The New England Patriots not only have the first dynasty of the New Millennium; they also have one of the oddest dynasties in NFL history.
With their 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots have won two of the past three Super Bowls, five in the first 17 years of the 2000s and have appeared in seven since the merging of Bill Belichick with quarterback Tom Brady in 2001.
Together they have won more Super Bowls than any coach or quarterback in NFL history, have reached a record six consecutive AFC title games and 11 since this run began (as well as 14 division titles, including a record eight in a row) and are only seven total points from having gone 7-0 in Super Bowls.
Then again, they could just as easily have gone 0-7 in those games, which is what makes their dynasty the oddest and most fascinating in pro football’s nearly 100 years of existence.
Whether we’re talking about the Patriots’ dynasty or the Ming dynasty, normally at some point dynasties are dominating. They sweep through their opposition like locust, leveling everything in sight. They don’t just win; they crush the opposition in Napoleonic fashion.
And then there’s the velvet hammer of the Patriots.
New England’s five Super Bowl victories have come by a combined total of 19 points, meaning their average Super Bowl margin of victory has been 3.8 points. They are the first team to win a Super Bowl in overtime, coming back from a record 25-point deficit to beat the Falcons. They’ve won with no time on the clock courtesy of a 48-yard field goal from Adam Vinateri on Feb. 3, 2002 to begin their dynastic run. They won with four seconds left, again via Vinatieri’s foot on Feb. 1, 2004 when his 41-yard field goal beat the Carolina Panthers, 32-29. They won Super Bowl XLIX on a goal-line stand that ended with 20 seconds left on a Malcolm Butler interception at the 1-yard line.
No other dynasty in NFL history has won so closely so often.
Then again, their two losses were equally nail-biting. On Feb, 3, 2008 and Feb. 5, 2012, they were beaten by the New York Giants with 35 and 57 seconds to play, losing 17-14 and 21-17, respectively. More than any team in championship game history, the Patriots define the thin line between winning and losing.
Since 1950, there is little debate who the NFL’s dynasties are: Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns in the 1950s; Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the 1960s; the Steel Curtain of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s; Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s; the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s and the Patriots today. Although there were other teams that challenged for supremacy, each ruled its time where it counted most-- in the jewelry box where rings are kept.
And, with the exception of the Patriots, each ruled with an iron fist.
In the case of the Browns, they went to 10 straight championship games, four in the All-America Football Conference and three more in the newly-merged NFL between 1946 and 1955 ... and they won seven times. Cleveland won its last two championships by an aggregate margin of 70 points, destroying the Detroit Lions 56-10 and the Los Angeles Rams 38-14. Overall it won its seven championships during its reign by an aggregate of 144 points, an average margin of victory of 20.6 points per championship game.
The Packers won their first championship in 1961, and their 37-0 win over the Giants nearly doubled New England’s total victory point margin. In its five NFL championship game wins, Green Bay held a 101-point edge on its opponents, winning by an average differential of 20.2. Like New England, it also lost a close one, the 1960 championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles, 17-13.
One remembers the Steelers as also being dominant, but they were far more like New England. The first dominant champion in the Super Bowl era, Pittsburgh won four times by an aggregate of 30 points, a 7.5-point margin of victory per Super Bowl win.
The 49ers were more in keeping with the Browns and Packers in the 1980s.
They won five Super Bowls beginning on Jan. 24, 1982 and ending on Jan. 29, 1995 by an aggregate margin of 99 points. They won close games (by margins of four and five points) and blew opponents out (by margins of 45 and 23 points in their final two Super Bowl victories), leaving their average victory margin at 19 points.
The Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Charles Haley in the 1990s won three times in four years and, in those games, were as dominant as the Browns. Dallas won Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX by an aggregate 62 points and margins of 35, 17 and 10 points. That’s a 20.6 point differential between them and their opponents.
And then there’s the Patriots, who won five times by margins of three points, three points, three points, four points and six points and lost by margins of three points and four points. They are seven points from a 7-0 record in the Super Bowl era and 19 points from being 0-7.
Perhaps that is what is most remarkable about the New England dynasty. Many of its opponents can claim, like Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,’’ “I coulda been somebody.’’ They can look at the Patriots’ margins of victory and think, as the Falcons surely must now, “How did that happen? It should have been us.’’
But it wasn’t because the New England Patriots’ dynasty has no equivalent. It is no Steel Curtain. It is The Velvet Hammer. But you know what? Even a hammer wrapped in velvet will knock you out.
RANKING THE PATRIOTS’ TOP SUPER BOWL TEAMS
- 2004 – This team was one of three New England Super Bowl winners to go 14-2, and it’s the most dominating. It was second in scoring defense and fourth in scoring offense and could beat you every way possible.
- 2003 – Only a hair behind the ’04 team, if at all. It was dominant on defense, especially vs. the pass, and efficient on offense, finishing first in scoring defense, fewest TD passes allowed, most interceptions and lowest QB rating by opposing quarterbacks. It was 12th in scoring offense because Brady wasn’t yet as commanding as he would become a year later, but defense wins championships and this was their best defense.
- 2016 – It’s hard to argue with the numbers. Even though this team at times didn’t seem to pass the eye test for greatness, it finished first in scoring defense and third in scoring offense.
- 2001 – These Patriots were a 14-point underdog to the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf,’’ but history proved they were the superior team. It was just that no one could quite believe it until New England won three Super Bowls in four years. It was a balanced (6th in scoring offense and defense) but had to win six straight at the end of the season just to get into the playoffs.
- 2014 – A solid team that lived on offense more than defense, these Patriots finished 4th in scoring offense and 8th in scoring defense. It was the worst of the New England defensive teams to win championships but found a way …with a goal line stand of all things.
* 2007 – This is the asterisk team. It went 16-0 with one of the most powerful offenses ever assembled, plus the 4th ranked scoring defense ... but lost to the Giants, by three points of course, 17-14. Were it not for David Tyree’s circus “helmet’’ catch this one might be there best. But it’s only a footnote to a dynasty now.