Here is part two of our series where we take a look at the best Tom Brady-era defenses for the New England Patriots. The first part ranked the units which, in certain seasons, didn’t distinguish themselves with their play. This article takes a look at the best ones.
Ranking Tom Brady-Era Defenses, Part Two
EPA Rank: 11th
DVOA Rank: 12th
In 2015, the Patriots offense got off to an incredible start. Due to some major injuries to the offensive line and to skill positions, however, the offense sputtered down the stretch. Desperately needing it, the defense came up with two strong performances against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, leading to their only two wins in the final six games of the season. The defense was never that good all season, but they were solid throughout the year and featured a lot of talent. Jamie Collins, Jabaal Sheard, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower were incredible that season, and the Patriots were second in the league in quarterback sacks. 2015 was Malcolm Butler‘s first season as a full time starter, and while he wasn’t incredible, he was very good for most of his sophomore season. In their final game, the defense had a very good game against Peyton Manning‘s Broncos, although they would end up losing in the 20-18 defensive battle.
EPA Rank: 20th
DVOA Rank: 12th
The 2014 team was incredible on many levels, but the production was spearheaded by the offense. Although it was not very consistent, the defense was incredibly talented. Future Hall of Fame corner Darrelle Revis played very well down the stretch, and he was a great complement to safety Devin McCourty in the secondary. The front seven featured the talented likes of Collins, Hightower, Jones, Ninkovich, and Wilfork. As a whole, the unit was not great, but they were made up of a lot of talented parts. They struggled in the playoffs, and they almost blew the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Fortunately, Malcolm Butler saved the day with his game-clinching interception on the goal-line, and the Patriots won 28-24, cementing their spot at number eight on this list.
EPA Rank: 8th
DVOA Rank: 16th
After a dismal 2017 season, the Patriots did not make too many key personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball. Other than letting Butler walk in favor of Devin’s brother Jason McCourty, this was the essentially same unit that just allowed 41 points to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. For a good part of 2018, the defense was the same inconsistent mess for most of the year. While Stephon Gilmore and Trey Flowers were having incredible seasons, the defense’s performance was erratic at best. After a terrible performance against the Miami Dolphins and another bad performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots were just 9-5. Then, all of a sudden, something clicked. They beat up on the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets en route to a first-round bye. They were not great in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, but they ultimately held their own against two incredible offenses.
The Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams is why this defense is so high up on this list. Facing yet another high powered offense full of playmakers, they rose to the occasion, allowing just three points and adding 11.82 expected points. Leading 10-3, Gilmore intercepted Jared Goff‘s desperate heave to the end-zone, clinching an incredible defensive performance and their sixth Super Bowl title.
EPA Rank: 9th
DVOA Rank: 13th
Where it all started, the 2001 Patriots were not necessarily the greatest team of all time. However, after Tom Brady took over in Week 3, they got it done week in and week out. They went 11-3 with Brady during the regular season. Featuring Patriots legends such as Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, and Willie McGinest, the unit performed very well down the stretch. They held their own in the Snow Bowl against the Oakland Raiders and put up another solid performance. For three and a half quarters in the Super Bowl, they had arguably the greatest defensive performance in NFL history.
In the second quarter, Ty Law picked off a wild Kurt Warner pass and returned it for six. Leading 17-3 early in the fourth quarter, Tebucky Jones returned a Warner fumble 97 yards for a touchdown. Based on my rough calculations, this would have given the Patriots defense a 22.2 expected points added and a 24-3 lead against one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Unfortunately, this never happened. The linebacker McGinest was called for holding, and the Rams got the ball back. They would subsequently score, and would eventually tie the game up with less than two minutes to go. The incredible defensive performance that the Patriots defense came up with could have been for nothing, but Adam Vinatieri would kick a game-winning 48 yard field goal, sealing the first Super Bowl victory in Patriots history.
EPA Rank: 9th
DVOA Rank: 7th
The 2006 season was a strange one for the Patriots. Without any viable receiving options, the offense was effective but limited. However, their defense was great. The star of the defense was young cornerback Asante Samuel, who had an incredible season. He racked up 10 interceptions and got an incredible 93.2 defensive grade from PFF. Along with a great defensive line anchored by Vince Wilfork, the Patriots headed into the playoffs with a 12-4 record. After a strong performance against the Jets and a wild comeback win against the Chargers, they traveled to Indianapolis hoping to knock off Peyton Manning. The defense came through early, and Samuel returned a Manning interception 39 yards for a touchdown, en route to a 21-6 halftime lead. Unfortunately, they completely collapsed in the second half, and the Colts stormed back for a 38-34 victory.
EPA Rank: 2nd
DVOA Rank: 16th
The 2016 Patriots were a special team. After Touchdown Tom came back from his unjust suspension, they went 14-1 the rest of the way and won the Super Bowl. Their only loss with Brady at quarterback was against Seattle in Week 10, and it was due to a terrible defensive performance. At that point in the year, their defense was heavily criticized for not being good enough to win it all. After that game, however, they stepped up in a big way. From Week 14 until the divisional round against the Houston Texans, the defense put up a positive EPA every game. Because they faced relatively weak offenses, their DVOA was not great. However, they redeemed themselves in that regard against the historic Atlanta Falcons offense in the Super Bowl. Against an offense who led the league with 13.3 expected points per game, they held them to just 21 offensive points and 7.42 expected points, allowing Brady to lead a valiant 28-3 comeback in one of the greatest games in NFL history. Their performance in the big game is what puts them so high on this list, despite their relatively poor DVOA.
EPA Rank: 3rd
DVOA Rank: 7th
In what was arguably the best season in Patriots history, the defense most certainly did their part. Looking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, the Patriots went 14-2. Combined with Brady’s statistical breakout, they steamrolled their competition week in and week out. Aside from a blowout loss to the Steelers in October, their only loss was an incredibly fluky defeat in Miami late in the year. They played very few close games and went into the playoffs hot. The defense torched Manning’s Colts in the divisional round, and Rodney Harrison‘s pick-six off of Ben Roethlisberger helped seal an incredible 41-27 win against the Steelers. They almost blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, but Harrison came up with yet another key interception, and the best team in Patriots history had their Super Bowl title just like that.
EPA Rank: 2nd
DVOA Rank: 2nd
2003 was a strange season for the Patriots. The offense was probably the worst of the Brady era, yet they won games. The signing of veteran safety Rodney Harrison was a big part of this transformation. He had an incredible impact on the field and in the locker room, and the team benefited immensely. The defense was incredible for most of the year, resulting in a 14-2 record. Their shining moment was the AFC championship game against the Colts, in which Ty Law intercepted Manning three times and Harrison also got a pick. The dominant 24-14 win over Indianapolis punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, in which they struggled. Auspiciously, Brady would pick up the slack with an incredible performance, and the Patriots would win their second Super Bowl championship.
EPA Rank: 1st
DVOA Rank: 1st
Despite the disappointing end to the year, the defensive performance in 2019 cannot be ignored. The Boogeyman had a historically dominant start to the season, and although they tailed off near the end, their statistical dominance cannot be ignored. The defense featured the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, along with other Patriots stalwarts such as Devin McCourty and Kyle Van Noy having very good seasons. They had a very unfortunate collapse against the lowly Miami Dolphins in Week 17, costing them a first-round bye. A solid performance against the Titans in the playoffs got overshadowed by a combination of people not understanding how yards per attempt work and a bad playoff loss, unfairly altering their reputation for the worse. We need to recognize just how dominant this defense was early in the season, and that’s why it comes in at number one.