Since the start of the 2001 season, the New England Patriots have been by far the best team in football. On top of the rings, wins, and obvious results, they have put up a schedule-adjusted margin of victory 7 points better than the competition (the Packers, Steelers and Colts were all 2 to 3 points behind New England). Gamblers were rewarded as well. Despite sky-high expectations throughout most of the Tom Brady era, the team has posted a losing record against the spread only once, going 39 games above .500 during that time; that history is evidence for Patriots optimism.
However, last year’s AFC Championship Game appearance aside, the team took a decided step back in 2013, dropping to 8th in schedule-adjusted margin of victory, almost 5.5 points worse than the Broncos. Unsurprisingly to most observers, the culprit was the offense, which averaged nearly a touchdown less per game than it scored in 2012 despite facing similar-quality opposition. While the offense was still very good, recent Patriots teams have relied largely on an unstoppable attack to win games and cover spreads. The 2013 offense, beset by injuries, lacked its usual firepower for much of the season, contributing to a disappointing showing in the end.
While optimism about the defense has quieted concerns, the question remains whether 2013 was simply an injury/felony-ridden year which caused an unavoidable dip in the team’s offensive performance, or whether cracks in the offensive foundation have begun to show. A cursory analysis suggests perhaps Brady has begun to age, as he took steps back in every metric, advanced or otherwise. However, since it is difficult to statistically disentangle the performance of a quarterback from the players around him, it is probably wrong to give too much weight to such numbers.
The case for optimism is clear: Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola are healthy, the team has had an offseason to game plan for the absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the bulk of their relative offensive “struggles” occurred in the first half of the season last year. The case for pessimism is equally simple: Gronkowski, Vollmer, Vereen and Amendola are just injury prone, and Peyton Manning and Brett Favre are the exceptions to quarterback aging rather than the new paradigm. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between. Perhaps the best sign for Patriots fans is that Vegas remains optimistic, ranking the Patriots third in Super Bowl odds headed into the season, albeit with a wide gap between them and the Broncos and Seahawks.
Follow Konstantin on Twitter @kmedved.