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How are Pats back in title game again? All credit due to Brady, Belichick

Photo: Damian Strohmeyer/SI

Tom Brady (left) and Bill Belichick are back in the AFC title game for the third straight year.

If the NFL playoffs were like one big family reunion every January, the New England Patriots would be those somewhat tiresome relatives who show up too often and tend to stay too long. Another deep postseason run by the Men of Belichick and Brady? Really? Already? Didn't we just see them here, not too long ago? How can we ever start to miss them if these people won't leave?

Ah, but here's a novel idea: Let's take a deep breath and try appreciating their very familiar presence for a change. The unsinkable Patriots. They're always here. They're always a threat to win it all.

If there's one thing about this weekend's glamor-filled final four that I think we can all agree upon it's that New England has absolutely no business being back in the AFC Championship Game for the eighth time in the past 13 seasons. Not this year. Not again. Not with everything it has endured in the way of injuries, defections and unimagined complications.

Everyone knows the Patriots perennially seem to get more out of their available talent than anyone else in the league, but c'mon, there are limits to every reputation or label. This season has bordered on the absurd in Foxboro. The unprecedented Aaron Hernandez scandal alone could have torpedoed the entire year for a lot of franchises, the way a disruptive Terrell Owens single-handedly wrecked a season for the 2005 Eagles, who were coming off five consecutive playoff trips and a Super Bowl run.

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But add to that the stormy Wes Welker departure in free agency. The ever-so-brief window of Rob Gronkowski's availability. The twin devastating injuries of defensive cogs Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. The on-again, off-again presence in the lineup of starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. The reliance on a modern-day collection of Smurfs at receiver (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Austin Collie, etc.). The unheralded names and talents who have manned key positions at defensive tackle, offensive line, tight end and fullback. The revolving door situation at running back. The gut-wrenching last-second road losses to the Jets and Panthers, which turned on controversial calls (or non-calls) by the officials.

What a laundry list of challenges the Patriots (13-4) have worked through to get here, playing at top-seeded Denver (14-3) on Sunday for the right to advance to their sixth Super Bowl in the 12 seasons that New England head coach Bill Belichick has had a healthy Tom Brady as his starting quarterback. And yet somehow we're not surprised by their berth in the AFC title game, because by now it feels like their birthright. But we should be. Because this is the best work Belichick and Brady have ever done. And it was patchwork, at that.

"I don't think I've ever seen a job like this over a whole year,'' said Tony Dungy -- one of just two head coaches to ever beat the Patriots in an AFC title game, along with Baltimore's John Harbaugh -- on Monday. "I thought this was a masterful job by the Patriots this season. I remember toward the end of the '04 season, when all their DBs got hurt and they were playing with Troy Brown on defense. That was kind of amazing over a three- or four-week period. But when you look at what they've had this season, it's been pretty awesome to watch.''

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This year's AFC title game could pass for the Perseverance Bowl, because Denver has had more than its share of hurdles to overcome along the way this season as well. Coach John Fox's midseason heart surgery, Von Miller's ACL injury, the Elvis Dumervil fax debacle, Ryan Clady's season-ending injury and Champ Bailey's absence were all obstacles that Peyton Manning and Co. had to deal with en route to the top spot in the AFC.

But I still think the body blows New England has absorbed are even more impressive and unique. The Patriots' vaunted two-tight end set -- the one that was copied far and wide -- blew up with Hernandez's murder charge and Gronkowski's issues staying healthy, forcing New England to re-invent itself offensively on the fly. No Gronk or Hernandez meant plenty of Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. I'll let you decide if there was a drop-off there.

With a relatively untested receiving corps that included rookies Aaron Dobson and the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins, Brady and the Patriots had to rely hugely on a former 7th-round pick in Edelman and the undrafted Amendola. And of course it has worked well enough to survive into mid-January.

In the backfield, Stevan Ridley had trouble holding onto the ball, so on came Shane Vereen and eventually LeGarrette Blount. All the ex-Titan, ex-Buc did in last Saturday night's divisional-round defeat of Indianapolis was go all Beast Mode East, setting a new team playoff record with four rushing touchdowns, and tying Curtis Martin's club postseason record of 166 yards rushing in a game. The running game has also been aided by fullback James Develin, an undrafted talent who played in the Ivy League for Brown, with the Patriots offensive line featuring a pair of starters who also went unselected in the draft: center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly. That's the real Patriot Way. Adjusting and improvising, while still winning.

"When you look at what they've done after going into the whole thing thinking they were going to build their offense around Gronkowski and Hernandez, and then not having those two guys, it really has been pretty remarkable,'' Dungy said. "Then to not have dependable outside receivers, to not have backs that have done it for you in the past, to be playing with interior linemen that you signed off the street, and to defensively lose all those people, it's impressive.

"They've missed some weapons in past years, but even the year Brady was hurt [in 2008], you still had good defensive players and Randy Moss on offense that season. But this year they've been missing a lot and they've just plugged in players and done a good job of utilizing what they have. And with Bill, they're going to do what they've always done. They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to be in games the whole way, and force you to play sound and sharp all the way through. You admire it when you watch it, because they just know how to win.''

That is it, isn't it? The Patriots will win most of their games because they won't be the team that makes the mistake that loses it. Just like in their first meeting with Denver this season, in Week 12 in Foxboro. New England trailed 24-0 at the half, rallied for 31 unanswered points in the second half, then went to overtime tied 31-31 against the Broncos. And it was in OT that Denver made the game-deciding miscue, when Welker of all people didn't signal his intentions to not field a Ryan Allen punt in time. That led to Broncos blocker Tony Carter getting too close to the live ball, which bounced off of him and was recovered by the Patriots deep in Denver territory. A couple plays later, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed the chip-shot game-winner.

What you can't underestimate about this Patriots team is how much Brady and Belichick are the two constants in the locker room, creating a culture of mental toughness and no excuses. They're the daily reminders of the winning standard that's in place in New England, and of the expectation to uphold it if you're playing. They don't really care if it's a rookie or a 10-year veteran, if you're in the lineup, you had better produce. No matter if you're dealing with injuries or the elements in any particular bad-weather game, the standard and expectations do not change.

And I think it's that standard and mentality that leads us to sometimes not give New England enough credit for its accomplishment of reaching this stage of the playoffs so often in the Belichick-Brady era. Self-celebration isn't the way they do things within the Patriots organization, so in turn, the rest of us probably don't celebrate them as much as we might if it were another team.

Charles Barkley was right about that much the other night in the Patriots locker room. The winning has become so expected from New England, but could you imagine what the fanfare would be like if, say, Jerry Jones had a quarterback and a head coach in Dallas who had reached the NFC title game for an eighth time in their tenure, and were gunning for a sixth Super Bowl berth in 13 years? I think by now Jerry would have himself a couple partners in team ownership, perhaps having bumped his sons out of the picture.

Consider this: Brady and Belichick are 18-7 in the playoffs together entering Sunday's game, which is their 11th trip to the postseason in the past 13 years. The other three head coaches who will be working in the final four this weekend -- Denver's John Fox, Seattle's Pete Carroll and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh -- are a combined 16-11 in the NFL postseason, with 14 playoff berths.

"It's hard just to get to the championship game, that's a feat in and of itself,'' said Dungy, whose Colts lost the AFC title game at New England in 2003, and beat the Patriots in a memorable 18-point comeback in Indianapolis in 2006. "But with their consistency of being there year in and year out, it's a pretty special accomplishment. The only thing I think would rival it would be Buffalo going to four straight Super Bowls [from 1990-93]. What the Patriots have done might be the second-best achievement I can think of since I've been following football.''

And here we are again with a Brady versus Manning showdown to savor, the 15th installment in their storied rivalry. The Patriots set the pace by a considerable margin in that department, too, with Brady holding a 10-4 head-to-head record against Manning, who is 0-2 against New England as a Broncos' quarterback. Dungy is not predicting a familiar flow to the game, even though we're so accustomed to seeing the two Hall of Fame-bound passers on this stage.

"Ironically I don't think it'll be decided by the quarterbacks so much,'' Dungy said. "Maybe necessarily somebody's going to have to have a drive in the fourth quarter to win it, but I think you're going to see this game be about the running game and run defense. I think you're going to see New England run the ball at Denver, because Denver didn't really get challenged last week because [San Diego's Ryan] Mathews wasn't 100 percent. But they'll get challenged this week and we'll see how they hold up.

"I think Belichick is going to play defenses that almost force Peyton into run audibles, to see if the Broncos can run, and if their runners can hold up and won't fumble the ball. It's going to be an on-the-ground game, a tight game, and we know New England has won a lot of those tight games. I wouldn't be surprised to see it be a low-scoring game.''

Seeing New England win its way back to another Super Bowl wouldn't be a surprise either, even though Denver is favored at home. It's mid-January, and the Patriots are still hanging around. Would it even feel like the NFL playoffs without them?

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