I was going to aim this grouchy-middle-aged-sportswriter nag at young Patriots fans who might not realize that we didn’t always have it this good around here.
Then I realized something: Patriots fans who are used to nothing but this run of glory days around here aren’t that young anymore. If you were 10 years old when Tom Brady took his first official NFL snap during a blowout loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving 2000, you’re 26 now and theoretically an adult.
To me, someone who grew up in era in which Steve Grogan was regarded as the greatest quarterback in franchise history, that’s an amazing piece of context. So I won’t nag. I’ll just remind you that there was a time, not that long ago, when ranking Patriots victories in the AFC Championship Game then would have been a matter of, this one is No. 1, and this one is No. 2, and, gosh, I hope there’s a No. 3 in the next half-dozen years or so.
Now? Seventeen seasons after Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived in New England, the Patriots have won nine AFC title games in their history – seven in their dual tenure of dominance after Sunday night’s thumping of the Steelers.
Maybe ranking them is arrogant, but hey, we’ve got nine of them to rank. For the older among us, that’s something at which to marvel. So let’s rank ‘em, while appreciating that there was a time when this would have seemed unfathomable.
We’ll start it here only because it’s so new and day-after context can sometimes be misleading. But there’s a good chance this one will eventually be remembered very well even among other AFC Championship Game victories. The Patriots defense – productive and maligned at once for most of the season – proved its legitimacy by stymieing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown, though it helped that superstar running back Le’Veon Bell was lost during the game to a groin injury. And there were some extraordinary offensive performances that will only be enhanced in fans’ memories over time, from Chris Hogan’s 180-yard, 2-touchdown performance to a LeGarrette Blount run in which he seemed to carry every Pittsburgh Steeler defender, past or present, for about 10 yards. This will be one to savor, but no one is going to reminisce on it until the season’s remaining matters are settled.
For such an important moment – the victory improved the Patriots’ record to a spotless 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl – the game itself feels rather anticlimactic. Four Nate Kaeding field goals kept the Chargers within 14-12 midway through the third quarter. But Tom Brady found Wes Welker with a 6-yard touchdown pass in the fourth, and the Patriots held off a Chargers team that lost star running back LaDainian Tomlinson after two carries to a knee injury. It was close, but it never particularly felt that way.
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I tend to falsely remember the 35-31 thriller over the Ravens in the divisional round as the AFC Championship Game, probably because the Ravens were a genuine rival and contender and that’s what a title game is supposed to look like. It was not, of course. The AFC title game that year was systematic and thorough dismantling of the Colts – LeGarrette Blount ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns. The highlight for the visitors was intercepting a slightly deflated football. I suspect Ryan Grigson will not be asking Bill Belichick for a reference.
It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game ever played (call it the Ravens effect), but it was a thriller. Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown pass, but his 1-yard run in the fourth quarter put the Patriots up, 23-20. The Ravens had late chances to win and tie the game, and botched both. Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore poked the football out of receiver Lee Evans’s hands on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute 44 seconds left. And kicker Billy Cundiff’s 32-yard field goal attempt to tie the game with 11 seconds left sailed wide left.
The Patriots were in full budding dynasty mode, having won 21 straight games over the 2003-04 seasons before the Steelers tripped them up in Week 8. The Patriots still finished the regular season 14-2, but after dismantling Peyton Manning and the Colts for the second straight postseason in the divisional round, they had to travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, who went 15-1 to earn the top seed. It was supposed to be a slugfest among heavyweights. Instead, it was a mismatch from the get-go. Brady hit Deion Branch for a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Rodney Harrison returned an interception 87 yards for a score just before halftime, and the Patriots took a 24-3 lead into halftime en route to victory and a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville.
Bill Parcells’s talented young team, built from the ground up around 1993 No. 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe, harnessed its powers in his fourth season as head coach. They went 11-5 – after starting 0-2 – in the regular season and earned a bye, then overwhelmed the Steelers in foggy conditions in the division round. Their opponent in the AFC title game was an unexpected one: The Jacksonville Jaguars, in just their second year of existence, had stunned the top-seeded Broncos in the divisional round. The teams played a sloppy game, which was delayed for nearly five minutes at one point when the power went out at Foxboro Stadium, which wasn’t ready for its close-up. The Patriots sealed the victory when, leading 13-6 in the fourth quarter, safety Willie Clay intercepted Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell’s end-zone pass. Moments later, Otis Smith returned a fumble 57 yards for the touchdown, and soon Robert Kraft was making his first of many on-field postgame speeches as the owner of the AFC Champions.
In the first playoff meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the Patriots entered with the league’s top scoring defense, having allowed just 238 points in the regular season. The Colts, helmed by Manning, the league’s co-Most Valuable Player, featured the second-most potent offense in the league, scoring 447 points, second only to the Chiefs (484). Something had to give. And it did – Manning’s psyche. The Patriots took a 15-0 lead into halftime, intercepted Manning four times – three by cornerback Ty Law, building on his big-game reputation – and used five Adam Vinatieri field goals to cruise to their second Super Bowl appearance in three years. Hail to the defense.
After winning road games against the Jets and Raiders to earn a matchup at the Orange Bowl with the nemesis Dolphins, the Patriots arrived with a new slogan: Squish The Fish. And even if a dolphin isn’t actually a fish, that’s precisely what the Patriots did. Craig James followed John Hannah’s ferocious lead blocking to run for 105 yards, Tony Collins added 87, and the Patriots outgained the Dolphins on the ground, 255-68. Quarterback Tony Eason threw for just 71 yards, but he was efficient, completing 10 of 12 throws, including three straight short touchdown passes to turn an early 7-3 deficit into a 24-7 lead that not even Dan Marino could overcome. The cathartic victory snapped an 18-game losing streak at the Orange Bowl and delivered the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
The Patriots played three epic games in the 2001 postseason. Two of them – the divisional round overtime “Snow Bowl” win over the Raiders and the last-second Super Bowl XXXVI victory over the heavily-favored Rams – are often cited among the greatest games in league history. But their AFC Championship victory at Heinz Field was a gem in its own right, for a few reasons: It showed the real benefits of second-year head coach Bill Belichick’s all-three-phases mantra, with 14 of the Patriots’ points coming on special teams (a 55-yard Troy Brown punt return and a 49-yard blocked field goal return off a Brown lateral by Antwan Harris). It offered Drew Bledsoe – who relieved an injured Tom Brady in the second quarter and threw the game’s only touchdown pass – a deserved moment of redemption. And it silenced the Steelers, whose stars had agitated the Patriots by spending much of the buildup to the game presumptively talking to the media about their plans for the Super Bowl in New Orleans. This was the middle victory in an unexpected and thrilling ride that season – a ride that began the journey the Patriots remain on today, 16 years later.