Patriots Set To Win Division, But Do They Need To?
It’s not how many games you win. It’s when you win them.
While championships are the ultimate goal, they can, and usually are, achieved without perfection. The NFL is the only American sports league in which teams actually have a somewhat legitimate chance to go through an entire season without losing. Losses may be good though.
With that being said, the Patriots can clinch their fourth straight AFC East Title with a win over the 5-6 Dolphins in Miami on Sunday. An undefeated division record has the Pats on top like usual with five games left in the season, three games ahead of the second-place Dolphins with the Jets and Bills pretty much out of contention.
No other team has won the AFC East since Miami in 2008, the year Tom Brady was out of commission, as the Patriots have dominated the division since the turn of the century. New England has won the division nine of the last 11 years including their championship seasons of 2001, 2003 and 2004.
The Jets snuck in with a title following the Patriots’ first Super Bowl title in 2002, but have come up empty every year since. Even the Colts have been AFC East champs more recently than the disappointing Bills, who last won the division in 1995. The Colts captured the title in ’99 before moving to the AFC South.
Recently, however, the AFC East division crown has not spelled out a championship season for the Pats. It’s hard for us Patriots fans to believe, because we are so used to it, but the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in eight years.
They have won three straight division titles though, but have no championships and only one Super Bowl appearance to show for them. Even when they went a perfect 16-0 and won the division in 2007, they lost in the Super Bowl.
They also set an NFL record for the most points scored in a season that year with 589. Through 11 contests this year, they have put up 407 points and are on pace to break the record from five seasons ago. Buffalo is the closest division rival to them in that department, coming into Week 13 with 243 points scored.
Before last season, the last three AFC East winners had been eliminated from the playoffs before championship weekend, including the Patriots twice.
While a division title certainly does not automatically result in a successful postseason, it certainly is a morale booster. As their last six division championships have proven, success within the division means nothing in pursuit of the ultimate goal.
In fact, wild card berths in recent years have resulted in almost as much playoff success as division championships have. In the last seven seasons (since 2005), the average seed of the seven eventual Super Bowl champions has been 3.8 out of six. Strong regular seasons are not as important anymore. Staying healthy and getting hot for December and January have come to be much more important.
Three wild card teams have won the big game since 2005. They are the Steelers (’05), the Giants (’07) and the Packers (2010). They were the six, five and six seeds respectively in their championship years.
A two, three and four-seed has also won the title in the last seven season. The Saints, in 2009, were the only No. 1 seed to win the Super Bowl in the last seven years. Bad news for the Texans and Falcons. But great news for the rest of the playoff contenders.
The Patriots sit in the third spot in the AFC through 12 weeks of play – right in the prime position for a Super Bowl championship, according to recent years.
Back to here and now. What I am getting at is that the Patriots don’t need to go undefeated, be the No. 1 seed or even dominate the division in order to return to Super Bowl glory. As recent history suggests, division titles are nothing more than a gold star on the top of your paper. They should be fine if they can just coast into the postseason as division champs for the fourth straight year with a three or four seed. That bye week only messes up their rhythm anyway.
While No. 1 seeds have resulted in two Super bowl appearances for the Pats in the last five seasons, they have no titles to show for it. In keeping with the recent trend in the NFL, they are in the perfect position to experience playoff success.
Maybe they shouldn’t try to clinch the division on Sunday. Bill Belichick‘s so smart he probably knows how to lose as well, so why not? In any case, the Pats are 4-0 in their last four games with Miami.
No, just kidding.
We’ll see what happens when the 8-3 Patriots take on the 5-6 Dolphins in the Sunshine State Sunday at 1:00.
Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.