Tuesday’s trade that sent Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos sent shockwaves across the football world, and some Patriots fans are pushing the panic button.
“New England should give up and tank for a top pick,” a WEEI producer said Wednesday morning, echoing some popular sentiment that Mac Jones can’t compete with the level of quarterbacks now occupying the AFC.
The former point, obviously, is ludicrous; the latter point might be valid (although it probably isn’t). Ultimately, a player of Wilson’s caliber landing in the AFC presents another major obstacle for the Patriots to overcome as they look to re-summit the NFL mountain in a post-Tom Brady world.
However, there is at least one way to positively spin the Wilson trade from a Patriots perspective.
New England was preposterously, irreplicably dominant during the Brady era, winning six Super Bowls and maintaining a dynasty over nearly two decades. The players and coaches deserve a majority of the credit, but so, too, do the failures of the Patriots’ AFC East colleagues. New England routinely ran roughshod over its division, often entering the NFL playoffs with a top seed. Regular first-round byes absolutely played key roles in the Patriots’ run of dominance.
From 2002 through 2019, the Patriots averaged a divisional record of 4.7-1.3. So, let’s call it 5-1. (Note: We’re excluding the Super Bowl-winning 2001 campaign, as teams played eight divisional games instead of six. The Patriots went 6-2 against the AFC East that season and earned a first-round playoff bye.)
During that same time period, which includes the 2008 Matt Cassel season, the Patriots earned first-round byes a whopping 12 times, including every season from 2010 through 2018. Again, we’re excluding the 2001 campaign.
And New England got some help. Non-AFC East teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, routinely beat each other up, making it difficult for them to match the Patriots’ win totals. They almost always had to visit Gillette Stadium during the playoffs, which effectively was a death sentence.
Let’s bring this back to the current-day AFC West. Now perhaps the top division in football, the AFC West features Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert — three of the top quarterbacks in football. Derek Carr also is no slouch, and the Las Vegas Raiders, who made the playoffs this season, figure to be even better with Josh McDaniels at the helm.
If nothing else, Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs might have a tougher time racking up wins and securing a first-round bye, which now requires teams to finish with the top overall seed in a conference. But the rest of the AFC West, including the seemingly Super Bowl-worthy Broncos, also will have to fight and claw for divisional supremacy, likely hurting their overall records. And that’s to say nothing of the cumulative physical effect of playing at least six high-difficulty divisional games during a season.
Just this season, the loaded NFC West saw three teams qualify for the postseason, with the 7-10 Seahawks, who were without Wilson for three games, missing the cut. The Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the NFC standings. Here are their divisional records:
Even the Seahawks finished 3-3 in divisional games, beating the Niners twice and Cardinals once. When the dust settled, Los Angeles finished with a 12-5 overall record, not good enough to match the 13-4 Green Bay Packers, who claimed the first-round bye.
Of course, the Packers wound up choking in the divisional round and the Rams went on to win Super Bowl LVI. But hey, not every point can perfectly support our arguments.
At the end of the day, what happens in the AFC West won’t matter to the Patriots if they don’t take care of business in their own division. And, as we’ve seen the last two seasons, going scorched-Earth on the AFC East isn’t so easy when Brady isn’t around and one of the other teams has an elite quarterback under center.
But if the Patriots return to being a team that wins at least 12 games, that might be all it takes to finish above Wilson, Mahomes and Herbert in the AFC standings. If you squint hard enough, you can see how the Wilson trade potentially paves the way for the road to the Super Bowl once again going through Foxboro.