The Broncos defensive mastery Sunday may take awhile to fully appreciate. Wade Phillips blitzed less (17% of plays) than he had all season, yet the front four continually bludgeoned Tom Brady. Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and DeMarcus Ware must’ve known the brand of Brady’s cologne they were in his neck so often. The Broncos played fast, hit hard, and Wade flooded the passing lanes with so many defensive players Brady just saw splotches of orange everywhere like a bad fever dream. The Pats were held to just 18 points, their second-lowest total all season.
Despite the loss and the Double Gates (Spy and Deflate), the Patriots remain the league’s gold standard. Four Vince Lombardi’s in the Belichick/Brady Era. Five straight AFC title games. Six Super Bowls. Seven straight division championships. Thirteen postseason appearances in fifteen years. There is no fate as bountiful in sports as rooting for the Pats. It’s a given you dominate your division. You host at least one playoff game every year. You have a pair of all-time greats leading the two most vital positions. However, there is an interesting disconnect when you peek a little deeper, a theme that has bubbled up time and again over the second half of this glorious run.
There ain’t no place like home.
In the first chapter of New England’s championship timeline it didn’t matter where the game was played. In Foxboro, enemy territory, or a neutral site, the Pats won. All of them. From ’01-’04, they were perfect at home, going 4-0, famously frustrating Peyton Manning’s finesse Colts teams twice, beating the Titans, and knocking off the Raiders in the Tuck Rule Game. The Pats also went to Heinz Field and beat the Steelers in two AFC Title Games, putting up a combined 65 points against one of the best defenses in the league. The Pats were spotless in those Super Bowls, winning three-point games in New Orleans, Houston and Jacksonville.
Chapter I: Three playoff runs, 4-0 at home, 2-0 on the road, 3-0 in the Super Bowl.
That’s when the unquestioned dominance ended. In ’05, the Patriots lost in the divisional round at Denver (which would become a trend through the years). In ’06, they would win a heart-stopping playoff game in San Diego (which would ultimately push Marty Schottenheimer into retirement), but choked away a 21-3 lead the following week in Indianapolis. The ’07 season was the nearly perfect one, but that of course ended in a kick-to-the-shins loss in the Super Bowl.
New England had its most dysfunctional team of the era in ’09, the Adalius Thomas/Randy Moss/We Don’t Like Teacher season. It ended in a blowout loss at home to the Ravens in the Wild Card. The following year they rebounded to go 14-2 and the top seed, but it ended at home to the Jets in the divisional round.
Chapter II: Five playoff runs, 4-2 at home, 1-1 on the road, 0-1 in the Super Bowl.
And 2011 began the current trend. Dominate at home in the playoffs, but roll the dice anywhere else. From ’11-’15, the Pats ripped everyone at home but the Ravens, averaging 37 points per game in those victories. But away from Gillette Stadium they lost a Super Bowl, and two AFC Title Games, looking nothing like the offensive force that seemed to get better the colder and windier it was in Foxboro. New England claimed its fourth Lombardi within this window, defeating the Seahawks in last season’s thriller with a brilliant play by Malcolm Butler. But you can’t help but wonder how history writes itself if Russell Wilson hands off to Marshawn Lynch. Would the Pats have been oh-fer in these playoff games away from Massachusetts?
Chapter III: Five playoff runs, 7-1 at home, 0-2 on the road, 1-1 in the Super Bowl.
Hardly any team wins regularly on the road in January, so the Pats are in good company. No squad does what Tom Coughlin’s Giants did, going 7-0 away from the Meadowlands in those two Super Bowl runs. The Seahawks under Carroll are 5-0 at home in the playoffs, but 3-4 away from their raucous confines.
There may be the very simple explanation for the Pats lack of dominance away from home. You end up running into better teams, with smarter coaches, and more talented defenses as you move on in the playoffs. The Pats also play a lot of home postseason games because of their success, so they often get inferior opponents like the Texans or Colts coming into town. These are also not huge sample sizes for the Pats, so it’s hard to extrapolate too dramatically. But the home/away splits are at least interesting because of how good they used to be playing anywhere. During those first three Super Bowl marches, the Pats were 5-0 away from Foxboro. And since, just 2-5 on road turf or neutral sites.
The old saw is that two things travel well in the NFL playoffs: defense and running the ball. Maybe not so coincidentally those were the Patriots strengths once upon a time. The ’03 and ’04 Pats had the best overall defense in the league, led by Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Teddy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour. It was the best scoring D in the league. In ’01 Antowain Smith ran for 1,100 yards, and three years later Corey Dillon had the best campaign for a runningback in franchise history with 1,600 yards. The last decade has been defined by Brady and the offense’s brilliance, with Moss, Gronk, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker.
The ’15 season was a microcosm of this home/road trend. While the Patriots started white hot at 10-0, they did not play well in a win vs. the Giants in New Jersey. Their first loss of the season was in the snow at Denver, and the team lost three of their final four on the road. In the playoffs, the Chiefs brought a ferocious defense to Foxboro, and Brady was nearly flawless. He carved up Kansas City with impeccably timed short routes to Edelman and Gronk. Another impressive home victory. But on the road, the Broncos bruised and battered Brady, strangled the offense all day, and that artistic day against the Chiefs feels like forever ago.
Belichick and Brady are now 2-7 in Denver, including 0-3 in the playoffs, so maybe it’s more of a singular Kryptonite that altitude brings. The Broncos have built one of the most fearsome defenses in the NFL, with athletic pass rushers, hard-hitters, and speedy, lockdown corners. They did the same thing to the prolific Steelers a week ago. If Stephen Gostkowski makes an extra point, we’re in overtime. So maybe this is just the simple case of losing to a superior team on one or two quirky plays. But there is a trend that has developed over the last decade in Patriots Land. Win at home, but take your lumps on the road.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.