Don’t be confused by the headline. It may sound overly simplistic, but it’s also as clear and concise as can be. The key for teams beating the New England Patriots is having done so before.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 22-9 as a tandem in postseason play since their unheralded era officially began back in 2001. Of those nine playoff losses, two-thirds of those (six) were against teams that had already beaten the Patriots in the regular season that year.
Twice, Peyton Manning has been the quarterback to turn the trick. Brother Eli did it in 2011. Jake Plummer did it with Denver when the Broncos put an end to New England’s three-out-of-four dynasty back in 2005, and Joe Flacco led the Ravens over the Pats in 2012. The other occasion was Mark Sanchez, whose Jets split their two games with the Pats during the regular year before upsetting New England in January.
These facts are not presented for a mere history lesson. The point here is that the Patriots, as dominant as they’ve been this century, have the ability to get in the heads of teams. And not just the lower-echelon clubs, but the talented squads that lack the mental toughness to overcome Belichick’s mastery. For every 2005 Broncos or 2012 Ravens, there are twice as many 2001 Steelers and 2006 Chargers.
What the Broncos were able to do in this past January’s AFC Championship Game was pressure Tom Brady relentlessly. It helped going into the game that the Broncos already had past reference for doing it, though to a lesser degree in the snow nearly two months earlier.
In that late November matchup, the Broncos pulled out a comeback win in overtime behind backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. In late January, with Manning back in the saddle, Denver had a veteran leader with two previous playoff wins against New England. That may have been just as important as Von Miller’s monster game.
When the New York Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIV in 2011, the script was eerily similar to 2007. History was repeating itself. The Giants had stunned New England, ending the Patriots’ perfect season in Super Bowl XLII, so they had the confidence that they could do it again. It also helped that they had beaten the Patriots in New England earlier that year, winning on a Manning touchdown pass in the final seconds.
As Brady nears his 40’s, he’s still playing at an elite level. Many AFC fanbases are scratching their collective heads wondering why their team can’t rise to prominence. The Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Peyton Mannings (with the Colts and Broncos) have combined to win 13 of the last 15 AFC titles.
If the “challengers” of the conference hope to overtake New England, they will need to simply do it before they can go into Foxborough with the belief that they can. That means that the Patriots’ nine AFC opponents on the schedule in 2016 can all set a precedent when they face them. The problem for the rest of the AFC East is that they’ve been abysmal against New England, with the partial exception of the Jets.
Miami and Buffalo, with one combined playoff appearance between them since 2001, have yet to beat the Patriots in Foxborough in a meaningful game since Brady took over (both have won one Week 17 matchup in which the Patriots rested their starters, and Miami beat New England in 2008 with Matt Cassel at the helm).
The rest of the AFC portion of the schedule features a few up-and-comers in Houston (with Osweiler) and Miami (aren’t they always up-and-comers, though?). There are also the perennial bridesmaids, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the eternal doormats, the Cleveland Browns. It’s amazing to think that even one win over the Patriots could legitimize a franchise.
The truth is, that’s unlikely, but should they meet the Patriots again, it could serve them well. Because really, the key to beating the Patriots — is beating the Patriots.