What's the best year of Tom Brady's career? What about Bill Belichick?
Well, a Super Bowl championship is supposed to be the pinnacle of football achievement. It's the best year any football coach or player can have. So what do you do when a certain head coach and quarterback have earned five of them together -- and might earn a sixth in Super Bowl LII? What makes one Super Bowl year better than another? And how do you consider a year when the Patriots might have dominated in the regular season but fell just short in the playoffs?
Below, we rank the 16 Brady-Belichick teams, leaving out 2008 (when Matt Cassel played most of the year after Brady's ACL injury). We started with Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings for the entire regular season. (That's defense-adjusted value over average, as explained here.) Those are listed below, along with each team's rank in the league that season. Then we added on playoff performance by DVOA, giving it twice as much value as the regular season. We penalized teams for games they never played, subtracting 2.5 percentage points of DVOA for each playoff round the team didn't reach. Finally, we added an additional 2.5 percentage point bonus for winning the Super Bowl.
Readers might be surprised to see so many of the non-championship teams near the top of our list, including three of our top four. One of the oddities of the Brady-Belichick run is that the best teams during the regular season aren't necessarily the ones that won Super Bowls. Even after adjusting for playoff performance, these teams still come out ahead of the ones that took home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. That starts with the team that did everything right until the final two minutes of the final game of the season.
Note: Click on Total DVOA for each team to see where the Patriots ranked among all 31 or 32 teams in each season.
1. 2007 Patriots (16-0, lost Super Bowl, New York Giants)
Total DVOA: 52.9 percent (1)
Adjusted with playoffs: 50.3 percent
Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings go back to 1986, and in 32 years, only two teams have topped 50 percent in a single season: the 1991 Washington Redskins and the 2007 New England Patriots. The Patriots slowed down in the second half of the season, but even after their Week 10 bye, their average win (including the first two playoff games) came by two touchdowns (32-18). This is the highest-rated offense in DVOA history, but the Patriots also ranked 11th that year on defense and seventh on special teams. One three-point loss doesn't change the fact that this was the best of all the Brady-Belichick teams.
2. 2004 Patriots (14-2, won Super Bowl, Philadelphia Eagles)
Total DVOA: 34.2 percent (2)
Adjusted with playoffs: 42.1 percent
The Patriots weren't even the best regular-season team of 2004, finishing second in DVOA and wins behind the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Patriots went 14-2 despite the No. 6 toughest schedule in the league by average DVOA of opponent. (The Bills and Jets ranked third and fourth in DVOA that season.) Then the Patriots dominated in the playoffs, defeating three teams (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) that were a combined 40-8 and all ranked sixth or higher in DVOA. It's one of the most difficult postseason runs a team has ever gone through to win a Super Bowl, and the Patriots won the first two games by two touchdowns or more before their close 24-21 win in Super Bowl XXXIX.
3. 2010 Patriots (14-2, lost in divisional round, New York Jets)
Total DVOA: 44.6 percent (1)
Adjusted with playoffs: 35.6 percent
This is the No. 2 offense in DVOA history, even though the Patriots traded away Randy Moss early in the season. The divisional-round loss to the Jets was almost as big an upset as Super Bowl XLII, because the Patriots had home-field advantage and were red hot coming into the game. They had beaten the Jets 45-3 just six weeks before. In fact, in four of their final five games, this Patriots team scored at least 34 points while allowing seven or fewer points. In terms of weighted DVOA, which lowers the strength of games more than two months old, the 2010 Patriots finished the regular season as the strongest team of the last 32 years: higher than either the 2007 Patriots or the 1991 Redskins.
Then Rex Ryan devised a strategy with nine defensive backs active on game day and seven of them on the field most of the time. It confused Tom Brady enough to limit the Patriots to just a field goal in the first half. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez completed 16 of 25 passes and threw for three touchdowns. The Jets recovered two onside kicks in the final two minutes, returning the first one for 23 yards and scoring again, and that scuttled the Patriots' attempt at a last-minute comeback.
4. 2012 Patriots (12-4, lost AFC Championship Game, Baltimore Ravens)
Total DVOA: 34.9 percent (3)
Adjusted with playoffs: 32.3 percent
This was a season with great teams, one of five seasons in which five different teams managed a DVOA of 25 percent or more. However, none of those teams -- Seattle, Denver, New England, San Francisco and Green Bay, in order -- actually won the Super Bowl. Instead, the title went to the Baltimore Ravens.
It was another dominating offensive season for New England; the Patriots scored more than 40 points six different times, including in a 41-28 win over Houston in the divisional round. Their biggest regular-season loss (to San Francisco) came by just a touchdown, and their other three losses were by a combined four points. But one of those early-season losses came to Baltimore, a preview of what was to come in the postseason. The underdog Ravens forced three turnovers in the AFC Championship Game to end New England's season, 28-13.
5. 2016 Patriots (14-2, won Super Bowl, Atlanta Falcons)
Total DVOA: 24.9 percent (1)
Adjusted with playoffs: 30.4 percent
The Patriots were the No. 1 team of 2016, a year with no great teams in the regular season. They tied the 1993 Dallas Cowboys as the lowest-rated teams to ever finish the year No. 1 in DVOA. But there was a reason for that, of course: Just as the 1993 Cowboys had to start the year without holdout Emmitt Smith, the 2016 Patriots had a lower rating because they started the year without Tom Brady. But the Pats got hotter at the end of the year, easily winning their first two playoff games before the legendary comeback that gave them a 34-28 Super Bowl victory in overtime.
Though many Patriots haters criticize the Pats for getting easy schedules each year, the average schedule strength of the Brady-Belichick teams is 16th. This is the only team on this list that Football Outsiders rated with the easiest schedule in the league that season.
6. 2017 Patriots (13-3, will play Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII)
Total DVOA: 22.6 percent (6)
Adjusted with playoffs: 29.3 percent (win) or 26.8 percent (lose)
We ranked the 2017 Patriots sixth based on giving them half-credit for winning Super Bowl LII. A win moves them up to No. 5, while a loss drops them to No. 8.
All of Belichick's defenses have been known as "bend but don't break" defenses, but the 2017 Patriots have taken this to an absurd level. The Patriots ranked 32nd this year in yards allowed per drive but sixth in points allowed per drive. Our drive stats go back to 1993, and no defense that finished last in yards per drive had ever finished better than 21st in points allowed per drive. No team that finished in the top 10 for points per drive had ever finished worse than 25th in yards per drive. And it's not like any other Belichick defense even comes close to this year's defense. The 2014 Patriots are the only other Patriots defense to rank in the bottom 10 of yards per drive (23rd) and the top 10 of points per drive (eighth).
7. 2014 Patriots (12-4, won Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks)
Total DVOA: 22.1 percent (4)
Adjusted with playoffs: 28.9 percent
Here's another Patriots team that started slow and went on to win the championship anyway. The Patriots started 2-2, but they only lost twice after that: 26-21 on the road in Green Bay and 17-9 in Week 17 when they sat the starters at halftime. Their playoff run included two very close comeback victories over Baltimore (divisional round) and Seattle (Super Bowl) but also a 45-7 whuppin' of the Indianapolis Colts. The 2014 Patriots finished only sixth in offensive DVOA, the lowest rank for the Patriots since they finished seventh in the 2008 Matt Cassel season. But the 2014 Patriots were very well-balanced, one of only four Patriots teams on this list to rank in the top dozen for offense, defense and special teams. The others: 2007, 2006 and 2015.
8. 2011 Patriots (13-3, lost Super Bowl, New York Giants)
Total DVOA: 22.8 percent (3)
Adjusted with playoffs: 26.9 percent
The 2011 Patriots rank third in offensive DVOA among the Brady-Belichick teams, trailing only the 2007 and 2010 squads. But they also had the worst defense of any Brady-Belichick team -- 13 percent worse than average, according to DVOA. (This year's Patriots rank lower among all 32 but were only 11 percent worse than average.) They ranked a much better 15th in points allowed, but that was because of a seriously unsustainable rate of turnovers -- more than two per game! And the Giants upset the Pats in Super Bowl XLVI in part because New York recovered its own two fumbles and thus never gave the Patriots' defense a turnover.
9. 2003 Patriots (14-2, won Super Bowl, Carolina Panthers)
Total DVOA: 20.6 percent (4)
Adjusted with playoffs: 24.8 percent
The 2003 Patriots didn't lose a single game after a 20-17 loss to Washington in Week 4, but they had few of the easy, dominating wins that we would come to associate with the franchise in future years. Including the playoffs, the Patriots were 8-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, with two other wins coming by less than 10 points.
This was the best defense of the Brady-Belichick teams, ranking second in defensive DVOA behind only the Baltimore Ravens. But 2003 also saw the lowest offensive rating of the Brady-Belichick teams, ranking only 14th, with an offensive DVOA just 1.2 percent better than average. They also were very average on special teams.
10. 2006 Patriots (12-4, lost AFC Championship Game, Indianapolis Colts)
Total DVOA: 26.3 percent (3)
Adjusted with playoffs: 22.3 percent
This was another well-rounded team -- the only team here to finish in the top eight of DVOA on offense, defense and special teams. But it didn't particularly excel in any one area, ranking fifth or lower in pass offense, pass defense, run offense and run defense. After a near-miraculous comeback victory over the top team in DVOA that year, San Diego, the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead to Peyton Manning and the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
11. 2015 Patriots (12-4, lost AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos)
Total DVOA: 22.6 percent (6)
Adjusted with playoffs: 20.9 percent
The 2015 Patriots were an exception to a general Patriots rule: Instead of starting the season slow and playing their best football in December, the 2015 Patriots started 10-0 and then lost four of their last six regular-season games. At the end of the regular season, they were sixth in total DVOA but ninth in weighted DVOA that lowered the importance of early games. In the playoffs, they beat Kansas City by just a touchdown and then fell in Denver, 20-18, partly because Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point.
12. 2013 Patriots (12-4, lost AFC Championship Game, Denver Broncos)
Total DVOA: 18.9 percent (5)
Adjusted with playoffs: 18.7 percent
This was basically a typical recent Patriots team, only less so: good offense (fourth in DVOA), mediocre defense (20th) and an underrated boost from special teams (second). The 2013 Patriots played an entire season of mostly close games. All four regular-season losses came by a touchdown or less, but so did seven of their regular-season wins. A late-season loss in Miami cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs -- as it almost did this season -- and the Broncos beat them easily on their way to being hammered by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII.
13. 2009 Patriots (10-6, lost in wild-card round, Baltimore Ravens)
Total DVOA: 28.8 percent (4)
Adjusted with playoffs: 18.3 percent
If we were ranking these teams based on the regular season only, the 2009 Patriots would rank No. 5. Tom Brady returned from his ACL tear to lead the team to another No. 1 ranking in offensive DVOA, and the Patriots also were above average on both defense and special teams. However, they couldn't get past Indianapolis or San Diego to earn a bye week in the playoffs. On wild-card weekend, they went out and laid a gigantic egg in a 33-14 loss to Baltimore. Our penalties for not playing in the postseason past that first round knock the 2009 team down to 13th.
14. 2001 Patriots (11-5, won Super Bowl, St. Louis Rams)
Total DVOA: 7.9 percent (11)
Adjusted with playoffs: 12.6 percent
The first was not the best. The 2001 Patriots were appropriately big underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI given what we knew about them going into the game. They won 11 games in part thanks to one of the league's easiest schedules in a year with big gaps between the best and worst teams.
For the regular season, the 2001 Patriots have the lowest total DVOA of any of the Brady-Belichick teams. DVOA ranked their offense 11th and their defense 13th. The Patriots' 2001 postseason run was magical, but it required three one-score wins, not to mention the "Tuck Rule Game" against the Raiders.
No matter what wonderful memories Pats fans have of this team, it would have a hard time beating most of the Patriots teams that came after it. Essentially, the Patriots somehow won themselves an extra Super Bowl championship on the way to building their Super Bowl dynasty.
15. 2005 Patriots (10-6, lost in divisional round, Denver Broncos)
Total DVOA: 9.6 percent (12)
Adjusted with playoffs: 7.3 percent
After their first three titles in four years and losing both coordinators, the Patriots took a major step backward in 2005 -- particularly on defense. This team dropped from seventh to 27th in defensive DVOA in one year, and the pass defense was particularly bad, with the worst rating (24 percent worse than average) and ranking (29th) among the Brady-Belichick teams. Ty Law had gone to the Jets, Rodney Harrison was injured after three games and the secondary was heavily dependent on over-the-hill veterans (Duane Starks, Artrell Hawkins) and underdeveloped youngsters (Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs). The Patriots easily dispatched the Jaguars in the wild-card round, 28-3, but then the Broncos took the Pats out easily, 27-13, in Denver.
16. 2002 Patriots (9-7, no playoffs)
Total DVOA: 15.7 percent (7)
Adjusted with playoffs: 5.7 percent
The one Brady-Belichick team that missed the playoffs actually had a higher regular-season DVOA than the 2001 championship team but went 9-7 against the No. 4 toughest schedule in the league. When the Patriots started 3-0, including a huge 44-7 win at the Jets, it looked like an NFL dynasty might be in the offing. Then New England lost four straight games, and local reporters began to ask if the Brady-Belichick championship connection was just a one-year wonder. After the Patriots beat the Dolphins in overtime in Week 17, both teams were 9-7, and they lost a three-way tiebreaker to the Jets for the AFC East title -- and to the Cleveland Browns for a wild-card spot.