The seasons have a way of blending into one another in New England, the AFC Championship Game being the thread that binds the years together. These are so routine here — this was the sixth in a row for the Patriots — that getting to one is no longer considered much of an accomplishment. Those four Lombardi Trophies, after all, cast quite a shadow over everything else, even being one of the top four teams in football, moments that would be signal achievements for other teams.
It was a few hours after another one of these games two years ago — that was a Patriots win, too, of course — that word first came about underinflated footballs and a league investigation.
The New England Patriots have never been quite the same since, stained by the suspicion of scandal, furious about an investigation and penalties they thought were unfair and unbelievable. They won the Super Bowl immediately after Deflategate first erupted, long before anybody knew much about cheap jerseys from China and the Ideal Gas Law and pressure gauges and the toll it would all take on the league and the team that was one of its model franchises. But the thread that began with an email from the Indianapolis Colts general manager in the days before that game, alerting the league to the suspicion of football tampering, is wrapped still around the Patriots and this weekend; it felt like it was tied in a neat bow.
Little more than 24 hours after Ryan Grigson, author of that fateful email, was fired by the Colts, the Patriots won another AFC Championship, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17. They are headed to their seventh Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era, a remarkable accomplishment under any circumstances, but particularly staggering considering Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season for what the league believes was his role in those footballs being underinflated in that other AFC Championship Game. Brady has put a mostly sunny veneer on his season since he returned — he turned a question from CBS’ Jim Nantz about his personal satisfaction after the season he had into an ode to how many people help the team perform during the season — and outwardly, there has been little to be unhappy about. The Patriots, after all, have lost just one game on Brady’s watch in the 14 games he’s played this season, and he’s thrown 33 touchdowns and four interceptions.
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We’ll assume Tom Brady plays the role of Daenerys Targaryen in this particular dragon quest.
The Patriots are 16-3 at home in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. Brady has completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 256.7 yards per game and 37 TDs to 18 INTs in those 19 contests. The Pats’ last playoff loss at Gillette Stadium came in 2012 versus the Baltimore Ravens. Overall, New England is 33-4 at home since 2013.
“They’re the best in the world, they’re the gold standard if you will, so you want to have that opportunity to go play the best. It’ll be an awesome challenge for us,” Roethlisberger said.
When asked if he is in the same standard as Brady, Big Ben replied:
“No, not yet, look at all the Super Bowls and wholesale jerseys he has.”
Brady owns four rings. Roethlisberger, two. Brady is playing in his 11th championship game — the next closest is Joe Montana with seven. Big Ben is playing in his fourth (3-1). Brady is 7-7 against Super Bowl-winning QBs in the playoffs.
A lot of ink and TV time this week will be used comparing Brady and Big Ben, but Roethlisberger noted that quarterback’s don’t go head-to-head.
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“We’re not playing tennis, we’re going out there to play a football game with 11 guys at the time,” he said.
“Very explosive,” Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich raved. “That’s a word I’m going to say over and over about New England Patriots jersey again.”
Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder gave his dynamic duo the highest of compliments, calling them “every lineman’s dream” because they can make the front line look good even when the play isn’t blocked right.
“It’s amazing because when they run their mentality is they’re so tough you never see those guys get knocked around,” Schraeder added. “As an offensive lineman, that pumps you up because you know that any play they can hit for a touchown.”
It’s that threat of turning a short pass into a game-altering play that will make defensive coordinator Matt Patricia think twice about devoting unbalanced coverage to NFC Championship Game hero Julio Jones. The Patriots understand they can’t short-circuit Ryan’s high-octane offense through Belichick’s legendary penchant for erasing an opponent’s greatest strength.
“They are great running backs,” Belichick gushed at Wednesday’s news conference. “They can get outside. They can run inside. They do a great job of breaking tackles. They make people miss in space. They run over guys. They run through them. They dodge them. They don’t fumble.
“They run with good toughness. They get tough yards around the goal line, short yard situations, digging out that extra yard or two for a first down. These backs are really, really good. Ryan knows how to use them. Coach Shanahan knows how to use them. … They are very hard to defend.”
As Belichick knows all too well, the NFC champion’s greatness goes beyond the consensus MVP favorite and football’s most dominant talent at wide receiver. The Falcons also bedevil defenses with a pair of top-10 running backs.