This year marks the 20th playoff appearance for the Pats organization, and a remarkable 10th in the last 12 years. New England, behind QB Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, has enjoyed an unprecedented run of five Super Bowl appearances and three Lombardi Trophies since 2001.
With a playoff berth clinched, it's never too early to think about seeding. Let's take a look at the Patriots teams of old and see how they fared in each seeding position.
The Top Seed
The Pats have earned the top seed four times in the last nine seasons, including each of the last two. Three of those years—2003, 2007 and 2011—saw the Pats make the Super Bowl.
No Patriot fan needs to be reminded of the 2007 and 2011 campaigns—especially those of us unfortunate enough to live in the tri-state area last February.
But, in case you're a glutton for punishment, here's a quick recap of both Super Bowls. The Pats advanced to the Super Bowl to face the New York Giants, the Giants got interior pressure and kept the game close, a Patriot dropped a catchable, game-sealing pass thrown his way and a Giant made some ridiculous catch he had no business making.
Ouch, that's hard to type.
Let's get the other recent painful memory of a top-seeded Pats team out of the way, and skirt past the 28-21 loss to the New York Jets in the 2010 divisional round. Remember the failed fake punt by Patrick Chung? I try not to.
Alright, on to the good stuff.
In 2003, a Pats defense bolstered up the middle by new acquisitions Ted Washington and Rodney Harrison rode an undefeated home campaign to the top seed. They beat the Titans 17-14 in four-degree weather, then picked Peyton Manning four times in the AFC Championship to advance to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXXVIII was a tale of odd and even quarters, with zero points scored in the first and third and 61 combined points scored in the second and fourth. The Pats, for the second time in three years, won the Super Bowl on a game-winning kick by Adam Vinatieri.
Prior to 2003, the only other Pats team to finish as the top seed was the AFL's Boston Patriots, and they played at Fenway Park. The Boston Pats (weird to call them that) tied the Buffalo Bills in the AFL Eastern division during the 1963 season. They beat Buffalo 26-8 to secure the AFL Eastern title.
In typical pre-Kraft-era fashion, the Patriots advanced to the title game only to get smacked, 51-10 to the San Diego Chargers.
The Second Seed
New England has finished as the second seed four times—most recently in their 2004 championship season. They've had good success as the two seed, with two Super Bowl titles coming from second-seeded Pats teams.
2001 and 2004 brought the Patriots two of the franchise's first three titles.
We all know the origin of Tom Brady's transfer to power as the Patriots QB. He came onto the scene in 2001 after franchise QB Drew Bledsoe ruptured his spleen in Week 2. Brady led the Pats to nine straight wins to close out the season.
The most memorable win, of course, was the Pats' first SB victory against the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf." The Rams, who had beaten the Pats in a Sunday Night Football matchup earlier in the season, came into the game favored by two touchdowns.
Then, of course, Brady led one of the great two-minute drives in history, spiritually depantsing not just the Rams but also announcer John Madden, who insisted the Pats should play for OT.
Then Adam Vinatieri made the Super Bowl-winning, 48-yard kick as time expired—a kick which was featured on the cover of the morning newspaper that's plastered all over my barber's wall to this day.
Four seasons later, the Pats cemented their dynasty with another Super Bowl win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Patriots also made it to the Super Bowl as the second seed in 1996, when they lost to the Green Bay Packers 35-21 in part due to Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a TD.
The only other second-seeded Pats team was their 1978 squad, which marched to its first divisional title behind a record-setting 3,165 rushing yards. The season was effectively torpedoed when head coach Chuck Fairbanks breached his contract by agreeing midseason to coach at the University of Colorado the following year.
The Pats lost 31-14 to the Houston Oilers in the opening round of that year's playoffs.
The Third Seed
The Pats have entered the playoffs as the third seed three times, and are just 1-3 in those playoff games. Two of those third-seeded seasons came after Super Bowl-losing campaigns.
Over a decade later, after the Super Bowl loss to the Packers, the Pats kicked off the first year of the Pete Carroll era with a 10-6 season and a win against the rival Dolphins in the wild-card round. Unfortunately, they lost 7-6 in the divisional round to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that was sealed by future Patriot hero Mike Vrabel's strip sack of Drew Bledsoe.
The Pats also finished as the third seed in 2009, Tom Brady's first year back from an ACL tear. They lost Wes Welker to an ACL/MCL injury in their Week 17 matchup against the Houston Texans, and were without him for the wild-card round.
In the wildcard matchup against the Ravens, the Pats gave up an 83-yard TD run to Ray Rice on the first play from scrimmage. Three Tom Brady turnovers in the first quarter led to a 24-0 deficit, and the Pats never were competitive after that.
The Fourth Seed
Fourth-seeded Pats teams have been cursed with controversial (if not downright terrible) calls in crucial moments.
The first post-merger Pats team to make the playoffs was a four seed. The Pats had been a laughingstock of the league for a decade, having had no winning seasons in nine years.
Surprisingly, the 1976 Pats improved by eight games over their '75 predecessors, going from 3-11 to 11-3. A big piece of that transformation was future Hall of Fame CB Mike Haynes, who won Rookie of the Year honors.
That Pats team was stacked, with Haynes, three-time Pro Bowl TE Russ Francis, legendary G John Hannah (possibly the greatest offensive lineman ever) and an offense that ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards and total points.
The Pats faced the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoffs, a team they had crushed 48-17 that year. Unfortunately, a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty on Ray Hamilton set up a game-winning rushing TD by Oakland Raiders QB Ken Stabler.
The Pats weren't the fourth seed again until 2005, the year of Tom Brady's first playoff loss.
Yet again, the Pats were struck by another controversial call, on a pick-six by Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. In one of the great hustle plays of all time, New England TE Ben Watson sprinted in a diagonal across the field to tackle Bailey and force a fumble.
Bailey fumbled the ball out of bounds, and the refs were unable to conclude whether the ball went out in the end zone (which would have resulted in a Pats' touchback) or at the 1-yard line (resulting in Denver ball), so they upheld a ruling that it went out at the 1.
That led to a game-clinching Denver TD.
The third and final fourth-seeded Pats team came the following year, when the Pats made it to the AFC Championship Game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts overcame a 21-6 halftime deficit to win the game 38-34, thanks in large part to the fact that half the Pats' defense was sick in the locker room.
Oh, and there was also the Ellis Hobbs' face-guarding PI, which set the Colts up with 1st-and-goal from the Pats' 1-yard line. Given that face-guarding was no longer a penalty at the time of that call, that might go down as one of the worst calls ever made in a playoff game.
That horrible call played a huge role in gifting Manning his only ring. Frustration abounds.
The Fifth and Sixth Seeds
The Pats have clinched their division and can't finish lower than the fourth seed, but let's take a look at their wild-card finishes anyway out of pure historical interest.
New England finished as the fifth seed in 1985, won three road playoff games (beating two divisional rivals in the Jets and Dolphins along the way) before getting crushed by the Bears in the Super Bowl. The only drama in the game was whether Walter Payton would get to score a Super Bowl touchdown (he didn't—coach Mike Ditka opted to hand DL William "Refrigerator" Perry the ball just outside the goal line for the TD).
The Pats also finished fifth in the conference in 1994, when the Pats won their final seven games to clinch a wild-card berth.
New England came into the playoffs riding high, but they played terribly in their matchup against the Cleveland Browns (and future Pats head coach Bill Belichick). Drew Bledsoe threw three picks and the Browns beat the Pats for the second time that season.
As for the sixth seed? The Pats have secured it just once—in 1998, when Scott Zolak replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe at the end of the season and lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild-card round.
Yep, that's a fun bit of trivia.
The 1982 players' strike caused that season to be shortened to nine games. As a result, a one-time, 16-team "Super Bowl Tournament" was instituted. The Pats were the seventh seed at 5-4 and lost 28-13 to the Miami Dolphins.