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Examining New England's September "Struggles"

via bostonglobe.com
It wasn't always pretty -- and it came down to the final second -- but nonetheless, the New England Patriots left Chicago this past Sunday with their fourth consecutive win, improving to 5-2 in the process. As they gear up for a Monday Night matchup with a hapless Buffalo Bills team, the biggest question surrounding the game is just how many tables will Bills Mafia hurl themselves through during their tailgate? It's Buffalo's first home game on a Monday Night in about a decade, so you know it's going to get rowdy outside.

Inside the stadium, expect to see what you've been seeing when these two teams have met in recent years, a New England victory. Tom Brady owns a career record of 28-3 against the Bills and has thrown 68 touchdowns in those 31 games. At just 2-5, and with Derek Anderson set to start, Buffalo is a mess. After a mediocre September, the Patriots are primed to finish the month of October undefeated and on a five-game win streak.

New England's ability to overcome a sluggish start to the season has been referenced routinely this year; which got me thinking. Is this really a thing, or is it a case of recency bias? Perhaps fans feel strongly about this because the Patriots have struggled through the last two Septembers, only to turn the season around by November. So I decided to take a look back to determine if there is any validity to this claim.

I looked at New England's records, by month, starting with the 2001-2002 season, which marked the beginning of the Brady and Bill Belichick era. What I found was eye-opening, not necessarily because of the discrepancy from month to month, but because of the win totals that this team has posted over the past 17 seasons. We obviously know how successful the team has been, but when you actually look at the numbers, it's remarkable.

Since 2001, the Patriots have posted the following records by month:
  • September - 37-16 (69.8 win%)
  • October - 55-14 (79.7%)
  • November - 46-15 (75.4%)
  • December - 58-11 (84%)
With bye weeks, and the way the calendar falls on a given year, the number of games played in each month isn't equal. So, I also looked at records based on each quarter of the season.
  • Games 1-4 - 45-19 (70.3%)
  • Games 5-8 - 52-15 (77.6%)
  • Games 9-12 - 52-13 (80%)
  • Games 13-16 - 52-12 (81.2%)
It's frequently talked about how the Patriots play their best football in December. Here's your proof. These numbers show that Patriot teams tend to improve as the season progresses. It's not just Patriot nation puffing their chest and spewing nonsense. The numbers back it up. It's a testament to the coaching staff and players for not only making weekly adjustments and improvements, but also for building a strong culture in the locker room and staying committed.

There are many teams in the NFL who wouldn't be able to recover from a sluggish start to the season. The Patriots understand that how you're playing in September has no bearing on how you play in December. Though it's only 16 games, it's a long season.

So, while it may be a stretch to categorize it as a struggle -- hard to make that claim for a team that wins roughly 70% of its games -- the first quarter of the season has clearly been New England's weakest when compared to the others.

Spare me the Patriots benefit from a weak division takes. Yes, the AFC East has been mostly garbage since the early 2000's. However, even with a yearly 5-1 record against divisional foes, the Patriots are still going 7-3 or 8-2 against other opponents. They're beating any and everybody. The AFC East is also bad in large part because of the brilliance of Brady and Belichick. You're seeing these other teams just refuse to try and field a competitive team to take down New England. They are simply waiting for them to retire.

I wish I could sit here and tell you that because the Patriots started 2-2, they're headed to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, there's no discernible pattern between the two. Recently, sure. The Patriots started 2-2 in 2014 and 2017, with some ugly losses but still managed to reach, and win a Super Bowl. Those seasons are fresh in people's minds, so it's an easy thing to fall back on as a Pats fan.

However, New England has appeared in, and won, Super Bowls after starting 4-0, 3-1, 2-2 and 1-3. They've also failed to make the Super Bowl starting with those same records.

So yes, by the Patriots standards, September/the first quarter of the season has been a bit of a "struggle" at times. However, the next time the Patriots get off to a slow start, or lose a couple of games early, think twice before you bury them; or at least wait a couple of months. After all, the Patriots season doesn't really start until January.

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