For most NFL players and teams, reaching a conference championship game represents a novel excursion near the sport’s pinnacle, an accomplishment to be treasured. After all, during the Patriots’ remarkable 17-season run, there are 10 teams — nearly one-third of the NFL — that haven’t advanced to the sport’s final four a single time.
The Patriots, meanwhile, continue to transform the extraordinary into routine. With their 35-14 trashing of the Titans on Saturday, New England will prepare for its 12th conference championship game during the partnership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and its mind-blowing seventh straight.
Perspective on such an accomplishment can be hard to maintain, particularly for a team whose season remains alive.
“If you don’t have the proper perspective, I think that’s something you can take for granted. We’re appreciative of the situation that we’re in, especially those of us who have been here for a while. But we just try to live in the moment and attack each game, each season as its own,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We don’t really get too much into what we’ve done. We try to stay in the moment, stay week to week, but hopefully one day we’ll be able to step back, step away from things, look back on things, and be proud of our effort.”
Others who are not inside the Patriots’ bubble find it easier to appreciate what has transpired and continues to take place in Foxborough. On Saturday night, Titans backup quarterback Matt Cassel — back in the stadium where he started his career as Brady’s backup and flourished for a year in his absence — knew what he was seeing, again.
With the Patriots, Cassel advanced to the AFC Championship game two times in three years. In nine years since the Patriots traded him to the Chiefs, this year’s advance to the division round with the Titans represented the furthest that Cassel had advanced since his time with the Patriots.
“[That consistency] goes to the coaching staff, starting with Coach Belichick and then obviously Tom and everybody else. It’s a culture that they create. They’ve been consistent, obviously, and consistency is the key in this game,” said Cassel. “It’s incredible when you think about the success that they’ve had year-in and year-out. They never seem to have one of those years where they fall off. What is it, seven straight AFC title games? It’s just incredible. It’s a dynasty.”
New England’s seven straight seasons of reaching the NFL’s final four is unprecedented in the history of the league, with only the Raiders of the 1970s having played in as many as five straight. From 1988-94, the 49ers played in six of seven NFC title games as part of a run of nine in 14 years, while the Cowboys were in 10 of 13 conference championships from 1970-82, but as Cassel noted, those teams had a single season of slippage amidst those outstanding runs. New England hasn’t.
Increasingly, it is becoming necessary to turn to other sports in order to find parallels for what the Patriots are doing, to understand what it means for a team to make an unshakable habit of final four appearances.
■ The Browns were in six straight title games in the first six years of the NFL, but that came at a time when there were just 12 teams, and when a team advanced straight from winning a division to the title game. New England, meanwhile, has had to win at least one playoff game every year.
■ From 1956-57 through 1968-69, the Celtics advanced to at least the Eastern Division final 13 straight times, including 12 appearances in the NBA Finals. From 1981-82 through 1988-89, the Lakers reached at least the penultimate round of the playoffs eight straight times.
■ The Canadiens reached 21 straight NHL semifinals from 1948-49 through 1968-69 (including 10 straight years in the Stanley Cup Finals), but 19 of those came during the era of the Original Six, when two-thirds of the teams were in the semifinals and a third took part in the Stanley Cup Finals.
■ In baseball, the Braves reached the NLCS in eight straight non-strike years from 1991-99, while the Yankees won 15 of 18 pennants from 1947-64 and 22 of 26 from 1936-64.
On paper, that’s the sort of company that the Patriots are keeping in the pantheon of modern American professional sports. That said, only New England, the 1990s Braves, the late-1990s to early-2000s Yankees (seven ALCS appearances in nine years from 1996-2004), and the Michael Jordan Bulls (eight Eastern Conference finals in 10 years, interrupted only by Jordan’s baseball years) managed to remain in constant championship contention in the era of modern free agency in their sports.
“I think that, especially in this day and age, with all of the free agents and everything that takes place, your team is constantly changing. A lot of times your coaches are constantly changing,” said Cassel. “But they’ve been able to have a core group for the most part. Then you take Coach Belichick being here, who I think is one of the best coaches to ever coach in the NFL, if not the best coach. It’s a great recipe for success.”
It is a recipe that no other sports team has come close to imitating this century.