Love the Patriots Or Hate Them, Their True Greatness Is Enduring and Undeniable

Do you remember when the New England Patriots’ dynasty was dying and fading? As champions of the football world, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were old, vulnerable and barely breathing.  The end was near.

This was last month.

Here’s a sampling of what was written or verbalized. Some of the comments were offered earlier in the season. And I’m not making fun of the media people I’ll be mentioning here. Heck, I’ve said similar things. I’ve had my doubts about the Patriots too. I was just as wrong as anyone else…

ESPN’s Rex Ryan, former head coach of the Jets and Bills:  “I’ve been saying it for weeks now. This is not the same Patriots team. And the reason why is simple: They’re older, they’re slower, and eventually Father Time catches up to you.”

Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe, writing after the feeble-minded Pats gave away a game and Miami:  “We’ve wondered this before.  And each time the Patriots have answered with another surge to a Super Bowl.  But it doesn’t feel like another Patriots playoff surge is coming, does it? … There comes a time when mystique and aura are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. There comes a time when being smarter is not enough, when waiting for the other guy to step on his own appendage will not guarantee victory. There comes a time when your own ability and execution are more important than all the good things that have happened before. There comes a time when you will not get the benefit of some strange rule that will be changed during the offseason. There come a time when assuming the other guy will lose his mind and hand you the game is more hope than reality.”

My friend and “Seeing Red” (Cardinals) podcast partner Will Leitch, writing in New York magazine:  “A team that has essentially dominated the NFL landscape for nearly two decades now (reaching eight Super Bowls and winning five), has fallen behind the pack. This is as bad as the Patriots have looked in December in years. The rest of football is smelling blood.”

Skip Bayless. Fox Sports, after the Patriots lost at Jacksonville. “Belichick? Smell-ichick.”

Mark Maske, Washington Post: “This time, it’s different. The cracks in the dynasty again are evident. It is clear, once more, that the end is near, although just how near remains up for debate. But as this season draws to a close, there is nothing controversial or even all that engrossing about what is now jeopardizing the Patriots’ remarkable run of success. They are, perhaps, finally succumbing to the passage of time and the cyclical nature of the NFL.”

Let’s move ahead to Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game between the visiting Chargers and home-team Patriots in Foxboro.

By halftime the Patriots led 35-7. They’d run 47 plays to the Chargers’ 23. The total yards were New England 347-128. Rushing yards, 114 to 17. The Patriots averaged 8.0 yards per play, and 6.8 yards per rushing attempt. Tom Brady had completed 23 of 29 passes for 233 yards, a touchdown and no turnovers. The Patriots went 5-for-5 in the red zone.

And here’s my favorite stat from the first half: the Patriots had five touchdowns; the Chargers had five first downs. The final score was New England 41, LA Chargers 28. And that was misleading. the Patriots were bored in the second half.

Any questions?

The Patriots didn’t go into this game with their usual sheen of brilliance. Or their usual suit of armor that made them seem invincible. The Chargers had a chance in this one.  A big chance, or so we — well, me — thought. As the sarcastic Brady told CBS  on the field, moments after the game:  “Everybody thinks we suck.”

Forget about it.

The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth consecutive season. That’s just crazy — not to mention impressive and incredible. Brady and head coach Bill Belichick will lead New England into Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City for a chance to reach the Super Bowl for the ninth time over the last 18 seasons.

Belichick and Brady have teamed for five Super Bowl titles.

As always … count the the Patriots out at your own risk — or foolishness — though the Chiefs have opened as a three-point betting line favorite. During the Belichick-Brady glory years, the Patriots have a 20-3 postseason record at home but are only 3-4 on the road. The last time New England won an AFC Championship Game on the road came during the 2004 season, at  Pittsburgh. The Patriots are 0-3 since, having lost road AFC title brawls during the 2006 season at Indianapolis, the 2013 season at Denver, and the 2015 season in Denver.

The last time the Patriots failed to reach the conference-championship round, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes was 15 years old and more of a baseball-first teenage athlete. Brady, 41, and Mahomes (age 23) will hook up in a generational-divide matchup of exceptional quarterbacks. Brady is the greatest of all time. Mahomes, a first-year stater, may be the most naturally gifted quarterback the league has seen. And he’s still in the learning stage.

We can talk about the duel, later. But how about Brady and the Patriots? We take their success for granted. That’s because the Patriots make the extraordinary seem routine.

Please allow me to throw some numbers at you. Eye-opening numbers…

Since the start of the 2001 season:

+ The Patriots lead the NFL with 220- regular-season wins. Pittsburgh, with 188, is second. Indianapolis is third with 180. The Patriots’ reg-season winning percentage since the 2001 season (.764) is 108 percentage points higher than the Steelers.

+ The Patriots have played in the most postseason games (38) and have the most postseason victories (28) since ’01.  No other NFL team has won more than 25 postseason games (Indy and Pittsburgh) over that time.

+ Naturally, the Patriots combined regular-postseason win total (248) is 45 more than Pittsburgh’s 203. But what made me laugh is New England’s combined point differential (regular season and postseason). That would be a plus 2,897.  Yessir, they’ve outscored opponents by 2,897 points since the outset of 2001. That’s 1,429 points better than Pittsburgh, which ranks second in the league with a point differential of 1,468 since 2001.

+ Sunday’s game at KC will be Brady’s 13th start in the AFC Championship. And if we exclude the 2008 season — Brady was injured (knee) early in the season-opener and lost for the entire season — he’s led his team to the AFC title game 13 times in his 17 seasons … and in 12 of the last 15 seasons. That’s insane.

+ Brady’s 13 career starts in a conference championship game are as many as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers combined. No other NFL quarterback, current or retired, has started six or more Conference championships. Four have done that: Pro Football Hall of Famers Joe Montana (7), John Elway (6), Roger Staubach (6) and Terry Bradshaw (6)

+ Brady’s eight wins (so far) in the AFC title tilt are one more than Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger have combined (seven.)

Brady has won more games in the playoffs (28) than any other quarterback. In fact Brady has won more postseason games than Peyton Manning has competed in (27). And of course Brady has 207 career wins during the regular season.

+ Beating up on bad teams? Not quite. After Sunday’s vanquishing of the Chargers, Belichick and Brady are 6-2 in the playoffs when facing opponents that posted better regular-season records.

+ Brady has 16 playoff games with passer ratings of 100 or higher … that’s  more than Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers combined.

+ Brady has won 235 games (regular season and postseason) since taking over as the starter for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Since 2001 Brady has racked up 16 division titles (including the last 10 years in a row), eight AFC titles, and five Super Bowl triumphs.

+ And Brady has done this with only five teammates on offense combining to earn first-team All-Pro honors nine times since 2001. And Brady has had only eight mates on offense get voted into the Pro Bowl since ’01. The eight combined for 23 Pro Bowl honors. So TB12 has hardly been surrounded by a deep and endless cast of star teammates.

Measuring the Patriots against the rest of the AFC, this is what I found:

+  The Pats’ 28 postseason wins since 2001 are as many as Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have combined.

+ The Patriots’  total of 13 appearances (including the upcoming test at KC) in the AFC Championship is even more remarkable considering that all other AFC teams have just 22 AFC Championship appearances combined.

+ The Patriots’ eight wins in the AFC Championship since 2001 are only one fewer than all other AFC teams have, combined.

+ The Patriots’ 13 wins in the AFC divisional round since 2001 is really special considering that (A) Pittsburgh is the only AFC team with a winning record (6-3) in the divisional round over that time. Ten other AFC teams are .500 or worse in division-round games since ’01.

Geez … I could go on … but why? You may like the Patriots, love the Patriots, dislike the Patriots or absolutely hate the Patriots. But this can’t be denied: You’re seeing an extraordinary team …

A team designed and orchestrated by a head coach and a G.O.A.T. quarterback that formed the one  true  dynasty — the only dynasty — in the NFL Salary Cap / Free Agent Era.

Thanks for reading …