By Ernie Palladino
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It has gotten to the point where seeing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl elicits more shrugs than raised eyebrows.
So much for parity.
As they go for their fifth Lombardi Trophy of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era Sunday, their record of achievement stands as a thumb in the eye to the NFL's overall goal of competitive equality. In an era where teams go from last to first and vice-versa with amazing regularity, the Patriots have compiled a remarkable record, the achievements of which go far beyond any competitive edges controversies the "Spygate" and "Deflategate" scandals provided.
No secreted sideline film or missing PSIs in a football can define an era where the Pats have reached the last six and eight of the last 11 AFC Championship games, won 13 of the last 14 AFC East titles, and suffered only one losing season -- Belichick's first in 2000.
The rest of the AFC has borne witness to football's longest dynasty with a mixture of confusion and dismay, for good reason. The only constants have been Belichick, a failed head coach with Cleveland, and a lightly regarded sixth-round quarterback in Brady. Other than those two, the Patriots have had a revolving door of talent both offensively and defensively, setting them far apart from the typical dynasty that keeps a powerful core intact, only to go into a downswing after the stars depart.
San Francisco had its eras with Joe Montana and Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig, Tom Rathman, Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, and Brent Jones. Pittsburgh had a huge run in the late 1970s with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and the "Steel Curtain" defense of "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell.
They came and won. But when they went, both dynasties gave way to the painful task of rebuilding.
Not so with the Patriots. Whether it's finding youth from the ranks of the undrafted, or picking old talent from the NFL's scrap heap, the organization has kept on firing while reloading.
This year's team offers the perfect example. For the most part, Brady has been surrounded by a group of has-beens and never-weres. Wide receiver Chris Hogan couldn't stick with the Buffalo Bills, of all people. That he even made an NFL roster in the first place was sort of a miracle, considering the kid was primarily a lacrosse player, having just one year of college football at small-school Monmouth to his credit.
Yet, here he is, the second option in a three-wide set, catching touchdown passes and running up 180-yard receiving games right alongside Julian Edelman, who five years ago was considered a seventh-round longshot behind Wes Welker and Eric Decker.
After seemingly-indispensable tight end Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending back injury, the Pats' second tight end stepped up bigtime to provide a similar ruggedness to the passing attack. Martellus Bennett was thought to be washed up after a steady decline with the Bears.
He caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns for Belichick. And now, the same local media who once rightly lionized him are pondering whether Gronk will even be a necessary component going forward if the Pats beat the Falcons on Sunday.
LeGarrette Blout had joined the Pats in 2013 after three years with Tampa Bay, and was cut after five games the following season. He had a tumultuous 11 games with Pittsburgh, during which he walked off the sidelines, and wound up back in New England in 2015, all but relegated to short-yardage situations. So, of course, here he is this year, in the Super Bowl following a career year that included a league-high 18 touchdowns and 1,161 yards.
Speaking of running backs, change-of-pace back Dion Lewis had a complicated return from an ACL tear last year. Yet, he has backed up Blount well, and even contributed a playoff touchdown off a kickoff return. It's no surprise, either, that the Pats are 16-0 the last two years with Lewis in the lineup. Clearly, the former fifth-round pick of the Eagles has been a more-than-adequate replacement for his predecessor, Shane Vereen.
Even the sainted Brady seems replaceable. As Brady served his four-game Deflategate suspension, backup Jimmy Garoppolo came in and won three times.
The Pats have been doing this forever. In 2007, they needed a wide receiver. Along came aging and troublesome Randy Moss, who helped them to an unblemished record before the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl. Shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis was with them just long enough to win himself a ring in 2014. Then there was undrafted Malcolm Butler, who made that miracle, title-clinching interception against the Seahawks on the goal line and now leads the secondary along with mainstays Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
Remember, too, that it was only because Jets linebacker Mo Lewis planted Drew Bledsoe in the second game of 2001 that Brady got off the bench at all.
Brady is 39 now, and Garoppolo is a free agent. Gronkowski has grown ever more fragile. But if history is any indication, the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins along with the Pats' non-division foes, will continue the frustrating wait for the big decline in New England.
As long as there's a scrap heap, an undrafted list, and an organizational philosophy that recognizes dormant talent, the rest of the conference seems doomed to continue its fruitless vigil.
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