Death, taxes, and the New England Patriots are AFC Champions. For the eighth time, Tom Brady’s Pats are headed to the Super Bowl, and if they’re successful against the Philadelphia Eagles, they’ll tie the Pittsburgh Steelers with six Lombardi Trophies. Nobody seems to know how to beat the Patriots, especially in important games, but I think I might have the blueprint.
How to Beat the New England Patriots
Dominate Time of Possession
Riddle me this, how can Tom Brady and the New England Patriots score points if they’re not on the field? Okay, fine, there’s defense and special teams, but that’s not the point. If the Patriots offense is on the sideline, it would be very difficult for them to score points. It seems obvious, but keep your offense on the field with long, successful drives, and good things will happen.
It tires out their defense, gives your defense time to rest, and again, it’s gonna be really tough for the Patriots to score from the sideline. This seems really obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Imagine if the Jacksonville Jaguars had held onto the ball in the fourth quarter, they might be the ones going to Minnesota.
Hit Tom Brady
Look, the great Al Davis once said that the quarterback has to go down, and he has to go down hard, and this is doubly true when it comes to Tom Terrific. Think about the games where the Patriots have looked the worst. Those are the games where Brady is being pressured. In Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, Brady was sacked five times. When the teams had a rematch in Super Bowl XLVI, he was sacked twice and hit several times.
Another great example? The Patriots had to travel to Denver to take on the Broncos in the AFC Championship three years ago. Brady was hit 17 times and sacked four times, and it really threw off his game. He threw the ball 56 times and only scored once. He tried to pull the team back, but in the end, the Orange Crush was too much for him.
Even on a smaller stage, the same logic has been true in regular season games. Against the Miami Dolphins last December, Brady was sacked twice and hit several times and it really threw off his game. He averaged five yards per attempt and ended up throwing more interceptions than touchdowns as the Dolphins won 27-20.
Rewind to 2012 when the San Francisco 49ers came to town and upset the Pats, 41-34. The 49ers beat Brady up all night, hitting him seven times and sacking him three times. Yet again, Tom Terrific was off his game and despite a big comeback, the team fell.
The proof is in the pudding. Historically, if you are consistently hitting Tom Brady and making it so he can’t get comfortable in the pocket, he’s not the same quarterback. That’s not necessarily a dig at Brady, as this is true for most quarterbacks, but the fact remains. The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.
Don’t Let Up and Don’t Make Mistakes
This seems obvious, but it’s the most important one. Don’t make stupid mistakes against the New England Patriots. If you find yourself with a lead against the New England Patriots, you’re in rarefied air. Belichick’s Patriots have only lost 74 of the last 288 games, so if you have a shot at knocking them off, you really have to play flawless football.
Now, that’s not easy. You can play 45 minutes of flawless football, have a seemingly insurmountable lead, and still end up staring at the scoreboard, wondering what the hell just happened. Just look at their last two Super Bowl victories.
Super Bowl XLIX
With 14 minutes left in the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks had the ball and a ten point lead. They started the drive with pretty reasonable field position, at their own 36 yard line. Aiming to take time off the clock, they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, though he didn’t get many yards on either rush. On third down, Russell Wilson was sacked, and the Hawks had to punt.
The Patriots marched down the field and scored.
With their lead cut to three, the Seahawks started their next drive, this time from their own twenty. Two incomplete passes and a five yard rush from Marshawn Lynch later, they were punting again.
Yet again, the Patriots marched down the field and scored.
Everyone knows what happens next. The Seahawks manage to move the ball down the field, but at the one yard line, they decided to pass instead of run and Malcolm Butler became a household name.
So, what did the Seahawks do wrong? Well, they didn’t execute. They held the ball for three of the first twelve minutes of the fourth quarter. They didn’t score any points, and they forced their defense onto the field against a healthy Patriots offense for far too long. The first drive, they were too conservative. The second? They were too aggressive. They only went three and outs twice during the rest of the game, but they started the fourth quarter with another two. All three of their fourth quarter first downs came on the doomed final drive.
Assume that no lead is safe when you’re up against the Brady Bunch. Accept that they’re going to stay focused and aggressive late in games, and try to match that intensity. You have to play flawless football in order to pull it off. Take time off the clock, but keep the ball moving. You’re better off trying to run up the score than trying to micromanage a long drive.
Super Bowl LI
The numbers associated with this game will forever be 28-3. That’s the lead the Atlanta Falcons had over the New England Patriots at one point. However, they aren’t the most important numbers. The most important numbers are 40:31-23:27. That’s the time of possession split between the Patriots and Falcons. The Patriots had the ball for the vast majority of the game, and if you don’t think that’s important, let me explain why you’re wrong.
The average drive of the Atlanta Falcons was only seven plays long. Despite the fact that New England had two more drives than Atlanta, their average drive was eight plays long. The longest drive that Atlanta had in the game was the eight play, four minute series that started the second half of the game, ending in a touchdown.
Meanwhile, New England had five drives with at least ten plays, and with the exception of the series that ended in a pick-six, they all ended in points. The Patriots defense were well rested in the fourth quarter, meanwhile the Falcons were absolutely gassed.
However, despite that, they still had a chance to win the game late, but they completely dropped the ball. Here’s what happened.
With less than five minutes in the game, the Falcons had the ball, in field goal range, with an eight point lead. In hindsight, they should have just handed the ball off, taken the field goal, and won their first Super Bowl. However, hindsight is 20/20.
Instead, they passed the ball, and instead of a harmless incompletion or a good play, Ryan was sacked. On the next play, they were called for holding. And then on third down, Matty Ice’s pass was incomplete. By now, they were out of field goal range, with no choice but to punt the ball to Brady, and ultimately, destiny.
The mistake is obvious in hindsight. They didn’t sustain long drives, and when it mattered, they were exhausted. Even despite that, they had a chance to win the game, and they dropped the ball terribly. They made a crucial mistake, and always, the Patriots cashed in on it.
At the end of the day, none of this is a surprise to anyone who understands football. Dominating the clock? Rushing the quarterback? Gee, it’s almost like pass rushers and offensive linemen are consistently taken in the top ten for exactly this reason. But far too often, it seems like teams are right there, right in the moment, and they slip up. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from enduring the eternal dynasty of Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it’s that they’re not going to make many mistakes, but they’ll absolutely capitalize on yours.