We start tonight with an admission – and a hypothetical.
First, the admission: The New England Patriots are the most impressive dynasty in the history of the league – not just in terms of Super Bowl appearances and wins – but in terms of sustainability.
The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era has spanned the better part of two decades. They’ve been in exactly half – 50% of the Super Bowls – over the last 18 years. It’s dominant. It’s legendary. It’s likely never to be repeated again.
But it also got me thinking about questions to which I don’t have an answer: What if the Seahawks played in a division as perennially bad as the AFC East? Or what if the Patriots played in a different division period?
Now, obviously the Patriots deserve credit. But over the past decade, every division in football has had at least three different teams win a division title – except the AFC East. Parity has been the rule, but the Patriots – winners of ten division titles in the last decade – have been the exception.
Which means New England has either been that good – or the Jets, Bills and Dolphins have been that bad. It’s more than likely a combination of the two.
Playing in a mediocre division has also arguably given the Pats a head start in terms of locking up a first-round bye and home field advantage in the playoffs. In fact, in the Brady-Belichick era, New England has never reached the Super Bowl without a first-round playoff bye. And six of their nine Super Bowl appearances have been as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. In fact, Tom Brady has played in more Super Bowls (9) than road playoff games (8). That's astounding!
That’s important, because all three Seahawks Super Bowl appearances have come in years that Seattle has been the top seed in the NFC. The only path the Hawks have ever taken to the Big Game has included a first-round bye, followed by two home playoff games.
And as bad a wrap as the NFC West gets, it’s the only division in football in which all four teams have reached a Super Bowl since 2008. It’s also the only division in football in which all four teams have won at least two division titles over the past decade.
So geography aside, I’m curious how things might’ve been different over the past two decades, had Seahawks and Patriots switched places. I’d argue that Pats would have reached a number of Super Bowls – but not nine of them! And that the Seahawks would’ve reached more than three.
And yes, the Patriots have a .753 winning percentage against teams outside of the AFC East since 2001. But it's one thing to have success against non-divisional opponents when you face them once in awhile. But imagine if the Pats were in the AFC North and had to face the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals or Browns twice a year. Their record might have taken a hit.
In the end, I admit Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Bill Belichick is one of the best coaches in NFL history too. But I’m just not convinced their dynastic success would have been as sustained and as dominant if the competition within their own division had been stronger.
I guess we’ll never know.