Kraft calls Patriots "extended family"

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Robert Kraft is headed to another AFC championship game in a season like no other in his 18 years as owner of the New England Patriots.

He lost his "sweetheart" when his wife, Myra, died in July and found an "extended family" in the locker room and offices at Gillette Stadium.

"The team has been my savior. I've had my kids, my four sons and eight grandchildren and this team has been kind of my extended family," Kraft said Friday, two days before the Patriots play in their sixth AFC title game in 11 years.

As they've done all season, every player on the team will wear a dark blue patch with white capital letters "MHK" on his jersey when he takes the field against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. It's a reminder of the philanthropic woman, Myra Hiatt Kraft, who was married to Kraft for 48 years and had such an effect on the Patriots that they dedicated their season to her.

During his news conference Friday, Kraft paused and appeared to choke up.

After their next to last regular-season game, a 27-24 win over Miami, the players presented Kraft with a painting showing a group of helmeted Patriots raising their joined hands skyward toward those three initials.

"I pinch myself that I have the privilege of owning this franchise," Kraft said. "We have such a great group of young men and they've been great to me, really great. Sometimes a few of them come through and they touch the patch and say, `That one was for Mama.' I hope we keep it going."

Five days after his wife died of cancer at 68, Kraft appeared with Commissioner Roger Goodell and others at the announcement on July 25 that the lockout was over. At one point, Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday, a key negotiator, put his arm around Kraft and said the deal would not have been reached without him.

"I think Roger Goodell and our committee and I had a privilege of working on that. We came very close to having a situation (where we would) miss games," Kraft said Friday. "I'm happy that we had reasonable people on both sides so we could work it out. I think a lot of people were concerned what it meant to the season without having the offseason. I think it probably worked to the advantage of a lot of veteran players.

"I'm pretty happy and proud that we're able to have this season the way it is."

Before Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriots had a 4-6 playoff record and no Super Bowl championships. Since then, they're 18-9 in the postseason with three titles.

In 2000, Bill Belichick was hired as coach and Tom Brady was drafted. The Patriots went 5-11 that season but have won at least 10 games in 10 of the 11 seasons since then.

The first playoff game in the Belichick-Brady era was the famous "Tuck Rule" game against the Oakland Raiders 10 years ago, on Jan. 19, 2002. Brady appeared to lose a fumble with 1:43 left, but officials ruled the replay showed his arm going forward. That made it an incompletion even though Brady appeared to be trying to tuck the ball into his body.

Adam Vinatieri then tied the game with a 45-yard field goal in the snow with 27 seconds to go in regulation and gave the Patriots a 16-13 win in overtime on a 23-yarder.

"I still remember seeing (then Raiders coach) Jon Gruden at the beginning of the season and (Raiders owner) Al Davis, right before he passed, and both said to me, `It was still a fumble,"' Kraft said. "But I guess the rules say differently and thank goodness (referee) Walt Coleman understood the rules. That was the beginning of something pretty special, I think."

He'd like the success to continue - with another championship this season and beyond.

As long as Belichick, Brady and wide receiver Wes Welker stay with the team, the Patriots should remain solid playoff contenders.

Belichick, who turns 60 on April 16, has given no indication of how long he'll coach.

"Anyone who is a good manager in any business tries to plan for the future and contingencies," the 70-year-old Kraft said. "I just went through an experience this past year that I'm trying to enjoy every day as it comes and appreciate the blessings that we have. We're in the AFC championship game competing to go to the Super Bowl and I'm excited about that."

Brady is in the first year of a four-year contract extension worth $72 million. He'll be 35 on Aug. 3 and has said he'd like to play into his 40s.

"We're trying to make the playoffs every year," Kraft said, "and that will be, no matter who is the head coach and quarterback, that will be objective of our team."

The 5-foot-9 Welker can become a free agent after this season. Retaining the NFL's leader in catches and yards receiving seems to be a priority.

"I think Wes wants to be here and we want him here," the diminutive Kraft said. "Hopefully, when the season ends, both sides will be wise enough to consummate something. He's pretty special. Any time there is a player on this team I can look eye-to-eye and be at the same level, he's an important guy."

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