By Andrew Mooney
The Patriots blew a fourth-quarter lead in Seattle two weeks ago and nearly did so against the Jets last week. But before the “Brady’s a choker!” train gets any momentum, I’d like to insert a word of reason.
To put it in the simplest terms I can muster, the Patriots are really good at football. They have been for over a decade, and they’re even good in the fourth quarter, believe it or not. But to see just how good, we’ll need to look beyond the dark memories of Week 6, soul-rending though it may have been.
More specifically, we’ll examine the period from 2000 to the present, when Bill Belichick took the Pats’ head coaching position, and the organization began to take on his personality. Certainly, if these occasional late-game lapses are something to fret about, we can pin them squarely on him and his personnel.
The bad news: since 2000, the Patriots have lost 11 games in which they were leading at the start of the fourth quarter. The good news: only two teams in the NFL have lost fewer of these games, the Falcons (eight) and the Ravens (nine). More good news: over this time span, the Patriots have played more games in which they started the fourth quarter with a lead than any other team in the league.
Far from being chokers, the Patriots have been among the best closers in the league over the last decade. They have had more chances to blow leads than anyone else, but they’ve actually done it at one of the lowest rates in the NFL. In fact, only the Ravens have been more efficient at preserving leads, by a few percentage points.
When the question is framed this way, the easy counterargument is to point out that, in many of those games, the Patriots were blowing teams out, and it’s not very difficult to hold a 21-point fourth quarter lead. But when I limit the results to one-score leads entering the fourth quarter (8 points or less), the verdict is essentially the same. The Pats drop a few places to fifth, but the rate at which they preserve leads is still among the leaders in the NFL.
What about comebacks? By virtue of being an elite team for so long, the Patriots have had fewer chances at them than any other team; on only 45 occasions in 11-plus seasons, the Pats have been trailing entering the fourth quarter. Yet the Patriots have successfully come from behind for the win in 17 of those games, giving them the second-best comeback rate in the league, trailing only Indianapolis.
Admittedly, this “trend” is getting more attention because the Pats have been less steely is preserving leads in recent years, with seven of their 11 losses coming in the past four seasons and four in the 2009 season alone. However, conducting a quick binomial test shows that this is not a statistically significant difference; in other words, this is much more likely the product of random variation rather than a change in some fundamental quality of the team.
Instead of bashing Brady and company for giving one away in Seattle, let’s marvel at the fact that it happens so seldom. The Brady/Belichick era has been one of the most decorated and successful periods in league history. It may be difficult to remember that when Russell Wilson snatches away victory from them in the fourth quarter, but that’s why careers and trends need to be evaluated based on the big picture, not isolated, out of character incidents.
Data in this post includes all games through week six. This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.