FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots were dubbed the “Team of the Century” when they won three Super Bowl championships in four years.
With Bill Belichick calling the shots, Tom Brady directing the offense and Adam Vinatieri providing the kicks, the Patriots beat St. Louis, Carolina and Philadelphia to win the championship in 2001, 2003 and 2004. They were 9-0 in playoff games in that stretch.
The Patriots have continued to make the playoffs, but their success has been muted. They’ve gone 7-6 in the playoffs since 2004, advancing twice to the Super Bowl, losing both times to the New York Giants (2007 and 2011) in the final minute.
Only three players remain from the last Super Bowl champion: Brady, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and reserve wide receiver Deion Branch.
Wilfork, who got his ring as a rookie, knows he’s not going to get many more chances.
“Winning is hard,” he said. “Winning one early in my career, you kind of get the sense that it happens like this all the time, but it doesn’t. It’s very, very hard to win at this level — at any level. We play this game for one goal — to be champions, plain and simple.”
And the Patriots’ road to New Orleans, site of this year’s Super Bowl, begins Sunday at 4:30 p.m., against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots routed the Texans, 42-14 on Dec. 10 in a Monday night game. Wilfork says it’s best to forget about that game.
“We can’t overlook this team,” he said. “We have to go in and play good football. If we play well, we’ll be OK. If we don’t, we’ll be in trouble.”
The Patriots know this first-hand. In 2010, they routed the New York Jets 45-3 in a Monday night game at Gillette on Dec. 6. New England earned the No.1 seed in the AFC playoffs, then lost to the Jets 28-21 in the Divisional Round.
While Branch insists “we don’t think about that,” recent Patriots playoff history certainly indicates the difficulty of beating a team you’ve already faced.
The last six Patriots playoff seasons have been ended by a team they played in the regular season: 2005, Denver (Divisional Round); 2006, Indianapolis (AFC championship; 2007, Giants (Super Bowl); 2009, Baltimore (Wild card); 2010, Jets (Divisional Round); 2011, Giants (Super Bowl).
Logan Mankins, the Patriots offensive left guard who has played in two Super Bowls, said you probably shouldn’t read too much into any of that.
“Oh yeah, 2010 is a good example,” he said. “Beat the hell out of the Jets and then come back and lose to them. Then last year we beat Denver and they come here and we beat the hell out of them (in the Divisional Round). So it can go either way, it’s just what you do on that Sunday. If you execute and play good football, you give yourself a chance to win.”
The key, the Patriots have told anyone willing to listen this week, is to remember that nothing will be the same the second, or third, time around (as was the case with the Jets in 2010).
Plays that worked in the regular season may not work in the postseason. The teams will certainly make adjustments, and you have to be ready for them, almost anticipate them.
The only important thing from that last game against Houston, said Brady, is that it gave “us an opportunity to have this game at home.”
“Other than that,” he continued, “this is going to be a whole different game full of our own execution, our ability to try to beat a very good football team that’s played well this year.”
Houston, for those who don’t remember, held the No.1 spot in the AFC until losing three of four down the stretch — all to playoff teams. The Texans have some of the most talented players in the league, led by running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive end J.J. Watt and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
While the Patriots don’t want to get too caught up in the apparent ease of the regular-season game between the teams, the Texans also don’t want anyone to downplay the significance of the loss.
Some Patriots have noted that things went their way early in that game, allowing their team to gain momentum. Gary Kubiak, the Houston head coach, said it would be a mistake to think his team was close that night.
“You’re making a huge mistake if you start saying, ‘If we would have done this, if we would have done that, we would have been fine,’ ” he said. “We weren’t fine. We got our tails kicked. They were very, very explosive.”
He added that all you have to do is look at some of the Patriots home scores against good teams — Denver (31-21), Indianapolis (59-24) — to realize the challenge you face.
“They’ve really gotten after some teams,” he said. “Games can get away from you there if you miss opportunities or make mistakes. We’re going to have to come in there and play a 60-minute football game. We’re going to have to step to the plate and make some plays.”
Over the years, the belief has been that it is the Patriots, with all their playoff success, who will make those plays.
But this is a team with 18 players making their playoff debut, another five playing in their second postseason.
This isn’t your Patriots team of Brady and Bruschi and Harrison and Vrabel and Light and Koppen and Faulk, a group that helped New England to its lofty heights.
It’s a new group, looking to create its own Super Bowl legacy.
“I wasn’t here with them in the past for all those Super Bowls,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who will be appearing in his sixth playoff game. “I was blessed to be here last year, came up a little bit short and want to get back there.”
That’s the goal for everyone still playing at this time of the year.
“Everyone in the league is hungry for a Super Bowl,” said Ninkovich. “I want to get back there just like everybody else that’s in the playoffs. That’s the No.1 goal in your head coming into training camp, get to the Super Bowl.
“So everybody’s hungry and, you know, this is what we play the game for.”
That’s why even a guy like Brady, who will be starting his 23rd playoff game for the Patriots, still gets excited this time of year.
“It’s hard to get to this point,” he said. “You’ve got to work pretty hard. There are a lot of teams that have worked hard, but certain things have to go your way and you have to win a lot of games and put a lot of practice in, a lot of preparation, to get to this point.
“It’s as exciting as there is. This is why we work hard. This is why we put the time in — so we can be at our best.”