By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- In sports, there are many measures of success. For some, success is a bottom-line business, measured only in championships. To some, rewriting the history books with new statistical achievements on a regular basis is considered success. To others, a consistent system of winning much more often than losing is the mark of a truly successful franchise.
For today's exercise, as the Patriots prepare for their sixth consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game, we're going to evaluate that final point.
In the history of the league, the Patriots rank rather highly on the list of championship game appearances. With 13 appearances in the conference title game, the Patriots rank fourth all time in NFL history. The Steelers, this week's Patriots opponent, will be playing in their NFL-leading 16th conference title game. They're followed by the 49ers (15), Cowboys (14) and then Patriots (13).
Considering the Patriots really got a late start in that regard (they had just two conference title game appearances prior to 2000), it's impressive how much ground they've been able to make up since Bill Belichick joined the franchise at the turn of the century.
And so, if we examine the past 16 seasons, it is absolutely remarkable to see how consistent the Patriots have been when it comes to reaching the conference championship.
Just look at the numbers.
Conference Championship Game Appearances Since 2000
1. New England: 11
2. Pittsburgh: 6
3. Philadelphia: 5
4. Baltimore: 4
4. Green Bay: 4
4. Indianapolis: 4
7. Atlanta: 3
7. Carolina: 3
7. Denver: 3
7. New York Giants: 3
7. San Francisco: 3
7. Seattle: 3
13. Arizona: 2
13. Chicago: 2
13. Minnesota: 2
13. New Orleans: 2
13. Oakland: 2
13. New York Jets: 2
Four more teams -- Tennessee, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles/St. Louis -- have one championship game appearance apiece, and that's it.
In 17 opportunities as head coach of the Patriots, Belichick has led his team to the conference title game in 65 percent of his seasons. (He's made it to the Super Bowl 38 percent of the time, with a chance now to make it 41 percent, but that's a story perhaps for another day next week.)
In those 17 seasons there are 10 teams -- nearly a third of the league -- that have not reached even one conference championship game. The poor Buffalo Bills haven't even tasted a playoff game in that time. The Bengals own a sad 0-7 postseason record in that span.
Those teams all spend countless hours every week of every year trying to improve, all with the goal of playing a game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Some teams have been unable to do it at all. Other teams -- even some that are considered "successful" -- have done it two or three times.
But the Patriots -- ever-relevant, always legitimate -- have made this trip 11 times since the turn of the century.
You can take this picture and take it one step further, too, as the Patriots have won six conference title games. The Steelers have won three, as have the Giants. The Ravens, Colts, Panthers, Seahawks and Broncos have each won two. The Eagles are 1-4. The Packers are 1-2.
And now, with his 11th trip to the conference title game, Belichick now has more appearances than any other coach in history, moving past Hall of Famer Tom Landry.
Obviously, when that level of sustained winning takes place for such a long time, the measuring stick gets more fastidious, and merely making that conference title game becomes less of an accomplishment in and of itself. That is to be expected.
But with plenty of time between now and the kickoff, it's always worthwhile to zoom out and compare the Patriots to the rest of the league during what has been a historic run that does not appear ready to end any time soon.
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