Alex Egol – RSAC Writer
I recently read a book by Wayne Winston called Mathletics, which explained that NFL teams, after a good season, were historically more likely to trend towards the average than NBA teams. From that angle, it seems nearly impossible for a franchise to sustain the kind of unwavering success that the Patriots have. This year, once again, the Patriots are coming off of a bye, and in the divisional round of the playoffs. Although they’re evidently not there yet, the Patriots may finally be trending towards mediocrity.
FiveThirtyEight, an extraordinarily handy, educational website for any sports fan or analytics wiz, has published their “Complete History of the NFL”. Look at their interactive graphs with the link https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/complete-history-of-the-nfl/#ne. FiveThirtyEight uses Elo, a ranking system based on the outcome of games between rated players. To learn more about Elo, check out Measurables’ episode on it at https://player.fm/series/measurables. Back to the “Complete History of the NFL”, if you select the Patriots’ history, you will notice that the Patriots haven’t had an Elo rating below average (1500) since October 28, 2001. That’s what I call DOMINANCE.
You may also notice that the Patriots aren’t quite as dominant as in past years. I have attached a data table below which contains every Patriots’ Elo rating prior to the playoffs since the ‘03-04 season.
FiveThirtyEight: Patriots’ Week 17 Elo history
The Patriots have almost always ended their seasons in the 1600s and 1700s, if not, in the 1800s. This is a testament to the Pats’ greatness. On the other hand, relative to their incredible past successes, the Patriots’ ‘18-19 campaign clearly falls short. The Patriots failed to make the playoffs in ‘08-09, and still managed to produce a stronger Elo rating than these Patriots (1659 v. 1640). The closest the Patriots were in Elo to their current Elo rating was in ‘09-10, a season that ended in the Wild Card round for them, via a 33-14 loss to the Ravens.
An interesting caveat of this data is the fact that the Patriots, due to their success, tend to sit Tom Brady and other starters in Week 17. For this reason, the Patriots have actually lost many Week 17 games since ‘03-04, which one would expect to bump down their Elo. These Patriots have won two consecutive games. Therefore, the Patriots of the past, which the data shows are substantially better rated than these, are under-represented in their strength compared to the 2018 Pats because their late-season losses have bumped them down.
One could draw from this data to conclude that the Pats have lost some of their dominance. However, the Patriots have continued to recover from signs of weakness in the past. For example, in 2014, when the Patriots lost 41-14 to the Chiefs on primetime, dropping to 2-2, their Elo dropped to 1586; many analysts proceeded to call the Pats’ dynasty “done”. However, the Patriots rebounded and eventually won the Super Bowl. In ‘16-17, the Patriots began the season with an Elo rating of 1605, one of their lowest at the start of a season since ‘03. They won the Super Bowl that year. Evidently, Elo ratings can’t always tell us how strong a team is.
I still think the Patriots’ low Elo is worth noting. Every year, the Patriots’ Elo rating resets, partially based off of the outcome of the last season. The Patriots have historically maintained a continuous Elo in the 1700s through the regular season and playoffs. This season, they haven’t done so.
I will conclude by warning the NFL fan of a looming upset. The Patriots have the third best Elo out of the four remaining AFC teams. All of the other quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs have stronger DYAR, DVOA, and EYds ratings than Brady, according to Football Outsiders. Football Outsiders https://www.footballoutsiders.com/ also says that the Pats have an 11.8% chance to win Super Bowl LIII, which is less than half the Chiefs’ odds and only a few percentage points above the wild-card Chargers and Colts. Elo isn’t perfect, and the Patriots have been great as long as I can remember, but I would look out for a team other than the Patriots, perhaps the Chiefs or Chargers or Colts, to steal the Patriots’ long-held AFC crown.