FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- 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 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 Patriotswon 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.
But just beneath the surface, Brady continues to simmer and seethe, only occasionally allowing it into view, letting others do the talking for him. The anger is still so palpable that the team's owner, Robert Kraft, voices it openly, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to attend a game at Gillette Stadium since, an absence noted by fans who derisively chanted his name and painted his face on made-up milk cartons Sunday night. On the podium, with the Lamar Hunt Trophy -- which goes to the AFC champion -- in his hands, Kraft was a thinly veiled allusion to the trials of the last two years.
"For a number of reasons, all of you in the stadium understand how big this win was," Kraft said.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft was more pointed about the irony of the timing of Grigson's firing just before Sunday's game kicked off, noting in a local radio spot on 98.5 The Sports Hub that "that game might have been Ryan's pinnacle."
Ouch. But also accurate. Getting to an AFC Championship Game is a pinnacle for other teams, and it is a fine one. The Colts have that, although they are clearly not satisfied with that, either.
But the Patriots have Brady, fueled this season by those who questioned his honesty and integrity, by the embarrassment and distraction of hearings and court sessions and appeals and a saga that stretched over the course of the entire 2015 season, with the penalty finally infecting this one. Whatever Grigson unleashed two years ago, the rest of the AFC is paying a price for it now. Brady is the first quarterback to appear in seven Super Bowls.
There was, of course, no greater testament to Bill Belichick's exceptionalism than the Patriots going 3-1 without Brady, and even without, for part of the time, Brady's backup, Jimmy Garoppolo. Belichick sent Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins packing, and the defense was the best overall in the league. Belichick is going to his seventh Super Bowl as a head coach, a record, and whatever else may be thought about this franchise by fans and foes, Belichick is unquestionably the greatest coach of his -- and perhaps any -- era. When he was handed the trophy, he grabbed it like a paperweight and barely glanced at it. Being one of the final two is not the goal. Belichick said he did not even know Atlanta had won the NFC title, because he had not watched the game.
"Every year has its own challenges, whatever they are," Belichick said. "Every team faces them. We've dealt with them. It's a special year because it's a special team. But there are always challenges we have to overcome. Whatever they are, they are."
They were big enough that they would likely have doomed another team. But Brady has been extraordinary since his return, and the circumstances of his season were such that it largely overshadowed the fact that Brady is playing his best football at age 39. He went 32 of 42 for 384 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Steelers. If the Patriots beat the Atlanta Falconsin two weeks in Houston, Brady would be the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls, passing his childhood idol, Joe Montana. The delicious spectacle of Goodell and Brady meeting again with confetti falling on their heads is not a scene any fan in New England will fail to record for posterity.
Brady is a smooth professional. He was asked what he thought about the fans chanting Goodell's name, and he said he didn't hear it, but did hear a sing-along to Bon Jovi. None of those questions will go away for two more weeks, and it is possible the extra motivation Brady derives from how he was treated will never entirely dissipate. He demurred when faced with the first of what will be two weeks of questions about how much motivation he draws from his suspension.
"Nah, this is my motivation," he said, pointing to the teammates arrayed in front of the podium for the postgame trophy presentation, each wearing a new AFC Championship T-shirt over their uniforms. "All these fellows right in front of me. Mental toughness, that's what it's all about. This team's got it. We'll see if we can write the perfect ending in a couple of weeks."
It is a story two years in the making.