- Chris Carlson/AP
For what feels like the umpteenth year in a row, the New England Patriots have emerged as the best team in football as we near the NFL season’s halfway point.
Bill Belichick’s squad boasts the best record in football (6-1), and Tom Brady – despite missing the first four games of the season – is playing his way into the MVP conversation, completing 75% of his passes for eight touchdowns, no turnovers, and over 1,000 yards passing.
Belichick & Co. know, as they do every year, that they will play more than 16 games this season.
That’s why, as Albert Breer of the MMQB wrote this week, they have effectively treated the first half of the regular season as the preseason. This means resting players, letting rookies acclimate into their systems, and even withholding parts of their playbook for more important moments later in the season.
Breer notes that the Patriots have handled their players differently this season, being extra cautious with players like Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and “they’ve accepted not going with a full roster,” for most of their early games.
Perhaps only Belichick has the luxury to tread so lightly through the first half of a 16-game season, and perhaps only he has the ability to do this while still coaching his team to six wins in seven tries.
But it is Breer’s next nugget that should really scare the rest of the NFL (emphasis ours):
“It’s also fair to see where this idea could extend into on-field strategy, too, with the team tinkering or holding back what it calls offensively or defensively, with an eye on the higher-stakes parts of the season.”
Again, this is something most teams do in the preseason. The Patriots are cruising, and they haven’t even tapped fully into their playbook simply because they want to keep their team healthy. (And, because this is the Patriots, probably also because they want to roll out plays their opponents haven’t seen all season, and thus haven’t been able to fully prepare for.)
“Before the opener, Bill Belichick told the New England media, ‘I don’t think you really know your team until the middle of October.’ In years past, we’ve heard him reference Thanksgiving as a time when you can figure out who the real contenders are. All of this, plus the reduction in offseason work, explains why the Patriots have really started to use the time they get early in the year in a way few other teams can, to develop their roster. And this year, since they like the depth they have and carry the experience of falling just shy last year, they’ve pushed it to another level.”
The Pats aren’t a perfect team, at least not for right now. According to Football Outsiders, they are 18th in defensive DVOA (compared with third in offensive DVOA). But even if the Patriots aren’t perfect, nobody in the NFL is better. And the scariest part is that they haven’t even shifted into their top gear.