Remember all that chatter about how this might finally be the year the New England Patriots would fall back to Earth? After all, Tom Brady was suspended for four games, and he’d presumably be rusty from the layoff when he returned. But instead of stumbling, the Pats weathered Brady’s absence just fine, and they’ve been firing on all cylinders since their starting QB returned to the lineup three weeks ago. After Brady torched the Buffalo Bills for 315 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-25 victory Sunday, New England is 4-0 with Brady under center this season. It’s also the best team in football, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings-based power rankings.
Stretches of superlative play are nothing new for the Patriots, of course, and the team’s most recent four games are hardly the best it’s played during Brady’s tenure. But considering that Brady missed a month of football heading into them, they are surprisingly close. The Brady-led version of the 2016 Patriots is in the midst of the team’s 10th-best distinct1 four-game stretch since 2006.2 That’s based on how much more the Pats outscored their opponents than we’d expect an average NFL team to.
At +17.8 points of scoring margin above average per game, the Brady-led version of the 2016 Pats is the best Patriots team since the beginning of the 2015 season, which — if you don’t recall — was a really good stretch of football for them. And maybe the most remarkable thing about the Pats’ current run is how they’ve been doing it. After surviving as a team without Brady for the season’s first four games — they had a +4.5 margin above average through Week 4 — the Patriots have been relying on their QB to an unusual degree.
To see how much Brady was powering the team, I took that group of 20 four-game stretches since 2006 and measured how many expected points added (EPA) New England got out of its offense and defense (broken down further into rushing and passing) and special teams per game. I then plotted how the Patriots’ most recent four games compare to the other 19 four-game stretches. Aside from Brady’s brilliant passing, the Pats’ most recent stretch has been below the norm of their other great four-game stretches in every other area of the game:
Brady didn’t miss a beat after his suspension, coming back to lead the NFL by a mile in Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), passer rating and just about any other quarterback rate statistic you can think of. He’s even crept up to 11th in touchdown passes despite playing half as many games as everyone else. According to EPA, this is nearly as good as we’ve seen the Patriots pass the ball over a four-game stretch since 2006.
But EPA also says the Pats have been doing some of their worst rushing and playing some of their worst defense over the same four games. Led by LeGarrette Blount and James White, New England has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry these past four games, and its defense is allowing 343 yards and 20 first downs per game — both numbers uncharacteristically average for a Patriots team whose best performances over the years were fueled by a strong defense on top of Brady’s stellar offense.
So maybe it isn’t the best idea to rely so heavily on a quarterback who turned 39 in August, since even the great ones can fall apart at a moment’s notice. But on the other hand, Brady has shown no signs of being anything other than the best QB in football since his suspension ended. And as long as that’s the case, the Patriots are going to strike fear in the hearts of every other team in the league.