There’s Really Never Been An NFL Dynasty Like The Patriots

The New England Patriots are back in yet another Super Bowl — No. 9 since 2001, for those keeping track — and this time they’re the favorite to beat the Los Angeles Rams, according to both Las Vegas and our Elo model. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and friends have been doing this kind of thing for so long that sometimes it’s easy to take their greatness for granted. But with another championship potentially looming, we thought we’d zoom out and take stock of just how incredible New England’s success has actually been. Because, love or hate the Patriots, we’ve never seen anything like what they’ve accomplished over the better part of the past two decades.

New England has enjoyed some of the most dominant seasons of all time.

Let’s start at the single-season level. To grade a team’s Elo dominance, we like to use a blend of its final end-of-season rating, its peak rating and its season-long average rating.1 According to that metric, the Patriots own a number of the greatest teams of the Super Bowl era (since 1966) — including both the greatest team to win a Super Bowl (in 2004) and the greatest team to not win a Super Bowl (in 2007).

The best single-season teams of the Super Bowl era

NFL teams ranked by a blend of their final, peak and season-long average Elo ratings, since 1966

Super Bowl winners Didn’t win Super Bowl
Team Year Elo Blend Team Year Elo Blend
1 New England 2004 1792 1 New England 2007 1824
2 Denver 1998 1771 2 Baltimore 1968 1766
3 San Francisco 1989 1770 3 Washington 1983 1762
4 Miami 1973 1767 4 Green Bay 1997 1758
5 Chicago 1985 1767 5 Seattle 2014 1749
6 Dallas 1993 1765 6 Green Bay 2011 1748
7 Pittsburgh 1975 1760 7 Indianapolis 2005 1742
8 San Francisco 1984 1759 8 San Francisco 1990 1742
9 Washington 1991 1756 9 Indianapolis 2007 1737
10 Miami 1972 1754 10 New England 2011 1734

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Despite their loss to the New York Giants in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever, the 2007 Pats, who went 16-0 in the regular season, remain the highest-rated team in NFL history — in addition to being one of the most talented and influential teams ever assembled.2 And unlike that 2007 squad, the 2004 Patriots finished the job and capped off a 17-2 season with a Super Bowl crown, in a campaign that contained part of an NFL-record 21-game winning streak.

This year’s Pats are not in that conversation. But the 2016 version was the 16th-best team to win a Super Bowl, according to Elo, and the 2017 version that lost to the Eagles last February ranks as the 14th-best nonwinner of the Super Bowl era.

The Pats’ dynasty is the most impressive of the Super Bowl era (according to Elo).

Sometimes it’s difficult to pin down when a dynasty begins and ends, but one way to look at it is to find the stretch of seasons that would be the most difficult for a generic contender to replicate. (We also did this for the NBA last summer when looking at the Golden State Warriors’ place in history.)

To do that for any given franchise, we take the single-season blended ratings from above and calculate their harmonic mean over every possible span of seasons. (The harmonic mean is a special kind of average that rewards high marks across every value in a set — in this case, elevating teams that were consistently great.) Then we compare that number to what a team with an initial Elo rating of 16173 would be expected to have over the same number of seasons. Since it becomes progressively harder to maintain a high mean Elo as more seasons pass, this helps balance short bursts of greatness against longer, more sustained periods of dominance.

The most impressive dynasties are the ones that exceed expectations the most. And after filtering for teams that won at least two Super Bowls in a given span (plus tossing out duplicate overlapping stretches for the same franchise), the NFL’s best stretch of seasons belongs to the Patriots since 2003 — potentially including this year, if they beat the Rams. (And if not, then the stretch from 2003 through 2017.)

The Super Bowl era’s most impressive dynasties

Among franchises with at least two Super Bowl titles, the most impressive (nonoverlapping) spans of seasons, according to Elo ratings, since 1966

Team Span Seasons Titles Mean Elo vs. Expected
New England* 2003-18 16 5? 1711 +169.4
1 New England 2003-17 15 4 1714 +169.8
2 San Francisco 1984-95 12 4 1706 +155.1
3 Dallas 1992-95 4 3 1740 +150.7
4 Pittsburgh 1974-79 6 4 1712 +139.0
5 Miami 1972-74 3 2 1739 +138.5
6 Dallas 1968-83 16 2 1667 +125.7
7 Oakland/L.A. Raiders 1967-85 19 3 1654 +115.3
8 Denver 1996-98 3 2 1704 +103.9
9 Washington 1982-92 11 3 1653 +99.1
10 Pittsburgh 2004-11 8 2 1656 +93.9
11 Green Bay 1966-68 3 2 1688 +87.7
12 Green Bay 1995-15 21 2 1619 +81.7
13 Baltimore 2000-14 15 2 1599 +54.6
14 N.Y. Giants 1985-90 6 2 1627 +54.3

*The current Patriots’ run will be No. 1 if New England wins Super Bowl LIII.

Mean Elo is the harmonic mean of a team’s seasonal blended Elo ratings (which mixes the average, final and peak Elo during the season) over the span of the seasons in question.

Expected Elo is the mean Elo we’d expect for a generic Super Bowl contender (from a starting Elo of 1617) over the span of the seasons in question. Teams are ranked by how much they exceeded this expectation.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Among stretches of anywhere near the same length, the only other dynasty in the same neighborhood as the Patriots is the San Francisco 49ers’ run during the 1980s and ’90s. Built by Bill Walsh and quarterbacked by Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, the Niners won their five Super Bowls in a span of 14 years (including four in the 12-year span listed as their most dominant above). That’s two fewer than it took the Patriots to get five of their own from 2001 to 2016. (Those 49ers also weren’t embroiled in various cheating scandals, but that’s a matter for another story.) But the 21st century Pats have also visited almost twice as many Super Bowls as did the Niners (who, granted, won all five they made it to in this stretch). With the chance to tack on a sixth championship in 18 years, the Patriots would solidify the most impressive stretch of football the game has ever known.

New England’s main dynasty also contains several GOAT-level mini-dynasties.

As incredible as the entirety of the Brady-Belichick era has been, you can also pick out just about any subset of it that you want, and there’s a good chance that the Patriots will be the best in NFL history over that length of seasons. For example, using the same mean-Elo approach as above, the best five-season span of the Super Bowl era4 is the Patriots’ run from 2003 through 2007. But they also own a separate, nonoverlapping five-season span from 2013 through 2017, which is the third-best such “mini-dynasty” since 1966. They also own both the best and third-best seven-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best eight-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best nine-year mini-dynasties, and so forth. (You get the picture.)

Pick a span of years; the Pats are one (or two) of the best

Best dynasties of N seasons during the Super Bowl era (since 1966) based on Elo ratings over that span

3-Year Dynasties 6-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
DAL 1992-94 2 1748 SF 1989-94 2 1720
MIA 1972-74 2 1739 NE 2011-16 2 1720
NE 2014-16 2 1728 NE 2003-08 2 1720
SF 1988-90 2 1727 PIT 1974-79 4 1712
PIT 1974-76 2 1725 DAL 1991-96 3 1694
9-Year Dynasties 12-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2010-18 3? 1714 NE 2006-17 2 1712
SF 1987-95 3 1711 SF 1984-95 4 1706
PIT 1972-80 4 1685 DAL 1971-82 2 1671
NE 2001-09 3 1683 PIT 1972-83 4 1659
DAL 1971-79 2 1676 OAK 1969-80 2 1653
15-Year Dynasties 18-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2003-17 4 1714 NE 2001-18 6? 1699
SF 1984-98 4 1696 SF 1981-98 5 1681
DAL 1969-83 2 1668 DAL 1966-83 2 1658
OAK 1966-80 2 1653 OAK/LA 1967-84 3 1655
MIA 1971-85 2 1643 MIA 1970-87 2 1625

Teams needed at least two Super Bowl wins during the span of seasons to qualify.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Most great teams get only one truly historic period of dominance before they begin to break apart — particularly in the salary-cap era, when talent became tougher to hold on to and build around. The Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith/Michael Irvin Dallas Cowboys, for instance, rank as our third-most impressive overall dynasty, but that run ultimately lasted only a few years: Aikman, Smith and Irvin stayed in Dallas for the rest of the 1990s, but as they got older, the rest of the roster wasn’t strong enough to compensate, in part because the cap forced the Cowboys to shed talent. The Patriots, though, have numerous nonoverlapping subsections of years that would each be the pinnacle of most franchises’ entire histories, and they’ve done it all in an era when the NFL is (theoretically) trying to promote parity.

And one of the most interesting things about the Patriots’ micro-dynasties is that many were accomplished with different styles of football, despite the constant tandem of Belichick and Brady. As my colleague Mike Salfino pointed out last week, the Pats’ playoff offenses this decade have run the gamut from some of the least dependent on running backs to some of the most. It’s a testament to the chameleon-like way Belichick and staff have been able build their teams that they’ve maintained New England’s run of dominance despite constantly shifting their strategic tendencies.

2018 might be Belichick’s most impressive coaching job yet.

Sure, we’re tired of the Patriots’ current “nobody believes in us” schtick. But it is true that this incarnation of the Patriots is comparatively underpowered, at least compared with previous versions of the team in the Brady-Belichick era. By whatever measure you want to use to account for New England’s talent level — star performances or team strength — this team looks less impressive on paper than usual.

Not only is this the worst Pats Super Bowl team since 2001, according to our blended Elo dominance metric from above, but New England also had its fewest Pro Bowlers (two) and players with double-digit Approximate Value5 (five) in any of its Super Bowl seasons over that span, and its second-fewest first-team All-Pros (one, Stephon Gilmore). In fact, there were numerous Patriot teams that fell short of the Super Bowl entirely that, according to all of the categories above, had more talent than the 2018 version. Suspensions (Julian Edelman) and off-field headaches (Josh Gordon) certainly played a role in New England’s reduced star power, but it was also a roster Belichick had to cajole more wins out of than usual.

Regardless, it worked — and it helped the Patriots extend their historic dynasty. The only thing left is to see whether Brady, Belichick and company can add yet another ring to their collection versus the Rams, the opponent it all started against.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.