For many teams, a 12-4 record, division title and first-round bye is considered a significant success. For Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it’s become the expectation. The Patriots have now reached double-digit win totals in 11 of Belichick’s 13 seasons in Foxborough (most in the league over that span) and is in the divisional playoffs for the ninth time in those 13 seasons. Here’s a look at three ways the Patriots earned the luxury of watching wild card weekend from the couch:
* New England’s aggressive defensive play calling has paid off. Week 17’s win against Miami marked New England’s fourth straight game with an interception using added pressure. Since Aqib Talib joined the Patriots in Week 11, they have sent five or more pass rushers on 35.1 percent of dropbacks. That number has jumped from 15.0 percent over the first nine weeks of the season, the most conservative number in the league. When healthy, Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard have provided quality cornerback play and enabled New England to commit extra pass rushers. Since the Talib addition, the Patriots have allowed opposing quarterbacks a 51.1 completion percentage, three touchdowns and five interceptions with at least five rushers (73.6 completion percentage, four touchdowns and no interceptions in first nine games).
* The Patriots exhibited a renewed commitment to the rushing game this season, posting 2,184 yards (seventh in NFL) and a league-best 25 touchdowns. Some concerns have been raised over the team’s performance in this area in recent weeks. The Patriots averaged only 3.92 yards per rush over the last five games (23rd in NFL), which included matchups with the 49ers and Texans. Stevan Ridley has fumbled twice over that span, second most among running backs. Still, the Patriots have four capable backfield options in Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Bolden’s 4.89 yards per rush ranked 13th in the league among 72 players with at least 50 rushes. The most promising note on New England’s ground game comes in its best performance. The Patriots rushed for a season-high 251 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 5 win against the Broncos, the top seed in the AFC. Overall, the Patriots are 12-0 this season when rushing for at least 100 yards and 0-4 when failing to reach that mark.
* It was just another impressive season for Tom Brady. He threw an interception every 79.6 attempts, the best mark in the league. His plus-26 touchdown-to-interception differential tied for second-best in the league, and only eight other quarterbacks threw 26 touchdowns this season. Brady’s top weapon once again was Wes Welker, whose 118 catches tied for second most in the league this year. Brady’s success is more impressive when examining the injury report: star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have appeared together in only five games this season. It was a down year for the rest of the AFC East, but Brady didn’t just feast on poor opposition. Against the six playoff defenses Brady faced this season, he averaged 337 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. All three of Brady’s potential playoff foes will be repeat matchups, with Brady posting a 65.8 completion percentage, eight touchdowns and no interceptions against the Colts, Ravens and Texans this season.