BOSTON (CBS) — At this point, if you live in New England, you almost have a routine when it comes to preparing for the AFC Championship Game. Perhaps you head to the same friend’s living room or basement, make the same snacks, drink the same beer and shout the same expletives at the TV screen as the Patriots try to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. Seemingly every year at this time, the Patriots find themselves still alive in the postseason, still fighting for a Super Bowl berth and, ultimately, a championship.
As great as that is, and as much as I don’t want to put a damper on what should be a celebratory week in New England, I do suggest that you enjoy Sunday as much as humanly possible. Because this may be it.
Frankly, it’s nothing short of a football miracle for the Patriots to be here in this position right now. Even with one of the greatest coach-quarterback combinations in the history of the sport, it’s still astonishing for the Patriots to have overcome the loss of their top five receivers last season, avoided the distraction of their star tight end being brought up on murder charges, and to have competed despite injuries to arguably the two most important players on defense. These are events that derail most teams — even Patriots teams in recent years — yet here they are, 60 minutes away from playing in another Super Bowl.
Now, is it possible for the universe to seemingly conspire against the rest of the league to propel the Patriots to championship weekend next season or in the years that follow? Sure, but if you’re a gambler, that’s a bet you probably wouldn’t want to make.
And really, the need to appreciate New England’s current position has as much to do with the nature of the league as it does anything that has to do with the Patriots themselves. This is the Patriots’ eighth trip to the AFC Championship Game in the last 13 years. In that same span, the Steelers and Eagles have earned the second-most trips to their conference championship games with five apiece. Three teams — Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Francisco — have three championship game appearances since ’01, and no other team has more than two. In fact, 10 of the 32 teams in the NFL have zero championship game appearances in that time span.
And in those championship games, the Steelers are 3-2 and the Eagles are 1-4. The Patriots are 5-2, and they have the chance to make it 6-2 on Sunday.
It’s been remarkable, and given the consistency of Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick on the sideline, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots return to a title game in the near future. Still, future success is never guaranteed in the NFL. Given how quickly things can change, and given how fortunate the Patriots are to have held it all together through an overwhelming flood of adversity this year, that is especially true.
That’s not to send a message of doom, gloom or impending football death. It’s just a matter of reality: Teams don’t win this much. Teams don’t reach their sport’s final four this often. Football teams don’t have the same quarterback and coach for this long. But the Patriots do.
“To get out there and play 16 weeks and really see where you stand at the end of those 16 weeks – getting to the playoffs, play the best teams and see if you can advance — it’s certainly not easy to do,” Brady said on Thursday. “It’s very challenging. I think it’s the mental toughness of the team and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win. We’re challenged here on a daily basis by Coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first and I think that’s what this team has always been about.”
As long as Brady is at QB, that mentality figures to be pervasive throughout the team. And hey, with a potentially healthy Rob Gronkowski back in the mix next year, there’s no reason the Patriots should be counted out next season. And they won’t. But what if Brady’s statistical drop this season had as much to do with getting a half-step slower as it did with incorporating a new receiving corps? Would it really be right to expect a 37-year-old to get back to the days when throwing 35 touchdowns every year was the norm? It might be more fair to expect a decline — slight as it may be — as Brady inches closer toward 40.
Again, there’s a chance he pulls a Peyton Manning and sets all of the NFL records at 37 years old, but yet again, I wouldn’t wager much of my salary on that happening.
It’s become a bit taboo around here to celebrate and fully appreciate any season that ends in anything short of a Lombardi Trophy. And with reason — the Patriots established a lofty precedent by winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, and they’re held to the very standard they created. But it often gets overlooked just how much had to go the Patriots’ way for that to happen. There is, obviously, the “Tuck Rule,” but also an impossible 45-yard field goal through the driving snow by Adam Vinatieri to force overtime in 2001. And there was Drew Bledsoe the following week, playing for the first time in four months and quarterbacking the team to an AFC title.
There was Drew Bennett dropping a pass that hit him in the chest late in the divisional round in ’03, when a catch would have set up the Titans to either tie with a field goal or win with a touchdown. And there was John Kasay’s kickoff sailing out of bounds in Super Bowl XXXVIII, giving Brady and Co. a golden opportunity on the 40-yard line with a chance to win the game.
Far too much focus has been placed on the losses in ’07 and ’11 when you consider the simple fact that winning a Super Bowl takes a tremendous surge of solid play, smart decisions and — as much as anything — a run of good luck. David Tyree’s helmet and Wes Welker’s receiver gloves can be put on display as a reminder of that.
If the Patriots are fortunate enough to have some luck on their side this weekend in Denver and again in New Jersey in early February, then bully for them. But if they come up short, whether due to getting outplayed or being on the wrong side of a bounce, it would be foolish to say that this year’s team has disappointed.
Will the unparalleled run of success continue for Belichick, Brady and the Patriots beyond this year? That’s impossible to predict, but the odds will continue to be stacked against them. For now, we know they have this AFC Championship Game. And at some point on Sunday afternoon, we’d all be wise to take a moment to appreciate what we’ve been privileged enough to witness for the past 13 years. It will be over much sooner than later, and it most certainly will never happen quite like this ever again.