By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Like no other franchise, the Patriots just win.
They win when they are led by their defense. They win when they boast a high-powered offense. They win when their quarterback is young. They win when their quarterback is old. They even win when their quarterback is suspended.
And on Sunday night, the Patriots won again — with a bullet. With absolute clarity on which team was superior.
Playing against a historic franchise which they have personally owned ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady strode into town, the dominance continued in the form of a 36-17 victory over the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. In doing so, Belichick and Brady punched their ticket to their seventh Super Bowl since 2001.
Considering Sunday night’s opponent has accused the Patriots of winning via illegitimate methods over the years, it is important to note this: The Patriots do not win because of supposedly deflated footballs or video footage shot from the wrong location or warmed Gatorade or secret video screens or any other nefarious activity they’ve been accused of utilizing to their advantage over the years.
They win because they’re led by a historically great coach, one whose wits are almost never matched on an opposing sideline each week. They win because they employ the ultimate assassin at quarterback, the most important position in all of sports. They win because they find the skills and talents in players who otherwise might have little use elsewhere in the National Football League — their Julian Edelmans, their Malcolm Butlers, their Dion Lewises. They draft differently, they attack free agency differently, and they handle contracts for their own players differently. And it works.
They made all of this abundantly clear over the course of three hours on Sunday, and it all converged in what turned out to be a lopsided affair. The AFC Championship Game was supposed to feature the two best teams in the AFC. Instead, it just featured the Patriots.
They left no room for interpretation, no wiggle room for anyone looking to offer a “yeah, but” to another Super Bowl berth. The Patriots showed they were better-coached and better-suited to execute in the biggest game of the year to this point, and they enter the two-week period of Super Bowl hype having made a statement: Now, as much as ever, the Patriots know how to win.
They’ll be following up their sixth consecutive conference championship game appearance with their second Super Bowl in three years and seventh Super Bowl since 2001.
That’s seven Super Bowls in a 16-year span.
That’s a Super Bowl trip, on average, nearly every two years.
That is unheard of.
They’ve had more seasons since 2001 end with trips to the Super Bowl (7) than seasons end without a playoff victory (4).
That is not supposed to happen — not in today’s NFL, not for any team, and certainly not for the Patriots. In the form of the unprecedented stripping of first-round picks, the league has enforced corrective measures to try to limit this unprecedented run. It’s an effort that’s heretofore been proven unsuccessful. And given this latest run to the Super Bowl, the results remain the same.
Of course, there have been dynasties before. But none lasted this long and involved the same head coach and quarterback tandem. None have involved so many different characters rotating through the doors, from Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi, to Corey Dillon and Deion Branch, to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis, to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, and with Brady serving as the sole rider from start to finish. The Patriots have constantly been changing while keeping alive the ultimate constant: winning.
Tight end Martellus Bennett, a newcomer to this system in 2016, explained what it is that makes the Patriots successful. It did not involve intricate plots of espionage or minute manipulations of equipment. It was actually quite simple.
“We work really, really hard. I think that’s the biggest thing that people don’t know,” Bennett explained. “Preparation, for us, is like no team I’ve ever been on. We prepare … sometimes it’s just like, ‘Ah, please coach, let us go home.’ But we all know, ‘Hey, it’s going to work.’ So we all lock in and we’re in meetings and we’re here till 8 [p.m.] or whenever it may be, and everyone just believes and everyone buys in. No one really cares who gets the ball, what the stats are, anything like that. It’s not really about any individual. We just go out and play. I may not get any passes thrown my way, but I don’t really give a [crap]. I just want to go out and win.”
A nine-year NFL veteran who’s bounced around to four teams, Bennett has been able to discern the difference in the Patriots organization.
“I think the difference is, here every [player] is taking notes and making sure that they get all the coaching points and try to do exactly right, because that’s what they expect. Their expectations are so high, if you’re not in the right spot, right landmark, it makes a big difference,” Bennett said. “So I think they hold that high standard for everybody – themselves and us. So if they feel like they call a bad play, Coach will be like, ‘That was a bad play but you guys did a good job making it right.’ So everyone is held accountable. I think that’s the biggest difference.”
This year has been its own unique set of circumstances. They traded Chandler Jones before the season, traded Jamie Collins during the season, lost Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending injury, played without their starting quarterback for one-fourth of the season, played without their backup quarterback for half of that time, added role players like Eric Rowe and Kyle Van Noy midseason, seamlessly worked Marcus Cannon to becoming an upper-echelon right tackle, kept Edelman healthy, worked Lewis back from a serious injury, relied more on LeGarrette Blount than ever before, and various other ups and downs that always work to differentiate one season from another.
“It’s a credit to those guys,” Bill Belichick said of his players. “It’s a credit to the depth on our team and the way that those guys prepare. They work hard. They don’t know if they’re going to get an opportunity or not and then when it finally comes and they do get it, they’re usually ready to take advantage of it and help the team win. That’s why we’re where we are. We have a special team, a special group of guys that really work hard. They deserve the success that they’ve had. I mean it’s hard to win 16 games in this league. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the players and the job they’ve done all year week after week. It’s tough but they come in and grind it out. They sit in these seats for hours, and hours, and hours, and prepare, and prepare, and go out there and lay it on the line every week. Again, it’s a good group of men.”
For the most part, the faces change — the assistant coaches, the linemen, the corners, etc. — but the wins keep coming. Every single year. The Patriots remain immune to the “down year” or the regular-season failure, setting a standard considerably higher than that of any of their contemporaries. It doesn’t always result in a shiny new Lombardi Trophy making its way to Foxboro, but they always have a real opportunity to capture another title.
Some day, likely years from now, it will all be easier to digest and understand in context. For now, it’s on to yet another Super Bowl. It is a remarkable achievement, but nobody should be surprised.