Conference Championship weekend has generally been kind to the New England Patriots. This weekend's rematch with the Baltimore Ravens marks the ninth time the Patriots have played to represent the AFC on Super Bowl Sunday, and the Pats are a not-so-shabby 7-1 (.875) in the previous eight. Among teams with at least five conference championship appearances, only the New York Giants, at 5-0, have a better winning percentage.
But the Patriots can count themselves among other historical elites. This Sunday will be New England's seventh conference title game in the last 12 seasons. As impressive as that might be, it is not unprecedented.
Between 1970 and 1981, two teams accomplished that feat. On the AFC side, the Oakland Raiders reached seven in 12 years while in the NFC, the Dallas Cowboys reached nine championship games in 12 years and 10 in 13.
The San Francisco 49ers also qualified for seven NFC title games in 12 season between 1981 and 1992 and eventually went to nine in 14 seasons.
What about the Pittsburgh Steelers? The team with the most AFC Championship Game appearances (15), AFC Championships (8) and Super Bowl championships (6) never reached seven conference championships in 12 seasons, but reached six in 12 seasons on two separate occasions, the latest coming between 1994 and 2005.
Of their eight previous conference title games, the Patriots have hosted four (1996, 2003, 2007, 2011) and traveled for four (1985, 2001, 2004, 2006). Their only loss came in Indianapolis in 2006 in a game the Patriots never trailed through the first 58:58 but suffered a late, crushing defeat.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Patriots have been one of the conference's top two seeds, and thereby earned a bye, on the way to seven of their nine AFC Championship games. The two exceptions came in 1985 when New England became the first team to win three road games on route to the Super Bowl with triumphs in New York, Los Angeles and Miami; and in 2006 when it knocked off the Jets at home and San Diego on the road before falling in Indianapolis.
This year is also the third time the Patriots have faced a rematch (not necessarily in consecutive seasons) to reach the Super Bowl. They beat the Steelers in 2001 and 2004, beat the Colts in 2003 and lost in 2006 and then knocked off Sunday's opponent, Baltimore, last year at Gillette.
One other item to note… Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown 334 touchdowns and 123 interceptions in his career (an almost 3:1 ratio of TD to INT), but in the playoffs, that number is closer to 2:1 with 41 TD passes and 20 interceptions. He has 13 postseason games with multiple touchdown passes (10-3 in those games) and has had five with multiple interceptions (3-2 in those games). In his last two playoff games against the Ravens, Brady has thrown two touchdown passes and five interceptions while compiling game passer ratings of 49.1 (2009; 33-14 loss) and 57.5 (2011; 23-20 win), which are well below his career 89.1 postseason rating and his 96.6 career regular season passer rating.
Let's take a glance back at the previous eight conference title games:
2011: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
Jan. 22, 2012 – Gillette Stadium
The Ravens traveled to Gillette Stadium ready to get physical and actually outgained the Patriots potent offense, 398-330, as Pats quarterback Tom Brady was held without a touchdown pass and tossed two interceptions. New England led, 13-10, at halftime thanks to a 7-yard BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown run and two Stephen Gostkowski field goals. Another field goal made it 16-10 before Baltimore rattled off 10 straight points for a 20-16 fourth quarter lead. Brady put the Patriots back on top with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone to set up a dramatic finish. With 27 seconds to go, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hit Lee Evans for what appeared to be a game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass, but cornerback Sterling Moore reached in at the last second and jarred the ball free. Two plays later, kicker Billy Cundiff badly missed a short, 32-yard field goal wide to the left, sending the Patriots to Indianapolis.
2007: Patriots 21, Chargers 12
Jan. 20, 2008 – Gillette Stadium
The Patriots 2007 offense was the best the league had ever seen. Tom Brady threw an NFL record 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss caught a record 23 of those. After blowing through the league and reaching the conference championship with a 17-0 record, New England was in for a fight on championship Sunday. San Diego took a 3-0 lead into the second quarter before Laurence Maroney put New England on the board with a 1-yard touchdown run. It was 7-6 when Brady found Jabar Gaffney for a 12-yard score and a 14-6 edge. Two more field goals and some solid San Diego defense made it 14-12 heading into the fourth quarter before a 6-yard strike from Brady to Wes Welker provided some cushion in the win. Brady threw three interceptions in the game, but the Chargers were unable to take advantage as Philip Rivers threw two of his own.
2006: Colts 38, Patriots 34
Jan. 21, 2007 – RCA Dome
It looked like New England's good AFC Championship fortune would continue when it jumped all over the Colts in Indy. New England led 14-3 almost midway through the second quarter when cornerback Asante Samuel jumped a Peyton Manning pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 advantage. The Colts managed a field goal before the half and then opened the third quarter with a long touchdown drive that ended with a Manning 1-yard run. Manning then hit former Patriot Dan Klecko for another touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion erased the Patriots 18-point lead and tied the game at 21. The Patriots answered when Ellis Hobbs returned a kickoff 80 yards to set up a 6-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Jabar Gaffney, but the Colts came right back to tie. An Adam Vinatieri field goal was sandwiched by two from Stephen Gostkowski for a 34-31 Patriots lead with 3:53 left. The Patriots forced a Colts punt with 3:35 to go, but Tom Brady's third-and-four pass to seal the game was knocked down by Bob Sanders, and Indy had one more crack at it. That was all it needed as it drove from its own 20 with 2:17 left and completed the game-winning drive on a 3-yard Joseph Addai touchdown run with 1:02 to go.
2004: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
Jan. 23, 2005 – Heinz Field
Earlier in the 2004 season, the Patriots rode an NFL-record 21-game winning streak into Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh jumped to a 21-3 lead that day thanks to a pair of Patriots turnovers, including a Brady interception returned for a touchdown. The streak ended the streak with a 34-20 loss, setting the stage for a playoff rematch between the 15-1 Steelers and 14-2 Patriots. New England opened the game with a field goal for a 3-0 lead, and then back-to-back big plays followed, which swung the emotion firmly in New England's favor. Pittsburgh, facing a fourth-and-one from the Patriots 39, handed to Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, who was stuffed for no gain by Rosevelt Colvin. One play after the turnover, Tom Brady went over the top and hit Deion Branch for a 60-yard crowd-silencing touchdown and a 10-0 lead. After a Steelers field goal and a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brady to David Givens made it 17-3, Pittsburgh found a rhythm and moved to the New England 19, but Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted by Rodney Harrison, who raced 87 yards for a touchdown and 24-3 halftime lead. Pittsburgh never really threatened in the second half as New England rolled to the win.
2003: Patriots 24, Colts 14
Jan. 18, 2004 – Gillette Stadium
This one was a pick party for Ty Law and the Patriots defense. New England scored on its opening possession on a 7-yard Tom Brady-to-David Givens scoring pass, but Indianapolis seemed poised to answer. It drove to the Patriots 5-yard line before Peyton Manning was intercepted in the end zone by Rodney Harrison – a sign of things to come for Manning. New England kicked a field goal for a 10-0 lead before Manning was intercepted for the second consecutive play, this time by Law. Another field goal made it 13-0 and then an errant snap on a punt led to a safety and a 15-0 lead at the half. The Colts rode running back Edgerrin James the length of the field on their next possession and cut the lead to 15-7. Two more field goals made it 21-7 before Law got greedy. He intercepted Manning a second time at the Colts 31 and then again at his own 11 for a three-interception game. Manning's four interceptions were too much to overcome and the Patriots held on to win.
2001: Patriots 24, Pittsburgh 14
Jan. 27, 2002 – Heinz Field
The brash, trash-talking Steelers had booked their trip to New Orleans. No one gave the Patriots a chance a week after squeaking by Oakland in controversial fashion following a fortuitous tuck rule call that helped the Patriots to a Divisional Round comeback win. The first quarter of the Championship Game saw the teams buckle in defensively for a physical brawl as they traded punts. But it was the game's sixth punt that opened the scoring when Troy Brown raced virtually untouched 55 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Patriots lead. The punters stayed busy throughout the first half. Pittsburgh managed a field goal and late in the half, Tom Brady started New England moving, only to go down with an ankle injury while completing a 28-yard pass to Brown. Enter starter-turned backup Drew Bledsoe, who finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten for a 14-3 lead. The third quarter saw special teams lightning strike again. Pittsburgh kicker Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal was blocked by Brandon Mitchell. Brown scooped up the bouncing ball and flipped it back to Antwan Harris, who took off the remaining 49 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead. The Steelers answered with two straight touchdowns to make it 21-17 before Adam Vinatieri's 44-yard field goal made it 24-17 entering the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh had its chances in the final quarter, but quarterback Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in the final frame – one to Tebucky Jones and a clincher to Lawyer Milloy.
1996: Patriots 20, Jaguars 6
Jan. 12, 1997 – Foxboro Stadium
The Jaguars were a surprising visitor to Foxboro Stadium fresh off a divisional round upset of the Broncos in Denver. But New England was ready with its defensive clamps and made enough big plays to earn a trip to New Orleans. An early Jacksonville miscue helped New England to a lead. Punting from deep in his own end zone, Bryan Barker had to field a high snap, which allowed Larry Whigham time to haul him down at his own 4-yard line to set up a Curtis Martin 1-yard touchdown run. The teams traded field goals and it was 10-3 when another Jags fumble set up a field goal for a 13-3 Patriots lead at the half. Jacksonville cut it to 13-6 and with less than four minutes to go, Jags quarterback Mark Brunell drove his team to the New England 5-yard line before he was intercepted in the end zone by safety Willie Clay. Otis Smith then sealed the game with 2:24 left when he recovered a James Stewart fumble and returned it 47 yards for the 20-6 final margin.
1985: Patriots 31, Dolphins 14
Jan. 12, 1986, Orange Bowl
The Patriots traveled to Miami having lost 18 straight games to the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl. But New England's opportunistic playoff pattern continued in the conference championship game as the Patriots forced six Miami turnovers (17 in three playoff games) and ran for 255 yards to pull away. Quarterback Tony Eason completed a mere 10 of his 12 passes for 71 yards and three touchdowns while his counterpart, Dan Marino, connected on 20-of-28 throws for 248 yards but with a pair of interceptions. Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, the Patriots rattled off 21 straight points on passes from Eason to Tony Collins from 4 yards out, Derrick Ramsey from 1 yard and Robert Weathers from 2. Mosi Tatupu sealed it with a 1-yard fourth quarter touchdown run to break the so-called Orange Bowl Jinx.