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Practice, Practice, Practice

Pulling back the curtain on one of the less talked about aspects of the Patriots 2 decades of dominance…

The Patriots are good; therefore they play in a lot of playoff games. That makes sense, right? It’s basic reasoning. I don’t need to prove that to you. But consider, for a second, the inverse. Is it possible that the Patriots are as good as they are BECAUSE they play so many playoff games? Is it possible that the New England Dynasty, in some ways, is self-sustaining? Bill Belichick is known for his attention to detail and being ready for every situation, but perhaps this is because of the extra time he is afforded due to his team’s success. Let’s go inside the numbers…

On average, NFL teams practice 3 times a week. That means from the start of the regular season, including the bye week, a team practices about 51 times during the regular season. Once a team’s season is over, the CBA prohibits them from hosting organized practices until the spring. If a team makes the playoffs however, they are granted the extra practices that come with the extra weeks. That is where one of the most unsung aspects aiding the Patriots dynasty comes into play.

Including next Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Patriots will have played 37 playoff games, or just over two full extra seasons, since 2001. On top of those games, you can add the 12 first round bye weeks, and 7 pre-Super Bowl bye weeks (the NFL instituted the extra week before the Super Bowl in 2002, a year after the Patriots first championship), brining the total number of post season weeks the Patriots have had on their run to 56. With over a calendar year of playoff time at their disposal, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have met for an additional 168 practices since the 2001 season. To put that number in context, assuming a team doesn’t qualify for the playoffs, it would take them over 3 seasons to accumulate that much practice time.

Now it is worth noting that the Patriots are not the only team who makes the playoffs, and other franchises get this bonus time as well. But is it enough to matter? After New England, the Steelers have played the most playoff games since 2001, with 25 extra contests on their record. Add in 5 first round byes, and 3 pre-Super Bowl weeks, they’ve had 33 extra weeks to practice, or 99 extra practices; 69 less than the Patriots. It is also important to remember that the Steelers, like 30 other teams, have gone through coach and quarterback turnover in that span, while all of the Patriots practices have been conducted with the same game planner and signal caller for the last 17 years.

When people ask ‘Where does Belichick get the time to practice any and every possible situation he wants?’ this is where that time comes from. Take as an example Antwan Harris. Even though he was far from the best player on the roster, Harris was a big part in one of the key plays that launched the Patriots dynasty, thanks to Bill Belichick’s focus on situational football. In the 2001 AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris helped return a blocked field goal for a touchdown, a major momentum shifting play in that game. After the kick was blocked, Harris didn’t scramble to the ball, like most players would, or even get up field to block for Troy Brown, which would have been useless on the play. Instead, he knew to get into position behind Brown, who had recovered the kick, and was able to take the lateral as the kicker, the last man of defense, dragged Brown to the ground. That kind of synergy doesn’t come in the spur of the moment, but rather weeks of focus in practice.

Want a more modern example? How about Danny Amendola’s back of the end zone touchdown catch last week? Brady had to throw that ball into a pinhole of a window, but threw with such conviction and confidence you had the feeling he’s made that play a million times before. Well, that’s probably because he has. Brady threw that pass knowing exactly where Amendola could and couldn’t make a play on it, because those two have ran countless goal line reps in practice and gotten that play down to a science (not to take anything away from Danny Playoffs, he still had to make what was an amazing grab). It’s always seemed like Tom Brady and his more veteran receivers are working with the same brain, a lot of that is thanks in part to how many extra throwing sessions they get in January and February. It all adds up.

Practice makes perfect.

So is this the formula for a self-sustaining dynasty? In short, no. The #1 thing you need to win in the NFL is talent throughout your organization. Through injuries, retirement, etc., players and coaches will come and go. The consistency the Patriots have had with Brady and Belichick will probably never be replicated. But, looking at it from New England’s point of view, when those two leave, the experience gained by everyone else on the team doesn’t just disappear. Assuming New England could find capable replacements at QB and coach relatively quickly, the meter wouldn’t reset to zero, and all that extra practice experience doesn’t just disappear.

Back to the original question; do the Patriots play in so many playoff games because they’re so good, or are they so good because they get so many extra weeks in the playoffs? Like I said before, you don’t succeed in the playoffs without talent, so it’s not quite a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. Looking at the numbers though, it is hard to deny that the Patriots bonus prep time hasn’t helped them get the most out of every player on the field in every situation they face. Think I’m putting too much stock into practice? Have another example of how the Patriots extra practice time has helped them on their run? Let me know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth

Written By: Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth)

IF YOU WERE WONDERING: Here are the bonus practice statistics for the 6 teams that have played 20+ playoff games since 2001, including next Sunday’s Super Bowl (assuming 3 practices a week, via ProFootballReference.com)…

Patriots: 37 playoff games, 56 weeks, 168 extra practices

Steelers: 25 games, 33 weeks, 99 practices

Packers: 24 games, 28 weeks, 84 practices

Colts: 23 games, 28 weeks, 84 practices

Seahawks: 23 games, 29 weeks, 87 practices

Eagles: 21 games, 27 weeks, 81 practices

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