So, with a large core of the roster still intact, can the Patriots match their 14-2 mark in 2011?
For starters, let's look at it from a historical perspective. Since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (33 seasons ago), 24 teams have managed to win at least 14 games in a single season. The Patriots (2003, 2004, 2007, 2010), 49ers (1984, 1989, 1990, 1992), Bears (1985, 1986), Steelers (1978, 2004), Colts (2005, 2009) and Redskins (1983, 1991) have all done it multiple times, while the Dolphins (1984), Giants (1986), Vikings (1998), Falcons (1998), Broncos (1998), Jaguars (1999), Rams (2001) and Chargers (2006) have done it once.
Take a closer look, and there have only been three occasions when a team has won at least 14 games in back-to-back seasons: the Patriots (2003, 2004), 49ers (1989, 1990) and Bears (1985, 1986). There are two more interesting notes that come from that. First, the Bears, who won 15 games in 1985, are the only team in NFL history to accumulate 29 victories in over two seasons. Second, the Patriots, 49ers (1989) and Bears (1985) all managed to win a Super Bowl during their respective stretches, with the Patriots winning two.
Obviously, it's an historical accomplishment for a team to win 14 games in a single season, but it's exceptionally rare for a team to do it twice in a row. And not only is it rare, but it's the sign of true greatness, as each of the three teams to accomplish the feat managed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy during their run.
After putting it in context, let's take a look at the 2011 Patriots themselves. They're young and improving, and the 2010 team showed some very noticeable characteristics of the teams that won three Super Bowls earlier in the decade. With a large contingent of the roster returning to New England, the Patriots will be one of the league's heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl this season, which means they should also be good enough to contend for 14 wins.
The Pats' schedule will also play a key role in that fate. In terms of their opponents' 2010 winning percentage, the Patriots have the 16th most difficult schedule in the league in 2011, though that ranking probably won't mean a whole lot by October. And outside of the AFC East, the Patriots have difficult games at home against the Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, Chiefs and Colts, as well as challenging road contests against the Raiders (West Coast trips aren't easy, no matter who awaits them), Steelers, Eagles and Broncos.
Teams need plenty of breaks to win 14 games, evidenced by the feat's level of difficulty, but it's also important for those teams to be pushed. They essentially need something to play for throughout each of their 16 games, or else they'd rest their starters in the final weeks of the season. The Patriots were pushed heavily by the Jets in 2010, and that figures to be the case again in 2011.
When it comes down to it, the Patriots have the talent to match their 14-win total from last season, and that would put them in some historic company — with themselves, no less — but the odds are seriously tilted against them. They will attempt to become the first franchise to ever win 14 games in back-to-back seasons on two occasions, which is hardly anything to shake a stick at.
Fourteen victories didn't translate into much in 2010, though, as the Patriots failed to win a playoff game for the third consecutive season. In fact, 15 of the 24 teams that have won at least 14 games in a season failed to win the Super Bowl that year, so the mark is clearly not essential for postseason success.
Therefore, the Patriots' true achievements must come in January and February.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Thursday, July 21: Will the Patriots improve their pass rush?
Saturday, July 23: What will the offensive line look like?