There was a time when the New England Patriots were a joke in the National Football League. There was always something. First it was venue problems in the ’60s when the AFL’s Boston Patriots played hop-scotch from Fenway Park to old Braves Field (now Nickerson Field), Harvard Stadium and Boston College before they landed in Foxborough. Then there were ownership foibles, not to mention head coaching woes. Remember Clive Rush? Even Bill Parcells was no better than a .500 coach there. Hank Bullough was co-head coach with Ron Erhardt for one game in 1978 and lost. That was seven seasons before his ill-fated stint with the Bills.
All that has changed of course. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers now have more playoff wins all-time (38) than New England’s 34. If the Patriots win Super Bowl LII today over the Philadelphia Eagles they will break their tie with the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in the second spot. They have made the postseason 19 times under the ownership of Bob Kraft. Only three times in the 2000s have the Pats not made the postseason (2000, 2002 and 2008).
They have the most consecutive winning seasons (17) since the NFL merger in 1970 and are second all-time to the 20 in a row rung up by the Cowboys from 1966-85. They’ve appeared in seven straight AFC championship games, won nine straight AFC East titles. Tonight they'll try to become the ninth team to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The last to do it was the Patriots of 2003 and 2004.
Their run of sustained excellence ranks with such sports dynasties as the Yankees, Celtics, Canadiens, UCLA basketball and Connecticut women’s basketball. And they’re doing it in an era of free agency and the salary cap, factors that were not an obstacle in much of the reign of the Yanks, Celtics and Habs of bygone eras.
Like the Yankees, they are either the most despised or admired of professional sports organizations.
Philadelphia, of course, is 0 for 2 in Super Bowls and 3-4 in NFC championship games, a sad-sack performance that W.C. Fields would have loved. “Better here than in Philadelphia,” it read on Fields’ headstone.
The most intriguing thing about the Patriots-Philadelphia Eagles match up is: Can New England keep it going or will the Eagles with journeyman Nick Foles at quarterback end the run of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and the Pats?
Patriots (15-3) vs. Eagles (15-3)
TV: NBC, 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
The line: Patriots (-4 1/2).
The scoop on the Patriots: When you think of New England you think of stability. Same owner, same coach, same quarterback forever, it seems. There really has been much turnover throughout the New England reign. Only six Super Bowl starters on offense and six on defense from last year are active for today’s Patriots. TE Rob Gronkowski, remember, didn’t play in last year’s overtime victory over Atlanta. However, there is consistency and stability in places where it counts. Four of the five offensive line starters from last year’s big game will start today and the same four started all 16 games this season. That unit survived a war with Jacksonville’s talented front four in the AFC Championship Game. Now they go up against a Philadelphia unit that may be just as good and just as deep, if not better. Missing from last year is WR Julian Edelman but Danny Amendola has stepped up in the postseason and Brandin Cooks was an offseason addition who presents more of a deep threat. Dion Lewis starts at RB again, although it was James White who scored three times, including the winner, in Super Bowl LI. The turnover on defense comes more at linebacker where Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, not exactly household names, start. Of course a new addition to the secondary is right corner Stephon Gilmore, the ex-Bill. Malcolm Butler is a fixture at the left side. The Patriots ranked only 29th in the regular season defensive statistics, but that ranking is deceptive. Once New England settled in with Matt Patricia’s schemes and made their in-game adjustment there weren’t many more effective units.
The scoop on the Eagles: The big story in Philadelphia for a while was a player who won’t be on the field today. Quarterback Carson Wentz seemed on his way to NFL Most Valuable Player or Offensive Player of the Year before his knee injury against the Rams on Dec. 10. The story then became backup QB Nick Foles. Philadelphia was an underdog in its two home playoff games. Foles turned in a workmanlike performance in the win over Atlanta. Then he played like a legitimate franchise quarterback in the NFC Championship Game against Minnesota, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three TDs. ... The Eagles have both speed and power on offense and defense. Power backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount line up behind Foles and for a change of pace there’s rookie Corey Clement or Kenjon Barner. Blount, an ex-Patriot, led the team with 766 yards rushing and a 4.4 average. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich makes use of them all. The receiving corps of Alshon Jeffery (two TD receptions against Minnesota), Nelson Agholor and veteran Torrey Smith are very effective. Tight end Zach Ertz will test New England’s safeties and linebackers in coverage. He had 74 receptions for 11.1 average gain and tied for second in the NFL among tight ends with eight TD catches. Many believe the Eagles’ front seven can give Brady and his protectors problems. DT Fletcher Cox is a physical presence. DE Brandon Graham is the sack leader with 9.5.
Outlook: As long as Brady and Belichick are around, it seems foolish to pick against the Patriots. Still, many believe that like the Giants of 2007 and 2011, Philadelphia has the physical defensive front and the power running game to pull off the upset. Assuming Foles plays back to form, no choice but to go with the Patriots, 27-17.
Conference championship results: 1-1 straight up, 1-1 vs. spread.
Season’s record: 156-89 straight up, 115-115-14 vs. spread.