The Brady 8: AFC Championship Wins

On Sunday January 21st, the New England Patriots defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their eighth Superbowl since 2001. You heard me right, EIGHTH Superbowl since 2001. The Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers have been in eight Super Bowls as well but needed 40 plus years to do it. This is a dynasty that will probably never be matched again. Tom Brady will appear in his eighth Superbowl, a possible sixth win may also never be matched. Let’s take a look back at the eight victories and how they got there.

2001: Pittsburgh

For the three of you that don’t know the story, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick in January of 2000 and 4 months later drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round of the draft. The 2000 Patriots finished 5-11 amidst a team full of rejects, hasbeens and busts largely due to the Bobby Grier mis-management in the wake of Bill Parcells‘ departure following Superbowl 31. Belichick quite literally had to build a team from the ground up. In 2001 he got it right by drafting defensive lineman Richard Seymour in the first round and offensive tackle Matt Light in the second. Games are won and lost in the trenches and Belichick knew it. In free agency, Belichick and general manager Scott Pioli signed about every affordable free agent imaginable hoping that some of them would stick. Bryan Cox and Roman Phifer were figured to be washed up. Mike Vrabel and Larry Izzo were considered rotational backups ditto for Matt Stevens only as a safety and Terrell Buckley as cornerback. Receivers Torrance Small, Bert Emanuel, Fred Coleman and David Patten were signed as well as former 1,000 yard rusher Antowain Smith. The strength of the 96-98 teams were defense and the holdovers Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinnest, Brandon Mitchell, Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant and Otis Smith returning. On offense, linemen Joe Andruzzi, Grant Williams and Mike Compton were signed and 2000 4th-rounder Greg Robinson-Randall returned. Also returning were tight ends Rod Rutledge and Jermaine Wiggins, runners Kevin Faulk and JR Redmond and receiver Troy Brown. With Drew Bledsoe as starting quarterback, the Patriots lost their season opener and trailed 10-3 in Week 2 against the Jets when Mo Lewis changed the course of NFL history by nailing Bledsoe on a routine scramble. The injury would keep Bledsoe out a while and Tom Brady was thrust into the starter’s role. Bledsoe never got his job back as Belichick stuck with Brady after he led the team to a 5-5 record by November. The Pats caught fire and won their final 6 games, securing the AFC East division title and a first round bye.

The Patriots then defeated the Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders in the final game at Foxborro Stadium, forever known as the “Snow Bowl”. The Pats got a little help from a little known rule called the Tuck Rule but Adam Vinatieri booted a 45-yard field goal into the wind, in a blizzard, with the season on the line. Brady led the team to victory in overtime and set the stage for the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. The 11-5 Patriots were considered no match for the 13-3 Steelers by many pundits, and it turned out the Steelers themselves were so confident it would be a cakewalk that they PUBLICLY made their Superbowl plans (they never did learn their lesson, look at the divisional round game against Jacksonville this year). It was rumored that the hotel housing the AFC winner in New Orleans already had Bill Cowher‘s name on the reserved list. Then Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy went out to eat the night before the game and was heckled by waitresses and random fans.

The one thing no one ever learned was you do NOT piss off Lawyer Milloy. By the time the Pats took the field in Pittsburgh, Milloy was a man possessed. The defense crushed star runner Jerome Bettis, HoF receiver Hines Ward and quarterback Kordell Stewart although the Steelers defense was equally stout, limiting Tom Brady for much of the first half. The Patriots struck not on offense, but when Troy Brown ran a punt back for a touchdown for a 7-3 lead. With time running out in the second quarter, Lethon Flowers nailed Tom Brady in the ankle and knocked him out of the game. Belichick turned to Drew Bledsoe and Steelers safety Chad Scott belted Bledsoe out of bounds on the second play eerily similar to the Mo Lewis hit. Bledsoe popped up like Popeye and found Patten in the end-zone to give the Pats a 14-3 lead at the half. The Steelers drove down to field goal range halfway through the third quarter but Brandon Mitchell blocked the kick. Troy Brown scooped up the ball and ran for it. He realized he was going down but spotted backup safety Antwan Harris running with him and lateraled the ball. Harris sprinted to the endzone for a touchdown and 21-3 lead. The Steelers fought back with two consecutive touchdowns to cut the lead 21-17. Bledsoe did manage to drive the Patriots into field goal range early in the fourth quarter where Vinatieri booted one to make it 24-17. With Bettis taken out of the picture, Belichick focused his gameplan on attacking the Steeler receivers and letting Kordell Stewart beat them. He didn’t. Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy both intercepted passes to seal the deal. Bledsoe, Brady and the Patriots had defeated the Steelers and were on their way to New Orleans, where they would defeat the heavily favored Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI.

2003: Indianapolis

The 2002 season was a huge let-down for the defending champions but the seeds for future greatness were planted starting with the draft. The Patriots drafted tight end Daniel Graham to replace Rutledge in the first round, receiver Deion Branch in the second round, defensive lineman Jarvis Green in the fourth round and receiver David Givens in the seventh round. They also signed free agent tight end Christian Fauria to join Graham. They also needed to settle the quarterback controversy created because someone had to go. Belichick made his decision to stick with Brady and trade Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills. Apart from that, the 2002 season was lackluster as the Patriots finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs. They couldn’t stop the run and needed two huge comebacks to not finish 7-9. Belichick knew he needed to improve on defense and he scored in the draft. He drafted defensive lineman Ty Warren in the first round, cornerback Eugene Wilson and speedy receiver Bethel Johnson in the second round, defensive lineman Dan Klecko, cornerback Asante Samuel and offensive lineman Dan Koppen in the third round and special teams ace Tully Banta-Cain in the seventh round. Then the Patriots scored in free agency, netting star linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, cornerback Tyrone Poole and the hated, hard hitting safety Rodney Harrison. Then the Patriots caught a (literally) huge break when the Chicago Bears cut the near 400 pound defensive tackle Ted Washington. Belichick scooped him up at a discount price and immediately switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. Ty Warren and Seymour would be the ends with Washington in the middle. Vrabel, Bruschi, Colvin and Phifer would be the linebackers with Ty Law and Poole the corners with Milloy and Harrison the safeties. That was the plan anyway, but that plan went to hell 5 days before the season opener. One of the staples of Belichick is making sure the contract of a player doesn’t exceed the production. He took a hard look at Milloy and realized his production drastically regressed in 2002. Belichick went to Milloy and asked him to take a paycut to get under the salary cap, but Milloy refused. Belichick had no choice but to cut him and it sent shockwaves through the team. Worse, almost immediately Milloy was picked up by the Buffalo Bills. 5 days later the Patriots played the season opener against…you guessed it…the Bills in Buffalo. Remember how you do NOT piss off Milloy? Well it worked against the Patriots as the fired up Milloy led an equally fired up Bledsoe to a 31-0 drubbing of the Patriots. There was nothing positive about the loss, only the aftermath. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson made the ludicrous claim that the Patriots “hate their coach”. Harrison later admitted they were mad but definitely didn’t hate him. The NFL then ranked them 29th in the power rankings and Harrison took charge, saying they need to move on. The Patriots woke up and went 14-1 the rest of the way, steamrolling teams with one of the most punishing defenses in modern history. After Milloy was cut, Eugene Wilson took his place alongside Harrison. Asante Samuel quickly became a great nickel corner behind Law and Poole and injuries to offensive linemen Mike Compton and Stephen Neal opened the door for Russ Hochstein, Dan Koppen and Tom Ashworth to nail down starting jobs with holdovers Andruzzi, Damien Woody and Light. The Patriots shut out both Dallas and Miami by a 12-0 score, beat the Cleveland Browns 9-3 and the New York Giants 17-6. They also got revenge by winning the season’s final game at home against the much less angry Bills 31-0.

After dispatching the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, the Patriots would play the AFC Championship game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The two teams had met in Indy during the regular season which was won on a goalline stand by the Patriots much to the chagrin of Bob “Whiney” Lamey. This time the Colts and their fans that despite playing in snowy Foxborro, the Pats defense had no answer for all of their offensive weapons. They were wrong. The Patriots took the opening kickoff and marched down the field, David Givens doing the honors with a TD pass to give New England a 7-0 lead. The Colts marched down the field but Rodney Harrison set the tone with an interception in the end-zone. The Pats marched down the field but stalled in the red-zone, settling for a field goal and a 10-0 lead going into the second quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Ty Law picked off a Manning pass which led to another field goal to make it 13-0. The Colts had yet to punt not only in this game but in the previous two as well. Punting out of their own end-zone, the long snapper snapped it over the head of Hunter Smith and Smith had to kick the ball for a safety to make it 15-0. The teams traded fumble recoveries after the safety which lead to a 15-0 game at halftime. The Colts came out with piss and vinegar, scoring on a long drive to cut the lead 15-7. The Patriots answered with yet another field goal to make it 18-7. The Patriots forced a 3 and out and Antowain Smith spearheaded the next drive for Vinatieri’s fourth field goal of the day, making it 21-7. Ty Law picked off another pass but Brady was picked off in the end-zone. In the fourth quarter Law picked off his 3rd pass of the day with just over 8 minutes remaining. The Colts defense held and forced a punt, then marching down the field to score a touchdown to bring the game close, 21-14 with 2:22 left. The Colts did manage to get the ball back with 2:02 left but the stage for the future was set on the Colts final drive. Manning threw three passes, all of which were covered with heavy contact against Colt receivers with Whiney Lamey crying that so and so was held after every incompletion. Finally on fourth down, Ty Law was all over Harrison to force the incompletion and Whiney Lamey started falling out of the announce both “OH MY GOD HE WAS HELD!!!”. The Patriots then made the Colts burn all their timeouts before kicking the final field goal for a final score of 24-14 to send the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Patriots would end up defeating the Carolina Panthers 32-29 to win their second title in three years but the Colts weren’t happy. Whiney Lamey, Manning, coach Tony Dungy and Bill Polian all hysterically bitched to the NFL competition committee to enforce stricter penalties on holding, contact and interference penalties. The Patriots were not amused but for now they were champions again.

FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 18: Safety Rodney Harrison #37 of the New England Patriots celebrates his interception against the Indianapolis Colts with teammate Roman Phifer #95 in the AFC Championship Game on January 18, 2004 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

2004: Pittsburgh

Unlike in 2002 where the Patriots regressed after winning in 2001, the rich got even richer in 2004. The Patriots caught a huge break when arguably college football’s best defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was available when the Patriots turn to pick. Wilfork would replace Ted Washington, who departed for Oakland, on the line. With another first round pick, the Patriots selected tight end Ben Watson. Apart from third rounder Marquise Hill, the rest of the draft produced little. The Patriots also hit big in free agency, luring the monstrous Keith Traylor from Chicago, eerily similar to Ted Washington the year before. Then the big one, the Corey Dillon heist. Dillon was the star running back for the Cincinnati Bengals that had become a malcontent. The Bengals had been a loser franchise ever since gagging Super Bowl XXIII fifteen years earlier. He battled injuries and the emergence of Rudi Johnson in 2003 which led the Bengals to believe he was all done. Belichick took a chance by offering a fourth round pick for Dillon and the Bengals said sure. It was a monumental mistake as Dillon was revitalized after coming to New England. Not only were they hitting big in the draft and free agency, they were getting injured players David Patten, Stephen Neal and Rosevelt Colvin back. The 2003 team was considered the hardest hitting defense with an adequate offense, the 2004 team had the offense to match the defense. The ’04 Patriots ripped off six straight wins to start the season, including beating the Colts in the season opener, to run their winning streak to an NFL record 21 wins in a row. In fact, the only two blemishes on the season came under unusual circumstances. On Halloween night, the Patriots ventured to Pittsburgh to play the red hot Steelers…without Corey Dillon. Pittsburgh’s coach Bill Cowher knew the Patriots couldn’t run so he geared to stop the pass, which worked as the Steelers forced a bunch of turnovers and took the game (and home field really) 34-20. After ripping off another six straight wins, the Patriots traveled to Miami where the Patriots held a 28-17 lead with a few minutes remaining. In what is now known as “The Night Courage Wore Orange” the Dolphins scored two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes to stun the Patriots 29-28. After two more easy wins, it was time for the playoffs.

Unlike the 2003 Patriots that were decimated with injuries on both sides of the ball, the 04 Patriots were decimated at one position, cornerback. During the Week 6 win against Seattle, number 2 corner Tyrone Poole was lost for the year. During the Pittsburgh game, all-pro corner Ty Law was lost for the year. That left the secondary to second year Asante Samuel, rookie free agent Randall Gay with castoffs Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat. Then Samuel was knocked out for a few games and Belichick turned to the reliable Troy Brown…yes, the receiver, to play emergency corner. It took him a few weeks but Brown eventually got it, even intercepting a pass from old pal Drew Bledsoe. The running joke was Bledsoe saw Troy running and instinctively threw it to him. By the playoffs, few gave the 14-2 Patriots a chance in the divisional round against the Colts. The Pats secondary was banged up, Indy was fully healthy (pro-bowl tight end Dallas Clark returned), and Edgerin James led the league in rushing over Dillon. The Patriots then unleashed Dillon onto Indy who effectively killed the clock and kept Manning off the field. The Patriots won the game 20-3 and an agitated Tedy Bruschi mocked Dungy, Polian and the Colts by saying to keep changing the rules because they’ll win anyway.

This set the stage for the re-match in the AFC title game with the Steelers. After Pittsburgh lost their week 2 matchup with Tommy Maddox at quarterback, Cowher installed rookie Ben Roethlisberger under center in Week 3. Even though the Patriots won 21 in a row, Pittsburgh won 14 in a row to get to the AFC Championship Game. Roethlisberger was undefeated in his young career and he was at home. Once again few gave the Patriots a chance, which is what Rodney Harrison wanted. What arrogant Steeler fans forgot is that a rookie on the big stage can be prone to mistakes and this game proved no different. In the second coldest game in Pittsburgh playoff history (11 degrees F), Big Ben’s first pass was right to Eugene Wilson of the Patriots. New England converted the turnover into a field goal to give themselves a 3-0 lead. The Steelers drove into Patriots territory but Jerome Bettis coughed up the football with Vrabel recovering. Brady wasted no time and threw a 60-yard bomb (I thought he couldn’t throw deep, Kellerman) to Deion Branch to give the “underdogs” a 10-0 lead. The Steelers responded with a measly field goal and Brady went for the kill, nailing Branch with a 45 yard pass that brought the Pats offense into the red-zone. Brady found David Givens in the end-zone to up the lead to 17-3 as fans began to worry. Once you fall behind, you pretty much abandon the run game which means your quarterback has to be damn near perfect. Now the Steelers were asking a rookie to bring them out of their hole in the biggest game of his life. Naturally he gagged, throwing a pick six to Rodney Harrison to send the Patriots into halftime with a 24-3 lead. After the Patriots punted to open the third quarter, the Steelers had their first sustained drive of the day which culminated in a Bettis TD run to cut the lead 24-10. The Patriots responded with a drive of their own and a now fully healthy Corey Dillon pounded a 25 yard TD down Pittsburgh’s throat to make it 31-10. Momentum switched to the Steelers when Big Ben found Hines Ward in the end-zone to cut the lead to 14. The Patriots were forced to punt and the Steelers put together a field goal drive to put themselves down 11 only a few minutes into the fourth quarter. Just like the Colts game, the Patriots ran Corey Dillon hard to kill the clock and he did, taking over 5 minutes off it and Vinatieri’s field goal blast made it 34-20 with 8 minutes left. Big Ben made yet another mistake and threw another INT to Wilson. The Patriots finished off the Steelers with a 23 yard reverse run for a touchdown, waving goodbye to the Steelers as he crossed the goaline to make it 41-20 with just over 3 minutes left. Plaxico Burress caught a TD to make it a 14 point game but there were only 91 seconds left. The Patriots pounced on the onside kick and the game was over. For the second time in four years the Patriots marched into Pittsburgh as underdogs and whipped their asses on their way to the Superbowl. Ty Law in a wheelchair held up the Lamar Hunt Trophy as a symbol of their dominance and next man up mentality. 2 weeks later the Patriots beat the overmatched Philadelphia Eagles to win Super Bowl XXXIX. The Patriots had won 3 out of 4 and were only just beginning.

2007: San Diego

2005 was pretty much the end of the original “dynasty” as Ty Law and Willie McGinnest bolted as free agents, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took over as head coach of Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Defensive backs coach Eric Mangini was promoted to defensive coordinator with Josh McDaniels unofficially named offensive coordinator. The ’05 draft netted them guard Logan Mankins. The Patriots fell apart amidst season ending injuries to Matt Light, Rodney Harrison and Dan Koppen as well as the career evaporation of Eugene Wilson, Tyrone Poole and Corey Dillon. Tedy Bruschi suffered a stroke days after Superbowl 39 and he made an emotional return midway through the season, but was not the same.

The Patriots still were division champions and destroyed the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card Round, but were dismantled by the Denver Broncos to thwart a never done before three-peat. The 2006 Patriots had one of the worst offenses in modern team history. Belichick deviated from his usual plan of building defense through the draft and completely whiffed on the offensive talent he picked. 1st round pick Laurence Maroney was supposed to share carries with Corey Dillon to save both of them from wear and tear, which means Laurence was not used to his full potential. Second round pick Chad Jackson was a total flop who admittedly never learned the playbook. 3rd and 4th round picks tight ends David Thomas and Garrett Mills were useless. 5th round pick Ryan O’Callaghan couldn’t beat out Nick Kaczur for the starting tackle position and 6th round pick offensive lineman Dan Stevenson didn’t even make the team. The only one worth anything was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, drafted to replace the departed Adam Vinatieri who bolted for the Indianapolis Colts. Compounding his misfires were the fact David Patten and David Givens left in free agency and Deion Branch was traded to Seattle due to a contract dispute. In their places were castoffs Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney to go with the aging Troy Brown. The 2006 Patriots went 12-4 with Brady having the season of his life trying to make up for almost zero offensive talent, dispatched the New York Jets and new head coach Eric Mangini in the wild card round, got by the 14-2 San Diego Chargers in the divisional round and ultimately fell to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. Belichick knew he’d need real talent on offense in order to be special and he was about to turn Brady into the superstar he’d always been. On draft night 2007, the Patriots shocked everyone by trading a fourth round pick to the Oakland Raiders for star wide receiver Randy Moss. They also traded their 2nd round pick to Miami for their slot receiver Wes Welker. They also signed speedster Donte Stallworth to suddenly turn their awful offense into the league’s best.  The Patriots unveiled their new offense in Week 1, throttling the New York Jets. Without going into a 12 page chronicle on Spygate and bringing up Week 2, let’s just say the ’07 Patriots were a team on a mission. They blitzed through the first half of the regular season but ran into the problem as the season wound to a close. Their defense, while still nasty, was aging. Vrabel, Bruschi, Harrison, Seymour and Warren were joined by Junior Seau which didn’t help getting younger. The defense seemed to be running out of gas as the Patriots had to get some major help by the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles throwing up on themselves in order to win both games. The New York Giants nearly beat the Patriots in the Week 16 finale which set the stage for a future matchup. Aging defense aside, the Patriots managed to go 16-0 in the regular season.

After defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round, they met the San Diego Chargers in a rematch of Week 2 for the right to go to Super Bowl XLII. This time the Chargers played a more conservative game, recognizing that playing reckless and overconfident cost them Week 2. The Chargers D struck first 10 minutes into the game when Quintin Jammer intercepted Brady and Philip Rivers marched the Chargers into field goal range, where the kick was good for a 3-0 lead. The Patriots then drove 65 yards, scoring on a 1 yard plunge by Maroney in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead. The Chargers responded with another field goal to cut the lead to 1 point. The Chargers D forced a punt but this time it was the aging Patriots defense which made a play. Asante Samuel picked off Rivers deep in Chargers territory and Brady found Gaffney in the endzone for a 14-6 lead. The Chargers responded with another field goal to go into halftime down 14-9. The only points in the third quarter were scored when Drayton Florence picked off Brady and the Chargers kicked another field goal to go into the fourth quarter down 14-12. The Patriots marched down the field but Antonio Cromartie picked off Brady in the endzone. After the Chargers were stopped cold, they punted and the Patriots put the game away as the fourth quarter began. Brady fired a TD pass to Welker to make it 21-12. The Chargers punted on their next drive and the Patriots effectively killed the clock the rest of the way to secure an 18-0 record and their sixth AFC Championship in franchise history. The euphoria of the win lasted two weeks until Super Bowl XLII….but let’s not go there.

2011: Baltimore

Before the season started the beloved wife of owner Robert Kraft, Myra, passed away and the season was dedicated to her. The 2011 Patriots were drastically different than the 2007 team. Randy Moss was traded in 2010 and the team brought back Deion Branch to replace him. Julian Edelman was drafted in the 7th round in 2009 as a quarterback but soon became a Welker clone. Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis aka The Law Firm was the primary running back with a host of others in various roles. Matt Light and Logan Mankins were still on the offensive line but were joined by free agent guard Brian Waters, 2nd round pick in 2009 Sebastion Vollmer, 1st round pick in 2011 tackle Nate Solder and center/guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. The tight end position became the strongest in football adding multi-dimensional talent Aaron Hernandez and the difference maker Rob Gronkowski. Gronk became a fan favorite as he was unstoppable in single coverage which allowed guys like Hernandez, Welker, Moss or others wide open. On defense the team was completely different. The defensive line still had Wilfork but now featured end/backer Rob Ninkovich, 7th round pick Brandon Deaderick and free agent pickup Mark Anderson. 1st round pick in 2008 Jerod Mayo, 2nd round pick in 2010 Brandon Spikes and undrafted rookie free agent in 08 Gary Guyton were the linebackers. Free agents Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Sterling Moore and Nate Jones were the corners. 1st round pick in 2010 Devin McCourty, 2nd round in 2009 pick Patrick Chung, rookie free agent Sergio Brown and free agent James Ihedigbo were the safeties and Dane Fletcher and Matthew Slater were the special teams aces. The team lacked a real shutdown corner after Asante Samuel left in free agency and the team still needed more depth at linebacker, this led to arguably the weakest successful defense in the Brady/Belichick era. Other new faces included 2nd and third round pick running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Also Belichick pulled a Red Auerbach by drafting Marcus Cannon in the 5th round after Cannon was already diagnosed with treatable cancer and most likely wouldn’t play in the 2011 while recovering. The Patriots did make some mistakes by adding distractions such as wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Ochocinco was more comic relief than a contributor but Haynesworth had a nasty reputation as a malcontent. Just like with Corey Dillon and Randy Moss, Belichick figured a winning atmosphere would change him. It didn’t. The team stumbled in the first 8 weeks of the season, going 5-3 with 3 agonizing losses to the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and the familiar New York Giants. The Giants loss came on a last second touchdown thrown by Eli Manning which was eerily similar to Super Bowl 42. After the game Belichick immediately fired Haynesworth and the Patriots ripped off 8 straight wins to end the regular season.

The divisional round matchup seemed to be a layup when the 8-8 Denver Broncos defeated the Steelers on a hail mary in the wild card round. Prior to the game, former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe picked the Broncos to win with Tim Tebow at quarterback. The Patriots won 45-10…nuff ced. This set the stage for the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, a team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. The Patriots struck first in the first quarter with a Gostkowski field goal but Lardarius Webb intercepted a Brady pass in the second quarter which led to a Billy Cundiff field goal to tie the game. The Patriots answered with a Law Firm touchdown to put New England up 10-3. Joe Flacco completed a TD pass to Dennis Pitta to tie the game but the Patriots kicked another field goal to go up 13-10 at the half. The Patriots first drive of the second half ended with a field goal to go up 16-10. With the quarter winding down, the Ravens took the lead with a TD pass to Torrey Smith to make it 17-16. Danny Woodhead of the Patriots fumbled the kickoff but the much maligned defense held, forcing Cundiff to hit another field goal but only take a 4 point lead. Woodhead redeemed himself by taking the next kickoff to the Ravens 37 yard line and the Patriots drove to the one. On 4th and goal from the 1, Brady himself dove over the pile to give New England a 23-20 lead with his touchdown. The two teams traded turnovers with Brandon Spikes picking off Flacco and Jimmy Smith intercepting Brady. One of the plays of the game came when the Ravens decided to go for it on fourth down rather than attempt a 50 yard field goal. Flacco’s pass was incomplete and the Patriots took over. The Patriots failed to run out the clock and the Ravens got the ball back with a chance to tie with 1:44 left in the game. The Ravens managed to drive to the Patriots 13 yard line where at the very least, a game tying field goal was imminent. Then Lee Evans had what was sure to be the game winning touchdown but somehow Sterling Moore knocked the ball loose at the very last second. The very next play Moore just barely got the ball away from Pitta at the 2 yard line. The Ravens rushed Cundiff on the field for the chip shot field goal…AND HE MISSED IT! Many WEEI radio callers insisted a newly minted angel named Myra blew the kick wide but in any case, the Patriots were headed to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl XLVI in many ways was more frustrating than Super Bowl XLII but once again,  no need to relive bad memories.

FOXBOROUGH, MA JANUARY 22, 2012 AFC CHAMPIONSHIP NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS VS. BALTIMORE RAVENS New England Patriots’ Tom Brady #12 scores a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game against Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff Photo)

2014: Indianapolis Part II

After the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl 42, Wes Welker was not in anyone’s good graces. He dropped a catchable pass which set up the game winning drive by Manning. It seemed like he was being phased out in 2012 with the emergence of Julian Edelman but Edelman broke his foot and Welker returned to the starting lineup. The 2012 Patriots finally solved their shut-down corner misery by trading for Aqib Talib, one of the best corners in the league who came with off-field baggage. The defense immediately responded and the Patriots had a 12-4 season and another trip to the AFC Championship game in a rematch with the determined Ravens. Unfortunately Rob Gronkowski broke his arm in the regular season and re-injured in in the divisional round against Houston. Then early in the game Talib got hurt and was lost for the rest of the game. The Ravens pitched a shut-out in the second half and took the game in Foxborro.

That was the last game as a Patriot for both Welker and Hernandez, one leaving in free agency and one leaving in handcuffs. Welker signed with the Denver Broncos while Hernandez was jailed for murder, no need to go into it more. A bright spot of the 2012 season was the draft where Belichick rebuilt the defense with two first round picks, linebacker Dont’a Hightower from the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide and defensive end Chandler Jones. The Patriots scored in the 2013 draft getting linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan and defensive back Duron Harmon. They also signed another Welker clone, Danny Amendola to replace the departed Wes. Joining Wilfork on the defensive line was Tommy Kelly. The 2013 team appeared loaded but started suffering one injury after another. Jerod Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Gronkowski were all lost for the year with Amendola playing with two torn groins. Not to mention the sudden departure of Hernandez as well. The team did add running back LeGarrette Blount to compliment Vereen and Ridley although the receiving corps became thin. Forced to rely on Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, the Patriots went 12-4 and lost to Denver in the AFC Championship game when once again Talib got hurt early.

The 2013-14 off-season helped shape the next mini-dynasty. First round pick defensive lineman Dominique Easley turned into a bust but second round pick quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would pay dividends down the road. 3rd round pick Bryan Stork, fresh off the national champion Florida Gators ended up winning the starting center job. 4th round pick James White would be the modern day Kevin Faulk and they also signed a rookie free agent cornerback from West Alabama named Malcolm Butler. The team lost Aqib Talib to the hated Broncos but 24 hours later signed arguably the best corner in the league, Darrelle Revis. Revis had been a superstar with the Jets before they traded him to Tampa Bay to finish out his contract. Revis signed a one year deal with the Patriots. The Patriots also signed former Seattle corner Brandon Browner and wide receiver Brandon LaFell. Belichick also had to make a tough decision to jettison Logan Mankins, who seemed to be on his way of becoming the modern day John Hannah. Just like with Lawyer Milloy in 2002, Belichick figured out Mankins’ contract didn’t justify his production before so he traded him to Tampa Bay. LeGarrette Blount also departed for the Pittsburgh Steelers but returned to the team later in the season. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was also signed mid-way through the season.

The 2014 season got off to an ominous start when they folded like a tent in the season opener in Miami. Two lackluster wins against far inferior opponents followed before the season turner, Kansas City. The Chiefs absolutely smashed the Patriots 41-14 in which Brady was benched in the second half. Pundits around the country rejoiced and claimed the dynasty was over, Brady was finished and things will go back to the way they were before 2001. Trent Dilfer famously made the claim the Patriots “just aren’t good anymore”. It was just the tonic they needed as they ripped through the regular season, going 10-1 in games that matter to finish the season Division champions again and having home field.

In a total role reversal, the divisional matchup against the Ravens was far more exciting than the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots pulled out every trick play in the book to take the game 35-31 to advance. Revenge against the Denver Broncos would have to wait as they fell to the Colts in the divisional round. During the regular season, Patriots running back Jonas Gray rushed for 201 and four touchdowns against the Colts. To show how incompetent head coach Chuck Pagano was, Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo admitted they used the EXACT same game plan for the rematch in the championship game even though Gray was inactive this time. The Patriots punted on their first possession but returner Josh Cribbs of the Colts muffed the punt off his helmet, recovered by the Patriots. Brady drove the Pats down and Blount did the honors with a one yard TD plunge. The Colts drove into field goal range but old pal Adam Vinatieri missed a 52 yarder. Brady pounced on the Colts and found fullback James Develin in the endzone for a 14-0 lead as the first quarter ended. The Patriots looked to go up by three scores but D’Qwell Jackson picked off a Brady pass and the Colts drove into the red zone. Zurlon Tipton scored for the Colts to cut the lead in half. The Patriots ended the half with a Gostkowski field goal to make it 17-7. The Patriots toyed with the Colts in the second half beginning with Brady hitting Nate Solder the offensive lineman for a TD to effectively put the game away. After a Colts punt, Blount pounded the ball into the red-zone and Brady found Gronkowski to increase the lead 31-7. A Revis interception gave the ball back to New England and Blount took the first handoff following the pick all the way in for another touchdown. A huge Edelman punt return set up the third rushing TD for Blount on the night, one shy of Jonas Gray’s total from the November game. The final score read 45-7 in a total dominating victory against a team that has no business being there. Right after the game, blowhards Greg Doyle and Bob Kravitz launched “deflategate” which, like Spygate, really doesn’t need to be discussed here. The Patriots moved on to Super Bowl XLIX where they defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to earn their fourth Super Bowl title.

2016: Pittsburgh Part II

The Patriots took on a different look in 2015. Darrelle Revis went back to the Jets and Brandon Browner hooked on with New Orleans. Kyle Arrington was let go and Vince Wilfork went to the Houston Texans. Shane Vereen got a big contract with the New York Giants and Stevan Ridley was gone as well. The Pats scored when they signed Dion Lewis to replace the departed Ridley and James White took a bigger role to replace Vereen. Tarell Brown was signed to replace Browner and they also signed linebacker Jabaal Sheard away from Cleveland to help out with Jerrod Mayo battling injuries. The Patriots scored in the draft, drafting huge Malcolm Brown to replace Wilfork at defensive tackle. 2nd round pick Jordan Richards and 3rd round pick Geneo Grissom bolstered the defensive depth. The steals of the draft were in the fourth round in defensive lineman Trey Flowers and offensive guards Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson bolstered both sides of the trenches. Long snapper Joe Cardona was drafted in the 5th round out of Navy who had a reputation of never having a bad snap in college. For the first 10 weeks of the season the Patriots looked unstoppable but then the injury bug almost literally wiped out half the roster. The team started out 10-0 but season ending injuries to Flowers, Mayo (again), Blount, Dion Lewis, Develin, Easley, Solder, Tarell Brown and 11 other depth players signaled the beginning of the end. The Pats stumbled to a 2-4 finish and giving up home field to Denver. Despite not having a running game, the Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 to earn a date with Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Denver punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with a 20-18 win when a missed extra point by Gostkowski early in the game made going for 2 on the final play necessary. The 2 pointer missed and Denver had won.

Compounding the loss to the Broncos was the deflategate penalty cost Brady the first four games of the 2016 season coming up. Rob Ninkovich was also suspended for the first four games for getting busted for PED’s. The Patriots made headlines when they traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals before the draft for a draft pick. That pick ended up being offensive guard Joe Thuney. Also drafted were quarterback Jacoby Brissett, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, linebacker Elandon Roberts and offensive guard Ted Karras aka Mini-Mongo. Defensive end Chris Long and receiver Chris Hogan were signed to bolster both sides of the ball. During the season Jamie Collins was traded and the Patriots brought in the unknown Kyle Van Noy. The Patriots survived the loss of Brady to go 3-1 with Jimmy Garopppolo and Brissett in Tom’s absence. When Brady returned, he went 10-1 with the only loss coming to the angry Seattle Seahawks. Unlike the previous year, they only had 4 noteworthy players on IR, unfortunately one of them was Grownkowski again. At least this time the Patriots had their first solid backup tight end since Aaron Hernandez was jailed, Martellus Bennett.

Going into the playoffs, the 14-2 Patriots looked to be unstoppable. The Patriots beat the Texans on the back of Dion “The Nightcrawler” Lewis 34-16 to set up the AFC Championship game against the Steelers. The Pats beat the Steelers in the regular season but Roethlisberger didn’t play. The Patriots did have an advantage as Tom Brady knew the Steelers zone defense better than they did really. Brady took the opening kickoff and marched to the Steelers 13, but Mitchell dropped a catchable ball and had to settle for a Gostkowski field goal to take a 3-0 lead. Just before the first quarter ended, Hogan hauled in Brady touchdown to give New England a 10-0 lead. The Steelers lost Le’veon Bell in the first quarter but his replacement, DeAngelo Williams scored to cut the lead 10-6 (Chris Boswell missed an extra point). The Patriots took command when a flea-flicker ended with a 34 yard TD from Brady to Hogan to make it 17-6. A Boswell field goal made it 17-9 at the half and more than a few Patriot fans could sense victory. The Patriots scored first in the third quarter with a Gostkowski field goal to make it 20-9. The Steelers punted on their next possession and the Patriots took control of the game. Blount carried 5 Steelers on his back to the one yard line on one carry then scored a TD on his next to make it 27-9 and all but over. Kyle Van Noy stripped Eli Rogers on the Steelers next possession with Ninkovich recovering. Edelman hauled in another TD pass although Gostkowski missed the extra point to make it 33-9. The Steelers marched down the field but faced a 4th and goal from the 2 yard line. The Steelers were stuffed and turned it over on downs. The Patriots failed to moved the ball and forced to punt. Cornerback Eric Rowe ended any hope of a comeback with an interception. Gostkowski drilled another field goal to make it 36-9 and the only question left was if they were going to hang 40 on them. The Steelers did score a garbage time touchdown and a two pointer to make it 36-17, but that was it and the Patriots were AFC champs again. The win actually gave the Patriots bragging rights over the Steelers as the Steelers had won 8 conference crowns and this was the Patriots 9th going back to 1985. 2 weeks later Brady and the Patriots pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, erasing a 28-3 lead and winning 34-28 in overtime for their 5th Super Bowl crown.

2017: Jacksonville

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots bid goodbye to Chris Long, Legarrette Blount, Jabaal Sheard, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, Sebastian Vollmer, Tre Jackson and Rob Ninkovich following the Super Bowl win. Rather than rest on their laurels, the Patriots attacked hard in free agency and through trades. The Patriots traded their first round pick along with one of their thirds for speedy New Orleans Saints receiver Brandon Cooks. They traded a 4th round pick for Colts tight end Dwayne Allen and sacrificed a 5th round pick to sign Buffalo Bills restricted running back Mike Gillislee. They only drafted four players but scored on one of them, 4th round defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. In free agency the Patriots replaced Logan Ryan with Buffalo corner Stephon Gilmore. They also signed another running back, Rex Burkhead, recently of Cincinnati.

Going into the season it appeared the Patriots were gunning for an undefeated season but those dreams were shattered two weeks into pre-season when Julian Edelman tore his ACL and was out for the season, Malcolm Mitchell also suffered a season ending injury so right off the bat the Pats were down two receivers. The Patriots also rolled the dice on Brady by trading Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for receiver Phillip Dorsett. The 19-0 talk ended early when the Kansas City Chiefs spoiled Week 1 with a 42-27 throttling. The defense looked completely out of whack and Mike Gillislee failed to convert some 3rd and 1’s that Blount would have. The Patriots started out 2-2 just like 2014 with a Week 4 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots ripped off 6 straight wins before the team got a double dose of huge news. Following the Week 8 win over the Chargers, Donte Hightower was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle and Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to the San Fransisco 49ers. They also signed veteran Ricky Jean Francois to bolster the defensive line when Vincent Valentine went down. Marcus Cannon was done after the Chargers game and backup LaAdrian Waddle was forced to split time with another depth tackle, Cameron Fleming in Cannon’s absence. The 10-3 Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh in Week 15 to face the 11-2 Steelers to decide home field advantage. The Patriots won the very controversial game to earn the first seed and sent Pittsburgh into a blood rage that cost them dearly. Not only that, the Patriots stuck it up Pittsburgh’s ass by signing Steelers cornerstone James Harrison following his release.

The 13-3 Patriots blasted the Tennessee Titans 35-14 to set up the big rematch with the Steelers….or not. In what was unparralled arrogance, the Steelers players and coaches never got over the Week 15 loss and had nothing but the Patriots on their minds. It was ok to overlook the Baltimore Ravens and winless Cleveland Browns because they sucked, but once they started tweeting and yapping about beating the Patriots before facing the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round, it finally caught up with them. The Jaguars stunned the Steelers with a 45-42 win, taking advantage of a team publicly overlooking them.

This set the stage for the AFC Championship Game in Foxborro. The Patriots struck first on their opening drive when Gostkowski banged home a field goal. The Jaguars took control using a short passing game and no mistakes to score consecutive touchdowns to take a 14-3 lead. The Patriots looked lifeless until their final drive of the first half. Gronkowski went for a pass and was blasted in the head by Barry Church. Gronk was taken out of the game and the Jaguars celebrated, yapping at the Patriots. The Pats responded with a James White touchdown run to cut the lead 14-10. The Jaguars took the second half kickoff and kicked a 54 yard field goal to make it 17-10. As the fourth quarter began, the Jags kicked another field goal to put the Patriots in 10 point hole with one period left. Things looked bleak when Myles Jack recovered a Nightcrawler fumble but the Pats defense led by castoffs Van Noy, Eric Rowe, Harrison, Jean-Francois and others held the Jaguars. The Patriots faced a 3rd and 18 with just over 5 minutes left and Amendola rose to make the big conversion catch. Brady then hit Dorsett for a long gain before Amendola did the honors with a TD catch to make it 20-17 Jaguars. The Patriots defense forced a punt but so did the Jaguars. Pats punter Ryan Allen pinned the Jags on their 10 yard line and the D forced yet another stop. This time Amendola ran the punt back to the Jacksonville 30 yard line with 5 minutes remaining. 2 minutes later Amendola made a spectacular catch to give the Patriots a 24-20 lead with just under 3 minutes later. The Pats D rose to the occasion as Eric Rowe forced an incompletion on 1st down before Van Noy forced a fumble on second down, although it was recovered by Jacksonville. The third down pass gained only 4 yards and Stephon Gilmore dove to swat the fourth down desperation pass away with 1:47 left. Nightcrawler got the first down needed and that was it, the Patriots had come from behind down 10 to win their 10th AFC title in franchise history, Brady’s 8th.

This Sunday the Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. If the Patriots win, Brady will win a record sixth ring. Win or lose the Patriots with 10 conference crowns hold the AFC record that may not be matched for a long time. Since 2001 the Patriots have been in 12 AFC championship games while winning 8 of them. That’s longevity.

Thank you for following along through this chronicle through Patriots AFC Championship history, fell free to give me a follow on Twitter: @TheSportsHayes

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