AFC challengers come and go; Patriots go on and on

The Snow Bowl was a gorgeous opening scene in an epic movie that still hasn’t rolled the end credits.

Tom Brady
The “Tuck Rule’’ game between the Patriots and Raiders on Jan. 19, 2002, is considered one of the greatest games in Patriots history. –Chin, Barry Globe Staff

Tom Brady’s first playoff appearance and first playoff victory came on Jan. 19, 2002, a 16-13 overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round. Perhaps you remember this. You probably remember this. If you’re at least 23 years old, anyway.

It has been a while, and I suppose some details could be hazy, what with it being a couple of dozen Patriots playoff victories ago. But I am certain it snowed that evening, a certain placekicker began building his Hall of Fame case, and there was a correct interpretation of a stupid rule at some important point or another. I’ll dig into the archives and investigate the small details further. It sure sounds like a doozy.

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Oh, c’mon you gullible goofs, of course I’m kidding. That victory — forever known and cherished as the Snow Bowl — still ranks as perhaps the pivotal victory in franchise history and remains on the short list of the most satisfying, which is saying something considering Brady and the Patriots went on to win the first of their five Lombardi Trophies two weeks later.

The Snow Bowl was a gorgeous opening scene in an epic movie that still hasn’t rolled the end credits. Sixteen years, 25 more playoff wins, and just nine playoff losses since, and the Patriots remain annual championship contenders, and often the outright favorites.

Saturday night’s systematic 35-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans advanced the Patriots to the AFC title game for the seventh straight season and the 12th time since the Snow Bowl victory put them there in the ’01 season. They have won five of seven Super Bowls appearances. Vegas likes their chances to make it six of eight come Feb. 4.

I know you know this, though I suspect you’re cool with the revisiting. I’m bringing it up because in our focus on the Patriots, sometimes we forget to marvel at is how many real and supposed challengers they have vanquished through the years.

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Brady and Bill Belichick are not just a once-in-a-generation quarterback/coach tandem. They are an unprecedented quarterback/coach tandem in the history of professional football. They have ruled their generation so thoroughly that multiple wannabe challengers have come and gone and come and gone again.

Consider the Steelers. When the Patriots beat them the week after the Snow Bowl, Bill Cowher was the head coach, Kordell Stewart was the quarterback, and assorted black-and-gold blabbermouths were caught talking about the next opponent before they could get past the one in front of them.

All these years later, Mike Tomlin is the coach, Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback, and they just got staggered by the Jaguars because they were already chattering about a revenge game against the Patriots. The only constant through the years is that one Steelers safety or another is guaranteed to say something dumb before a playoff game.

This version of the Steelers is done as a challenger to the Patriots. Le’Veon Bell is threatening to hold out or retire. Tomlin has never had a losing season in 11 years in Pittsburgh, but the season always seems to end a round before it’s expected. Roethlisberger will be 36 when next season begins and let’s just say he probably eats a lot of nightshades.

They’ve never beaten the Brady/Belichick Patriots in the playoffs, having lost in ’01, ’04, and ’16. They never will. Their time won’t come in this incarnation. It’s time to go, again.

The only franchise the Patriots have defeated more often in this era during the AFC playoffs is the Colts. They’ve beaten them four times, twice (2003-04) when Peyton Manning was at quarterback, and twice (2013-14) when Andrew Luck was the presumed new savior.

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They’ve beaten several teams twice: The Titans of Steve McNair (2003) and Marcus Mariota (Saturday night); the letterman-jacket Texans (2012, ’16); two forgettable Jaguars entries (2005, ’07); two nearly as forgettable Chargers entries (2006, ’07) and the brash Ravens (2011, ’14).

The Ravens are probably the closest thing the Patriots have had to a real conference rival, having won a couple of rounds themselves (2009, ’12). The Broncos (lost to the Patriots in 2011), beat them in ’05, ’13, and ’15) also qualify, though they also illustrate the point of how much everyone else has gone through peaks and valleys while the Patriots have remained at their heightened plane.

When the Broncos beat the Patriots to end the ’05 season, Jake Plummer was the Denver quarterback. He retired in March 2007, seven weeks before the Patriots traded for Randy Moss. That’s how long it has been.

The Raiders, along with the Broncos, Chiefs (’15), and Jets (’06), are one-time postseason losers to the Patriots during the two-decade dynasty. But the silver-and-black occupy a particularly amusing place. The Snow Bowl was Jon Gruden’s final game as Raiders coach. Ten days ago, the Raiders formally announced the hiring of their new coach, Jon Gruden. Sixteen years have passed, and the Patriots are right where he left them.

The Patriots have wrecked a lot of dreams since 2001. They’ve had a few dreams of their own wrecked along the way (say, anyone know what Tom Coughlin is up to these days?). But their what-ifs are the product of being a constant contender and playing for the highest stakes. They have more can-you-believe-its during this era than any NFL team in any era of professional football.

To put it another way: Adam Vinatieri’s field goal to beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII is no higher than the fourth-most-thrilling moment during this run. And I might put his winning Snow Bowl kick ahead of that.

The vanquishing of an old wannabe rival (the Steelers) brings on a new potential rival (the confident young Jaguars). The Jaguars are probably not ready for prime time now, but perhaps they will eventually be the team that succeeds the Patriots as the AFC’s dominant team. With Brady in his age-40 season, there’s something of an annoying race around here to be the first to correctly declare that the Patriots’ reign is over. Someday, someone will be right.

It won’t end this week. It probably won’t end in Minnesota in a couple of weeks, either. But it’s not going to last forever. It just seems that way to those who have risen to challenge it, only to fall away again and again and again.

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