To properly appreciate the Patriots’ record streak of eight straight appearances in the AFC Championship game, it’s helpful to remember what happened the last time they didn’t make it, as well as the history since the streak began.
Consider: The last time the Patriots failed to reach the AFC title game — or the NFL’s version of the final four — was in 2010, when a talent-rich roster that went 14-2 in the regular season met an abrupt and stunning ending with a 28-21 loss to the Jets at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round.
The Patriots, let by 33-year-old Tom Brady and a dynamic receiving corps that included Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, had scored at least 31 points in each of their last eight regular season games, including 45 in a Week 13 throttling of the Jets on “Monday Night Football.’’
No one ever saw the Jets’ wrath coming. No one even knew the Jets had a wrath, on account that they were, you know, the Jets.
That defeat came in what qualifies as a rut during this two-decade dynasty. That 2010 team, which scored a league-best 518 points and allowed just 313, appeared capable of winning the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl since 2001 and first since 2004. Instead, the disappointment marked a sixth straight season without collecting a Lombardi Trophy, a stretch that would extend to nine seasons.
Now, lamenting nine seasons without winning a Super Bowl is some serious unrelatable, woe-is-us caterwauling. You want a drought? Look around the rest of the AFC East if you need context to appreciate what the Patriots have achieved.
Jets fans are still clinging to the sepia-toned memory of Joe Namath’s guarantee in 1969, the Dolphins brag about an unbeaten team from 1972, and the Bills’ pinnacle was losing four straight Super Bowls.
Even the Patriots went 0-for-their-first-41 seasons before winning that first championship, stunning the heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI to launch the dynasty no one saw coming. Good times never seemed so good . . . and the good times around here have been going on for almost 20 years, which simply is not supposed to happen in a league designed for parity.
Patriots fans old enough to remember the joy and satisfaction of just reaching the AFC Championship game against the Dolphins in 1985 (slogan: squish the fish . . . hey, we hadn’t had much practice at slogans at that point) should know that reaching the conference final is something to be savored. I’m not sure it is nowadays, though, because expectations are so high and the achievement is commonplace. Do you even remember how the last seven conference championships played out? Perhaps a brief refresher course is in order:
2017: Beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-20. Danny Amendola caught two touchdown passes in the final nine minutes to culminate a comeback.
2016: Beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17. Chris Hogan caught two first-half touchdown passes en route to a nine-catch, 180-yard receiving day.
2015: Lost to the Denver Broncos, 20-18. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the Broncos’ relentless pass rush mauled Brady all afternoon, yet the Patriots were 2-point conversion from tying it. I consider it one of the gutsiest performances of Brady’s career.
2014: Beat the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7. It should be remembered for LeGarrette Blount’s 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns. It is remembered as the origin of Deflategate.
2013: Lost to the Broncos, 26-16. How battered was the Patriots’ receiving corps that day? Austin Collie, Aaron Dobson, and Matthew Mulligan caught passes from Brady, and even special-teams ace Matthew Slater was targeted once.
2012: Lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 28-13. Two fourth-quarter touchdown catches by Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin thwarted any Patriot attempts at creating suspense.
2011: Beat the Ravens, 23-20. Journeyman cornerback Sterling Moore busted up a pass intended for Ravens receiver Lee Evans that would have been the go-ahead touchdown, then kicker Billy Cundiff hooked the potential tying field goal from 32 yards in the final seconds.
Of course, every Patriot fan remembers that the championship drought ended with a stirring victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at the culmination of the 2014 season. That, of course, was the “Malcolm, go!’’ moment, when obscure rookie defensive back Malcolm Butler followed defensive coach Brian Flores’s orders, raced onto the field, then jumped a Seahawks pass route on the ensuing play and hauled in a goal-line interception, one of the most memorable and clutch defensive plays in NFL history.
Reminiscing about Butler’s ascent brings a smile, but also a melancholy reminder of how much and how rapidly everything can change. That was just four years ago, but he is already an ex-Patriot, having been benched for last season’s Super Bowl loss to the Eagles for reasons that are still both hazy and clear at once. He’s acknowledged that he wasn’t as prepared to play as he should have been. The specifics remain privy only to those involved.
Butler’s entire Patriots career (2014-17) played out during this eight-year run of conference championship game appearances. So, too, did virtually the entirety of Gronkowski’s emergence as a lovable, cartoonish force of nature, Julian Edelman’s rise as Brady’s slot receiver extraordinaire, James White’s development from little-used fourth-round pick to Super Bowl superstar, and yes, Hernandez’s sordid downfall.
Eight years is forever in the NFL, and yet here are the Patriots again, taking on dynamo Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for the right to advance to the Super Bowl. The streak is unprecedented in NFL lore — the Oakland Raiders have the second-longest streak of conference championship game appearances, having made it five straight years from 1973-77.
It’s not the Patriots’ greatest achievement — that would be the five Super Bowl championships in eight appearances during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era — but it is an extraordinary one. Anyone who takes it for granted needs to recalibrate their perspective, presuming they have any at all.
Sometimes, on those perfect Sundays like this past one when Brady and friends throttle a talented and utterly overmatched opponent, it seems as if the Patriots can keep marching to AFC Championship games and beyond forever.
It’s tempting to remind you that they can’t. It’s better to remind you that in a way, given how fast time passes and circumstances change in the NFL, they already have.