittsburgh (13-3), and St. Louis (13-3) in their first Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .771.
  • 2003 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Tennessee (12-4), Indianapolis (12-4), and Carolina (11-5) in their second Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .729.
  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .833.
  • 2006 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat Tennessee (8-8), the NY Jets (10-6), and San Diego (14-2). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667.

The last thing I wanted to know was how many of these three-game sequences did the following three things occur:  (1) The opponents had a combined win % of .625 or better, (2) the Patriots won all three games, and (3) Tom Brady had a passer rating of 90.0 or better.  I wanted to know this because Patriots fans not only want the Patriots to beat these opponents, it seems somewhat important that Tom Brady play well in these games.

It turns out that in only three out of 35 possible instances were all three criteria met.  They were:

  • 2004 – Games 17, 18, and 19. ¬†They beat Indianapolis (12-4), Pittsburgh (15-1), and Philadelphia (13-3) in their third Super Bowl run. ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .833. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 109.4.
  • 2007 – Games 16, 17, and 18. ¬†They beat the NY Giants (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5), and San Diego (11-5). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 110.6.
  • 2010 – Games 12, 13, and 14. ¬†They beat the NY Jets (11-5), Chicago (11-5), and Green Bay (10-6). ¬†Their opponents had a combined win % of .667. ¬†Brady’s cumulative rating was 125.6.

What does this all mean?  I draw the following conclusions from this study:

  1. Winning three consecutive games against quality opponents is very, very difficult.  It gets progressively harder, as one would expect, the better the competition.
  2. Tom Brady has, generally speaking, played well against good competition.  But in these three consecutive game runs, he is about a 50/50 proposition to have a quality passing performance.
  3. It is exceedingly rare (just 3 out of 35 tries, which comes to 8.6%) for the Patriots to win three straight against elite teams and have Brady put up a quality performance over the course of those three games.
  4. Therefore, for the Patriots to win three straight against these elite teams, the vast majority of the time they have done so with Brady putting up a less-than-quality passing performance in at least one of those games.  That means that other parts of the team need to step up and cover for him, as great as he is.

In sum, the Patriots have never, and should never, rely on Tom Brady to carry them when faced with a 3 consecutive game gauntlet of quality opponents.  The team must be built to win on days when Brady is not at his best.  They need to be able to win with their defense, with the running game, or with special teams.  In any one-game scenario, Brady can be the primary reason for the win, but in a 3-game sequence, it is just too much to ask, even of the great Tom Brady.