By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Sunday afternoon marked the 38th postseason game of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era for the Patriots. It also marked their 23rd playoff game at home during that time — a stretch dating back to the famed Snow Bowl against Oakland.
And, excluding the eight Super Bowls played in neutral sites, the Patriots have only had to play seven true road games over the past 18 seasons. That speaks to how well they’ve taken care of business in the regular season during that span.
Yet as you surely know, the Patriots did not take care of business this year in the regular season, giving away a game in Miami, losing a winnable game in Pittsburgh, and getting blown out in Tennessee, Jacksonville and Detroit. As regular seasons go, this one was distinctly not Patriot-like.
And so, as a result, the Patriots will be packing their bags and hitting the road next weekend for the AFC Championship Game. It’s somewhat rare territory for the Patriots to find themselves, but it’s not entirely rare. Here’s a quick look back at the six times that the Patriots have had to travel for the AFC title game.
1985, at Miami
The Patriots were coming off two road wins — at the Jets and at the L.A. Raiders — before rolling into Miami and putting a whupping on Don Shula’s and Dan Marino’s team.
The Dolphins led 7-3 early in the second quarter, but the Patriots scored 21 straight points, thanks to three short touchdown passes by Tony Eason. Miami cut the lead to 10 points, but Mosi Tatupu popped in a score from the 1-yard line.
Marino completed just 42 percent of his passes for 248 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Patriots, winners of three playoff road games, earned the right to face the 1985 Bears in New England’s first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. It didn’t work out well for New England.
2001, at Pittsburgh
The Patriots weren’t supposed to win this game — or at least that’s what most everyone in the football world thought. While the start-up Patriots were a fun story, having beaten the Raiders thanks to some intervention from the football gods, there was no way they were going to roll into Pittsburgh and oust the anointed AFC champs, who went 13-3 during the regular season and won their divisional round game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens by 17 points.
But the Patriots felt they had a chance, and they really felt they had a chance after Troy Brown broke a 55-yard punt return to put New England up 7-0 late in the first quarter.
Even after losing Tom Brady to a knee injury (on a dirty hit by Lee Flowers), the Patriots didn’t quit. Drew Bledsoe, who had been collecting dust on the sidelines for a couple of months, came in and lobbed a picture-perfect touchdown pass to David Patten — a touchdown catch that looked a lot like one that Patriots fans would be seeing the next week in New Orleans.
New England turned it into a 21-3 lead when Antwan Harris scored on a blocked field goal return, after taking a lateral from Brown. The Steelers would make it close, cutting the score to 21-17, but an Adam Vinatieri field goal early in the fourth quarter served as the final bit of scoring on the day.
The Patriots limited Kordell Stewart to zero touchdowns while intercepting three of his passes. While Jerome Bettis did score a touchdown, the Hall of Fame running back put forth arguably the most dreadful stat line of all time: 9 carries for 8 yards.
The Patriots of course won the next week against the heavily favored Rams, and a dynasty was born.
2004, at Pittsburgh
Once again, the Patriots headed to Pittsburgh, where they just weren’t supposed to win. The Steelers were 15-1, and on that very same field the previous October, Pittsburgh ended the Patriots’ 21-game winning streak with a 34-20 thumping. Going into the title game, many expected a repeat performance.
Those people did get to see a blowout, but not the way they expected.
Rodney Harrison returned an interception 87 yards, slowing down ever so slightly as he neared the end zone in order to allow Mike Vrabel to lay a block on Ben Roethlisberger, to give the Patriots a 24-3 lead before halftime.
Deion Branch caught one of the best touchdown passes of Brady’s career, a 60-yard bomb that made it 10-0 in the first. Branch later ran for a 23-yard touchdown, waving farewell to the Steelers fans in attendance.
Brady — who went 14-for-21 for 201 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks — reportedly played that game despite having a 103-degree fever. He led the Patriots to a third Super Bowl title a couple of weeks later against the Eagles.
2006, at Indianapolis
A game that will be remembered as the greatest missed opportunity of the era, this one has come to be remembered slightly incorrectly. That is to say, whenever the 2006 season is discussed, folks in the region typically lament the lack of receiving talent as the reason the Patriots lost out on winning another Super Bowl.
But that’s an inaccurate memory, at least as far as this game is concerned. Because 34 points, and a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, should have been more than enough to earn a trip to Super Bowl XLI.
Alas, Peyton Manning carved up the Patriots’ defense in the second half, with a little help from the enforcement of a rule that doesn’t exist. A Joseph Addai touchdown run with a minute left gave the Colts their first lead of the game, and a Tom Brady interception ended the Patriots’ dreams.
This game oddly saw a touchdown by guard Logan Mankins on a fumble recovery, a touchdown by center Jeff Saturday on a fumble recovery, and a touchdown pass from Manning to defensive lineman Dan Klecko.
The Colts went on to beat Rex Grossman and the Bears. Despite all the success the Patriots have had, 2006 still stings.
2013, at Denver
This was a game where the scoreboard made it seem like a closer competition than it actually was. The Patriots just didn’t have the manpower to match the high-scoring, high-octane offense of Peyton Manning.
That was most evident by looking at the targeted receivers by Brady that day, a list that included Austin Collie, Aaron Dobson, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and Matthew Slater.
Despite the low score, Manning still managed to throw for 400 yards and two touchdowns, while the running back duo of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined for more than 100 yards on the ground. Wes Welker took Aqib Talib out of the game with a block that left Belichick very upset, even a day later.
With the win, the Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII, where they lost 43-8 to the Seahawks.
2015, at Denver
Arguably the most impressive moment from the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski era came in a loss. It came in the fourth quarter of this game, with the Patriots trailing by eight and with less than two minutes on the clock.
On a fourth-and-10 at midfield, Brady hit Gronkowski for a 40-yard gain up the seam. On a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Brady found Gronkowski for a touchdown. It was an all-time moment. But on the two-point conversion, Brady didn’t go back to Gronkowski, even though he should have. Instead, he tried to force a pass to Julian Edelman. It was picked off, and the Patriots lost.
Among the more random occurrences of this game involved Owen Daniels beating Jamie Collins on a double move not once but twice — both of which went for touchdowns. Collins was one of the most athletic young linebackers in the league at the time; Daniels was out of the league forever a few weeks later.
There are many parallels from the 2015 season to the 2018 season, namely that the Patriots had to go on the road for the AFC title game because they blew a game in Miami. Back in 2015, it was The Steven Jackson Game in Miami that forced the Patriots to head to Denver in January.
2018, at Kansas City
We shall see how this one plays out. Clearly, the Patriots of the second half of this current run have not fared well on the road, but that’s been entirely due to Peyton Manning. Is Patrick Mahomes up to the challenge? Or can the Patriots tap into some of that intangible magic that made them so great in the early 2000s?
You’ll hear a lot this week about the Patriots’ dreadful road record, about the Chiefs’ offense, about the Week 6 win for New England, about the now-irrelevant 2014 game in Kansas City, and a whole lot else. We’ll all do our best to try to encapsulate what’s going to happen. But in these games, where the stakes are so high, there’s just no way of knowing until the game kicks off how they’re going to go or what’s going to happen.