FOXBORO, Mass. — They should rename the AFC Championship this Sunday at Gillette Stadium the Bill Belichick Invitational.
For the seventh time in a dozen years, Belichick's New England Patriots will play in the title game and the right to move on to the Super Bowl. This one will be a rematch with the Baltimore Ravens, the team the Patriots, with a bit of luck, conquored a year ago in the same big game.
That feat has been accomplished by only two other teams. The Dallas Cowboys amazingly went to nine NFC Championship games in 12 years from 1971 to 1982, and the Oakland Raiders won seven in 11 seasons from 1971 to 1981.
If the Patriots win on Sunday -- they have been installed as 8 1/2 point favorites -- they will meet either the San Francisco 49ers or the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3. The New Orleans Superdome was the site of New England's first Super Bowl win ever in 2002, an upset victory over the St. Louis Rams.
The Patriots also won Super Bowls in 2004 and 2005, but lost the NFL's championship game to the New York Giants in 2008 after amassing a perfect 18-0 regular season and playoff record. They also lost last year''s Super Bowl to the Giants.
A win against the Ravens on Sunday would assure the Patriots of a sixth Super Bowl visit in a dozen years. No team, not even the Cowboys, accomplished that.
"From the outside, you wonder why they are always in the hunt every year," said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. "Then you get here and you understand the seven AFC championship games in 12 years. It's more than hard work. Everyone here has a focus on their job. It's about consistency every day."
What the Patriots did in beating the Houston Texans, 41-28, to play in yet another AFC Championship was not as easy as it looked, though the game was hardly ever in doubt with the lead 38-13 in the fourth quarter. Houston rallied late to cut the margin to 10 points with six minutes left, but New England kicked a third field goal and controlled the ball down the stretch to win going away.
If you were watching the divisional playoff games this weekend, you understand why everything is in doubt until the very end. Atlanta defeated Seattle with a field goal in the last eight seconds after losing the lead with 31 seconds left.
First round playoff byes, which the Patriots enjoyed, are nice for healing the mind and body, but they just don't mean what they used to. Wild Card round bandits like the Seattle and the Ravens are every bit as good as the Falcons and Patriots.
The Texans, on the other hand, looked like the "best team" in the NFL at 12-1 record before they were humiliated by the Patriots, 42-14, in Week 14 of the regular season. They crumbled after that, losing two of their last three games and losing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They barely beat wild card entrant Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs.
So the rematch victory by the Patriots was widely expected, and terribly disappointing to the the Texans. Their all-time greatest player, wide receiver Andre Johnson, who had eight catches for 95 yards, described it as "frustrating because you work so hard to help this organization, yourself, the team, the city. You want everybody to be a part of something special. Then for it to end like this, it's painful."
Familiar as they are to winning playoff games, the Patriots expect a tougher battle with the Ravens for the AFC title. All-pro quarterback Tom Brady, who surpassed his boyhood idol Joe Montana for the most playoff victories at 17 Sunday, said the game features the two best AFC teams.
"Baltimore certainly deserves to be here and so do we," said Brady. "It is fitting."
Bill Burt is the sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.