FOXBOROUGH -- Here we were all this time thinking records had something to do with it, when the little-known fact of the matter is, for almost a decade the road to the Super Bowl has passed through the site of next year's NFL championship game -- Jacksonville, Fla.
It's more like a path, and it's a little narrow, so only one player can travel it at a time. And that player has to be a journeyman receiver. At least that's the way it worked out in the cases of Andre Rison, Keenan McCardell, and, now, the Patriots' J.J. Stokes.
Rison started the 1996 season with the Jaguars. He finished it with the Packers, and scored the first touchdown of Green Bay's win over New England in Super Bowl XXXI. McCardell, a teammate of Rison's with the Cleveland Browns in 1995 (coached by Bill Belichick -- how's that for six degrees of separation?), spent 1996-2001 in Jacksonville. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. They beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl, thanks in part to McCardell's two touchdown catches.
And now Stokes. He signed with the Jaguars in the offseason after eight years in San Francisco. It didn't work out, Jacksonville picked up Kevin Johnson from the Browns, and they released Stokes in Week 11. The Patriots, hurting at receiver because something was hurting on just about all of them, signed him Nov. 18. New England waived Stokes Dec. 9 to make room for fullback Larry Centers, then re-signed him the day before the AFC Championship game when guard Damien Woody went on injured reserve.
Whew. Stokes took the scenic route, but he's finally found the big stage. He was inactive last week against the Colts, but if history is any indication, he'll catch at least one touchdown pass a week from tomorrow against the Panthers in Houston in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"It's funny, weird in a sense, because when I left Jacksonville a couple of guys on that team pointed it out to me," Stokes, 31, said this week. "They said, `You know when you leave, your new team is going to the Super Bowl. That's how it goes.' It's really crazy that it happened like that."
After his release from the Patriots, Stokes remained in the area through the end of the year, lifting weights almost daily at a Providence gym. He had just returned home to Redwood City, Calif., and was unpacking boxes when he got The Call a week ago Friday. He got here the next morning.
"They called me and asked me if I wanted to come back, and at first I was like, `Aren't they getting ready to play in the AFC Championship?' " Stokes recalled. "I didn't think they would be calling me and asking me to be a part of the team again. So I said, `Yeah, I'll do it.' "
Only Stokes didn't do anything against the Colts. He watched the game from one of the Gillette Stadium luxury boxes. He made his way down to the sideline, though, in time for the final moments and ensuing celebration.
It wasn't quite what he'd dreamed of. It's a little difficult to appreciate a trip to the Super Bowl when you basically hitchhiked a ride with a few miles to go. Stokes played in only two games, catching two passes for 38 yards, including a 31-yard reception in his first game as a Patriot, against the Texans at -- where else? -- Reliant Stadium, site of the Super Bowl.
"It's different because I've always earned my keep," Stokes said. "But I'm fortunate to be in this situation. So I'm going to enjoy it and work to do whatever I can, whatever it may be."
Stokes has spent his first week back working his way back into playing condition. He spent his time off lifting weights, so he, the StairMaster, and a jump rope have gotten to know each other quite well. "I feel like I'm in double days right now," he said.
He said he recognized what the Patriots' offense was doing Sunday, even if he won't be running any of the plays a week from tomorrow. "I know where to line up," he said. "That's definitely a good thing. It hasn't been that long to where I'd forget a lot of it. It's a good situation.
"I would think I'm not in their plans right now. But you can't ever say I'm not ready."
Stokes has been on the go a lot this season, but his family and friends, old and new, have managed to keep up with him. Everyone knows he's in the Super Bowl. Stokes left his mobile phone at home in California. It got to him Wednesday, with at least 30 voice messages. Ticket requests? "I'm sure they were," he said.
All that's missing are the Packers. Before this season, the furthest any of Stokes's teams advanced in the postseason was the 1997 NFC Championship game, where his 49ers were eliminated by Green Bay. The 49ers made the playoffs in six of Stokes's eight seasons in San Francisco. Green Bay sent them packing four times. Stokes says several of his Patriot teammates were under the impression that he had been to the Super Bowl.
The 10th overall selection of the 1995 draft out of UCLA, Stokes, 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds, wasn't everything the 49ers expected. He has 342 regular-season receptions and 30 touchdowns in nine seasons. He'll never be a Hall of Famer. But Feb. 1, he could be a champion.
"It's what you play for when you get in the league, to win a championship," Stokes said. "I've enjoyed everything I've done. I've taken advantage of my opportunities, even though it might not have been what everybody expected."