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The Patriots Aren't the Best Team in the AFC, But They Are the Least Flawed

Liam McKeone
The Patriots running the ball again
The Patriots running the ball again / Bryan M. Bennett/GettyImages
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Bill Belichick went full sicko on Monday night and directed his team to run the ball on 94 percent of their offensive snaps on an exceptionally windy evening in Buffalo. Against all basic football logic, it worked. The New England Patriots left that cold New York night as sole owners of the AFC East and the No. 1 seed in the conference. The Buffalo Bills found themselves with some reckoning to do about the state of their team.

Predictably, Tuesday morning brought a showering of praise upon Belichick and the Patriots. How could it not? Nobody has seen a win like that in half a century, and it came in the biggest game of the year against the 2020 conference runner-ups on their turf. It was one of the few games that take place every year where even the most casual football viewer is able to acknowledge the tangible evidence of high-quality coaching.

It was a game that was supposed to inform a lot of opinions on the Patriots' place within the tier of contention. It didn't really do that, because the conditions were so unique and almost certainly will not be replicated this year. But that hasn't stopped a wave of proclamations that New England is the clear-cut best team in the AFC, and it's not even close.

As the resident Patriots fan on The Big Lead, I do not agree. The Patriots are not the best team in the conference. But they are the least flawed. And that will allow them to go very far indeed.

By every statistical measure, they are not the best in any one category. Their rushing attack, as we were forced to see last night, is excellent, but the Colts average more yards per game on the ground. Mac Jones completes a lot of his passes but ranks 22nd in yards per contest and 18th in total touchdowns. New England has not yet had a 100-yard receiver in a game this year.

Their defensive unit is stronger, but the same point carries water. As a unit they give up 310 yards per game, good for third in the entire NFL but still behind Buffalo. The Patriots rank only 19th in rush yards allowed per game and rank third in passing yards allowed per game, once again behind Buffalo. New England's turnover differential of plus-10 is good for third in the league but the Colts have a better differential at plus-13.

Obviously statistics don't tell the whole story and anybody who sat through last night's slugfest will tell you that the Patriots' defense is better than Buffalo's right now. These stats do paint a larger picture, and it's a remarkable one. The Patriots just don't have any holes in their roster.

They have six quality offensive linemen. No one receiver has yet to dominate a game this year but all chip in with timely catches and play-making when needed. If Damien Harris gets hurt, as he did last night, Rhamondre Stevenson can spell him without a significant drop in production. Jones still has to prove he can take over a game but has shown enough to be confident that he can do enough to win on any given week. Jalen Mills, Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Myles Bryant, and Kyle Dugger all work in tandem to lock down one part of the field while J.C. Jackson locks down the other. The quartet of Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Davon Godcheaux, and Christan Barmore can all pressure the quarterback and play the run.

Belichick has made a living largely by identifying the weaknesses in an opponent's roster and exploiting it as often as humanly possible. His team doesn't have that this year. Jones is probably the closest thing to it, since the Patriots largely haven't had to play from behind this year and nobody knows if the rookie QB has what it takes to drag his team to a comeback in the same way Tom Brady did over and over for two decades. But Belichick's money was well-spent this offseason. He's built a roster that is good at everything and great in a few areas.

It means the Patriots are exceptionally tough to beat on any given Sunday. That doesn't necessarily mean they're the best. But it's enough to be where New England is now.

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