Over the past 10 years, we've seen two of the greatest seasons ever from a quarterback, individual and team records shattered, high-scoring offenses become the norm and quarterbacks with near-perfect seasons.
In an offensive-driven league, two teams have stood out over the rest during this time: the 2007 New England Patriots and the 2013 Denver Broncos.
In 2007, the Patriots set the bar for any offense and for almost any team considering the excellent defense they had. The Broncos tried to one-up them in 2013, compiling some of the most ridiculous metrics ever recorded on an NFL gridiron.
So who was better - the 2007 Pats or the 2013 Broncos? Ultimate success could be measured in Super Bowls, but both teams failed to win the big game in their respective seasons. Both teams were fortunate to have a Hall of Fame quarterback, Demaryius Thomas was Peyton Manning's version of Randy Moss, and Wes Welker was actually on both teams.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Comparing the Defenses
Before we get into the well known skill players, let’s look at each team’s defense. In 2007, the Patriots defense was led by Mike Vrabel’s four forced fumbles and 12.5 sacks (tied for sixth-best on the season), as well as Asante Samuel’s six interceptions (tied for fifth-best). The Patriots also had the fourth-lowest total in yards allowed (4,613) and in points allowed (274).
The Broncos were nearly the opposite. They gave up 474 points and 5,696 yards. In a passing league, it isn’t that much of a surprise given their lack of talent in the secondary. I love Champ Bailey, but he’s a little old to be chasing after Percy Harvin and Golden Tate.
On the other hand, the run defense for the Broncos was stout. Linebacker Danny Trevathan led the way three interceptions and 105 tackles, one of only nine guys to accumulate over 100 tackles this season.
To give you a better idea of how these teams performed, check out the table below showing their Net Expected Points (NEP) scores, which are adjusted for strength of schedule. If you're unsure what NEP means, hit up our glossary.
|Team||Adj. Def NEP||Rank||Adj. Def PNEP||Rank||Adj. Def RNEP||Rank|
In the table above "PNEP" refers to pass defense, while "RNEP" refers to run defense.
The 2007 Patriots had the third-best defense overall, led by their strong secondary. Over the course of the season, they allowed 60 less points than a replacement-level defense would have, lining up well with the points and yards the defense allowed that season.
The Broncos didn't look as rosy in the defensive department, finishing as one of the worst teams at defending the pass. However, Denver was the best team against the run during the 2013 season, salvaging their total defense rank.
However, it's very clear that the Patriots, on the defensive side of the ball, had a much better unit.
Using the word "quality" as a descriptor for two of the best quarterbacks of all time is clearly an understatement. Tom Brady's 2007 season and Peyton Manning's 2013 season were the two best campaigns, according to our NEP data, that a quarterback has put together since 2000, adding another chapter to this highly-debated rivalry. Since we have the measurables, let's take a look at who comes out on top when comparing their two seasons.
|Pass NEP||Pass NEP/P||Pass Success Rate|
In 2007, Tom Brady threw 4,802 yards. At the time, that total was the third-highest single-season passing mark the league has ever seen. Since then though, the feat has fallen to the 14th best, and even Tom Brady has topped that number twice. In the same year, Brady became the first quarterback to eclipse 50 touchdown passes, completing 68.9% of his passes while accumulating a 6.25:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
While those numbers are nice, how did Brady do in terms of Net Expected Points? Well, he cleaned house, topping the charts in all three major passing metrics. Brady’s 259.4 Passing Net Expected Points total was tops in the league by nearly 100 points (ironically over Manning) that year, his PNEP/P (NEP rate per each drop back) was also best in the league by a 0.13 point margin and his Success Rate was four percentage points higher than the next best quarterback.
How did Manning compare? Well, he bested Brady’s mark of 50 touchdown passes by throwing 55. And although there was a touch of controversy, Manning ended up breaking Drew Brees’ single-season yardage record by a yard, too. The second-year Bronco completed 68.3% of his passes on his way to a 5.5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which were slightly worse rates than Brady in 2007.
At the next level, Manning was also the top quarterback according to our metrics for the 2013 season. He contributed 278.52 points to the Broncos through the air, which was 103 points better than the next quarterback. Manning was clearly the most efficient quarterback of 2013 with a 0.41 Passing NEP per drop back score, and succeeded in converting over 57% of his passes into a positive NEP gain, which was two percentage points higher than the closest competitor.
So who "wins"?
Both quarterbacks were the top dogs during their respective years, with Brady being slightly more efficient on a per drop back basis. However, Manning contributed 20 more points for the Broncos than Brady did for the Patriots, giving him a slight edge. At this point though, we're splitting hairs.
What about the guys that Brady and Manning were throwing to? Well, we've got numbers for that, too. Take a look at the metrics surrounding the 2007 Patriots and 2013 Broncos pass-catchers:
|Rec. NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP/Target||Success Rate|
|2007 Patriots|| || || || |
|2013 Broncos|| || || || |
Tom Brady’s top receiver in 2007 was, quite obviously, Randy Moss. The polarizing receiver rang up the best season of his career with Tom Brady throwing him the rock, catching 98 balls and 23 touchdowns. Both of those were career highs, while his 1,493 receiving yards were the third-highest of his career.
Manning’s meal ticket was one of the best young receivers in the game today: Demaryius Thomas. While Thomas didn’t catch as many touchdowns as Moss (14), he nearly equaled Moss’ other totals with 92 receptions for 1,430 yards.
So they’re fairly equal on the surface, but we start to see some separation with our NEP data. Moss converted nearly 96% of his receptions into successful NEP gains (his Success Rate), contributing 156.5 Reception Net Expected Points to the 2007 Patriots. On the flip side, Thomas, while performing as a top-three receiver in 2013, had worse metrics in all three major receiving categories.
Continuing on, you've got the man who played with both quarterbacks, Wes Welker. The 2007 version (his first season with the Patriots) of Welker was much better than the 2013 season. For one, he didn’t miss any time in 2007. Second, he didn’t have to worry about as much of a timeshare with the Pats. Welker saw about half of a target more with Brady compared to Manning, but because he missed time, he wasn't able to capture as high of a Reception NEP score in Denver versus New England. But he was just as efficient, as the difference in his Reception NEP per target is only 0.06 points.
If Welker was option 1b for Brady that would make Eric Decker option 1b for Manning. In fact, Decker had a nearly identical Reception NEP this year as Welker was in 2007. Despite being the number two receiver (or even three if you look at the depth chart), Decker’s Reception NEP was higher than 22 other number one receivers in 2013.
Rounding out the Broncos version of the Four Horsemen was Julius Thomas. This Thomas was a surprise to all, and was one of five Broncos to score 10 or more touchdowns in 2013.
Thomas nearly doubled the points Benjamin Watson, New England's top tight end in 2007, contributed to the Patriots in both Reception and Target NEP. But Watson wasn’t a slacker. Even if he didn’t get as many looks from Brady as Moss and Welker did, he was still efficient. Watson’s Reception NEP per target was the third-highest among tight ends in 2007, and his Success Rate ranked seventh.
The combo of Welker and Decker gave the Broncos’ passing offense, in terms of receiver play, a slight edge over the Patriots. Perhaps this makes Brady's play even that much more spectacular, as he didn't have the same types of weapons at his disposal compared to Manning in 2013.
Dual-Purpose Running Backs
The running back depth charts for Bill Belichick and John Fox were like a Swiss army knife, but Belichick relied more on a committee while Fox mainly used one back. Below is a table showing each of the team's running backs, as well as their Rushing Net Expected Points, Rushing Net Expected Points per rush and Success Rate totals from that season.
|Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Rush||Success Rate|
|2007 Patriots|| || || |
|2013 Broncos|| || || |
Essentially, as you can see, it took three backs for the Patriots to accomplish what one back accomplished for the Broncos. Laurence Maroney was the top back for the Patriots in 2007, and his 8.16 Rushing NEP was still only 17th best among running backs in 2007. He did see 185 attempts though, and his .04 Rushing NEP per rush, albeit above average, wasn't as outstanding as his 17th place finish indicates.
Really, the most effective back for the Patriots was actually Sammy Morris, despite limited touches, as Morris nearly tripled Maroney’s mark by rushing for 0.11 points per play. Perhaps some of this had to do with usage: late-down backs can benefit from seeing softer defenses, resulting in higher efficiency.
On the Broncos side, the revitalized Knowshon Moreno contributed only 0.70 less Rushing Net Expected Points than the Patriots running back committee, but was a little more efficient. Moreno was even better in the passing game, too. His 38.85 Target NEP not only doubled what the Patriots contributed out of the backfield, but was the highest among all running backs in 2013. Basically, when Manning looked Moreno's way through the air, Moreno was contributing positively for the Broncos.
Knowshon wasn’t alone though. Montee Ball was just icing on the cake for the Broncos in 2013, as he started to see more touches in the second half of the season. In the team's second game against the Chiefs, Ball had his first career 100-yard rushing game. While his overall Rushing NEP was only 3.65, Ball contributed nearly 16 Rushing Net Expected Points for the Broncos from Week 10 through the end of the season. To put that into perspective, only four runners were able to compiled a 16.00 Rushing NEP total across the entire season. Had Ball been so efficient (which includes his holding onto the football), it could've been a better season for the rook.
Overall, the Broncos actually used their running backs more than New England's 2007 team did, and even with higher volume, they were the more effective bunch. And thanks to Knowshon Moreno, the receiving metrics make the biggest difference between each team’s stable of running backs. The Broncos have a clear advantage in the backfield.
Teamwork, Not Individual Play
While we can dissect and compare the various offensive weapons of each team, a look at our Adjusted Offensive NEP metrics will show us the entire picture. Remember, each team's metrics have been adjusted to factor in the strength of the opponents; we're leveling the playing field so to speak. The next table not only shows the points contributed from the passing game and running game, but where each metric ranks since the 2000 season, just to give you an idea of how prolific these offenses were.
|Adj. NEP||Rank||Adj. PNEP||Rank||Adj. RNEP||Rank||2007 Patriots||276.24||1st||246.17||2nd||26.29||63rd
The Patriots have had the best single-season offense in the league since 2000. End of the debate, right?
Not just yet – there is even more we can dig into.
While the 2007 Patriots had the best overall offense, let’s break down the passing and running game for each team.
We see the Patriots had a much better time on the ground, contributing 26.29 Rush Net Expected Points over the course of their season. Though this is a little surprising considering we just showed how solid the Broncos runners were from an efficiency perspective, keep in mind this analyzes the entire rushing depth chart, and that strength of schedule is factored in. There's a chance that Denver benefited greatly from poor defenses in 2013.
The Broncos, however, gained their edge offensively in the passing game over the Patriots with a 5.37 NEP margin. Both passing offenses were historic though, as they rank as the first and second highest Pass NEP totals since 2000. This aligns with the fact that Denver had better receiving options, and although Tom Brady may have had the better season due to less options to throw to, the overall passing game for Denver was actually better.
In the end, the defense is really what separated these two teams, and even though neither won the Super Bowl, it was clear how that side of the ball made an impact on the Broncos during their big game compared to the Patriots. That's why, if these two teams were to face off against one another in some sort of weird, alternate universe, we'd expect the Patriots 2007 squad to outplay the Broncos in 2013 and win the ball game.