Hannable: Hear this out, Sunday is biggest regular-season game in Bill Belichick era

Ryan Hannable
September 27, 2018 - 11:27 pm

Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

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Is Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game at Gillette Stadium the most important regular-season game in the Bill Belichick era?

It seems like a bold statement to make, which is what I first thought when I was presented the question (from WEEI.com’s esteemed site editor Rob Bradford), but then I was asked if not this, which games were?

The easy answer is games like the Pittsburgh game in Week 15 last season which decided home field advantage, or other games over the years that have decided playoff seedings like the battles against the Colts, Broncos, Ravens, etc. But, this game is different.

Because of how dominant the Patriots have been in the division over the years, they have never really been faced with a situation of having making the playoffs be in any doubt, at any point of the year. 

Of course, there’s 2008, but there was no Tom Brady that year so that will always be an outlier, and then in 2000, 2001 and 2002 the expectations were so low with those teams that it was great just to be in playoff contention. Now, five Super Bowl wins later and Brady and Belichick closer to the end than the beginning, missing the postseason would be an absolute disaster.

It comes down to believing just making the postseason is more important than the seeding in the postseason. Yes, after Week 4 the season will just be a fourth of the way over, but if the Patriots fall to 1-3 and the Dolphins improve to 4-0, based on history the Patriots may not even make the playoffs.

Since the new playoff format (12 teams) began in 1990, teams that have started the year 1-3 only have made the playoffs 14 percent (28 out of 193) of the time. The average finish of these teams has been 6-10.

And the numbers get even more daunting for the Patriots. 

Of those 28 teams to make the playoffs after starting 1-3, only seven of them were more than two games put of first place in their division. That is what would happen Sunday, as the Dolphins would improve to 4-0 and the Patriots would fall to 1-3. New England would be three games out of first place, and technically four games since the Dolphins would own the tiebreaker.

Some will argue even if the Patriots lose Sunday, they still will be able to turn things around, but that may not be the case. The Patriots would already have three losses, and it’s hard to make the playoffs with a final record worse than 9-7.

Of the teams to start 1-3, 17 percent of them finished with nine wins or more, while just 10 percent finished with 10 or more wins. 

After Week 4, the Patriots still have a number of tough games remaining, including home games against the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings, road games against the Bears and Steelers, and then the team is always good for a surprise loss within the division. With a loss Sunday, four or more losses the rest of the way and a final record of 9-7 would totally still be in play.

The Patriots would not be like most teams who have started 1-3 given the talent and success over the years that they have had, so the historical data may not completely apply to them, but with a loss Sunday they would be as close as they have ever been to missing the postseason all together.

Even if they would have lost to the Bengals in 2014 when they were 2-2 going into the game, they would have had a 21 percent chance of making the playoffs, as 49 teams who have started the year 2-3 have ultimately made it to the postseason.

While it may not feel it, and it is pretty hard to believe, Sunday really might just be the most crucial regular-season game Belichick has had as coach of the Patriots.

Don’t believe it? Find a game where if the Patriots lost, their chances of making the playoffs would be less than they would be after Sunday (2000, 2001, 2002 and 2008 don’t count for reasons stated earlier).

Having a hard time finding one? 

Told you so.

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