By Matt McCarthy, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots are preparing for an astonishing 13th AFC Championship Game of the Brady-Belichick era on Sunday. Their record in those games, 8-4, is perhaps even more astounding than their number of appearances in the game that can best be described as the Tom Brady Invitational.
So why not rank the eight title game victories? How difficult could that be?
As it turns out, it’s very difficult.
Admittedly, there’s probably not a clear cut number one. Perhaps the two most competitive, life-shortening championship games the Pats have played, the 2011 game against the Ravens and last year’s title game against the Jaguars, both preceded Super Bowl losses instead of victories. How should we compare those games to less competitive games that may have sweeter memories associated with them like the 2004 rout against Pittsburgh?
Without further ado, here’s my best crack at ranking the Pats AFC title game wins, from “worst” to best.
I welcome your verbal abuse on Twitter for this list. @MattMcCarthy985
8. 2014: Patriots 45, Colts 7
The Colts never stood a chance in this one. Their footballs were also deflated, too. That’s a stone-cold fact.
There’s nothing more that needs to be said about this game. I never want to talk about it again.
7. 2007: Patriots 21 Chargers, 12
Perhaps we were just spoiled by the dominance of the 2007 Patriots, but this game felt like a real slog.
Brady threw three interceptions, but the Pats still won thanks in big part to Lawrence Maroney (122 yards, 1 touchdown). The defense came through by forcing three turnovers.
LaDainian Tomlinson checked out of the game in the first half after just two carries and Philip Rivers was ineffective playing on a torn ACL.
The Patriots let the Chargers hang around before closing them out late. The final outcome was great, but the game wasn’t.
6. 2016: Patriots 36, Steelers 17
This was a thoroughly enjoyable, systematic dismantling of the Steelers.
Brady ripped Pittsburgh’s zone defense to shreds. He threw for 384 yards and 3 touchdowns, including one to Chris Hogan on a flee-flicker. Hogan had 180 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns.
The 36-17 score appears closer than this game actually was. The Patriots dominated from start to finish.
5. 2004: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
Nobody expected this game to be a blowout, but the Patriots clobbered the Steelers from the first snap of the game to topple the team that snapped their 21-game winning streak earlier in the season.
The Pats stunned Pittsburgh by taking a 24-3 lead and never looked back. Brady hit Deion Branch on a 60-yard pass in the first quarter, before Rodney Harrison intercepted rookie Ben Roethlisberger for an 87-yard touchdown return right before halftime.
Game over. How sweet it was.
4. 2011: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
The AFC Championship that will forever be remembered as the Billy Cundiff game had so much more than just a missed kick at the buzzer. This was a heavyweight bout that went the distance.
Brady jumped over the pile on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line for the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Brandon Spikes had a huge interception, but Brady gave the ball right back with an interception on the very next play.
The Ravens could have won in the final seconds, but Sterling Moore punched a would-be touchdown out of Lee Evans’ hands to save the game. The Patriots then forced a field goal attempt, and the rest is history.
It was one of the wildest fourth quarters the Patriots have ever played.
Had Rob Gronkowski not suffered a high ankle sprain in this game, the Super Bowl two weeks later against the Giants might have had a different outcome.
3. 2017: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20
Trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Pats pulled off another memorable comeback on the biggest stage, thanks in big part to Danny Amendola.
Just days after suffering a major cut on his hand, Brady led the Patriots on an 85-yard scoring drive in just over three minutes. Brady hit Amendola for a touchdown pass to cut the Jags lead to 20-17.
Amendola then returned a punt to the Jacksonville 30, before Brady found him in the back of the end zone for the game-winning score.
Amendola finished with seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Five of those catches came in the fourth quarter.
2. 2003: Patriots 24, Colts 14
The game that changed the NFL forever.
The Patriots defense dominated the Colts, hammering their receivers at the line of scrimmage and forcing Peyton Manning into one of the worst performances of his career. Manning was picked off four times, three times by Ty Law.
As a result of the Patriots physicality, Colts President Bill Polian successfully lobbied the NFL competition committee to change the rules on defensive holding and illegal contact.
Defense in the NFL has never been the same since.
1. 2001: Patriots 24, Steelers 17
“Despite all the prognostications of doom, the Patriots have shown up here today and will take the field against the Steelers.”
Nobody quite summed up the feeling around this game better than Patriots radio play-by-play man Gil Santos, who opened up the broadcast acknowledging just how big an underdog the Patriots were. The Steelers were favored by 11 points and had already booked their hotel rooms for the Super Bowl.
But the Patriots stunned the Steelers on their home field. Troy Brown returned a punt for a touchdown, he scooped up a blocked field goal and shoveled it to Antwan Harris for a score, and Drew Bledsoe came off the bench for an injured Brady and threw the biggest touchdown pass of his career to David Patten.
It remains one of the biggest wins in the history of the franchise. The 2001 AFC Championship Game helped start everything.
You can hear Matt McCarthy on various 98.5 The Sports Hub programs. Follow him on Twitter @MattMcCarthy985.