For the fifth time in 11 seasons, the New England Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl. It’s been quite a run for a franchise that has had its ups and downs throughout its history. From the early days of the AFL when the then-Boston Patriots were often competitive but never able to win a league title, to the latter years of the Chuck Fairbanks Era of the mid- and late 1970s when the team emerged as contender, to the miserable 2-14 and 1-15 campaigns of 1981 and 1990, respectively, to the Raymond Berry and Bill Parcells Super Bowl squads of 1985 and 1996, respectively.
It all began in 2000 with the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick and the selection of QB Tom Brady with the 199th pick (sixth round), although we wouldn’t know that for more than a year. But on a late Sunday afternoon in Week 2 of the 2001 season in what would be the team’s final season at Foxboro Stadium, then-starting QB Drew Bledsoe was leveled by Jets’ LB Mo Lewis, Brady entered in relief and the rest was NFL history. New England would go onto win Super Bowl XXXVI with opportunistic defense and special teams that scored as many touchdowns in 3 playoff games (3) as did the offensive unit (3) enroute to wins over the Raiders, Steelers and Rams. A year later, a 3-0 start was followed by 7 losses in their final 13 games and the failure to make the playoffs at 9-7 relegated the ’01 team more of a Cinderella story than a budding power.
But 2003 and 2004 would produce back-to-back 14-2 campaigns and 2 more Super Bowl wins over the Panthers and Eagles, respectively. In the midst of those seasons was an NFL-record 21 straight overall wins, a mark the 2010 and ’11 Packers fell 2 games short of this season. Belihchick’s team was somewhat quickly anointed a dynasty, although that notion was somewhat peculiar (at least in this writer’s opinion) because 3 titles in 4 years don’t necessarily indicate longevity, especially when the one season saw them fail to reach the playoffs.
In recent seasons, the Patriots have almost gone out of their way not to win a Super Bowl, although it wasn’t for a lack of trying. In 2005, a new-look team finished 10-6 and won the AFC East but would eventually be bounced in the AFC Divisional Playoffs by the Broncos. Belichick’s club was the fourth seed in the AFC in 2006 and would own a 21-3 second-quarter lead at Indianapolis in the AFC title game only to fall, 38-34. The Pats looked like they would make history in ’07, but 18-0 turned into 18-1 in a Super Bowl loss to the Giants. A year later, Brady went down with a knee injury in the first quarter of the first game and QB Matt Cassel took over, but even an 11-5 record wasn’t good enough to qualify for the playoffs.
The previous 2 seasons have been extremely interesting. Once again, New England captured the AFC East and in both instances finished 8-0 at home during the regular season. But home-field advantage was wasted both years as the visiting Ravens ran roughshod over the Patriots’ defense in the ’09 Wild Card Game and Rex Ryan’s Jets harassed Brady all day in the 2010 Divisional Playoffs, eliminating the AFC’s top-seeded team.
But the Patriots weren’t going to go quietly and after falling to 5-3 following consecutive midseason losses to the Steelers and Giants, Belichick and company certainly vulnerable. But the Pats haven’t lost since falling to Eli Manning and company in Week 9 and would wind up winning the AFC East by 5 games. And a rout of the Broncos and an escape act vs. the Ravens has New England back in the Big Game once again.
It all adds up to 11 consecutive winning seasons, 9 of those resulting in playoff appearances and 5 of those in the Super Bowl. And while the Patriots haven’t won the whole thing since 2004, this dynasty is alive and well and is showing no indications of slowing down. And both Brady and Belichick can put themselves in extremely rare company with a win next Sunday.
So it’s the Packers of the ‘60s, the Steelers of the ‘70s, the 49ers of the ‘80s (as well as part of the ‘90s) and the Cowboys of the ‘90s. Now add the Patriots of the ‘00s into the ‘10s. The next question is that which of these dynastic runs is not only the best but the most impressive?