WHEN a coach or a quarterback lives his football existence in air as rarefied as that breathed by both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, it seems every January or February appearance becomes something of a referendum. It's in those months when the best of all time earns his distinction, after all, and so with each of those Patriots are in that conversation for his position, the perception is that with each win or loss he's carving out his place in history.
But as the tandem takes the field tonight for its 25th playoff game together, a divisional round clash with the Colts, neither of them has his reputation on the line nearly as much as that field itself does.
When Indianapolis steps onto Gillette Stadium's turf tonight, it walks into a building where New England has hosted 49 regular-season games with Brady as its starting quarterback since 2007, and gone 46-3 in those contests.
At the same time, however, Indianapolis will also be walking into a building where Brady and the Patriots have seen their postseason dreams dashed in three of the past four years, and where the Pats have arguably been outplayed in four the six playoff games Foxborough has hosted since the 2009 campaign.
The two others were notable exceptions, as New England trounced both Denver and Houston — in addition to squeaking past Baltimore in the 2011 AFC championship game — so those examples show that the Patriots can't reinstate the once-fearsome reputation of their home field.
But losing is sure capable of killing it for good.
Think about it. Home field is supposed to be an advantage for every NFL team, and an even more significant edge for the truly elite. There are the inherent comforts. The ease of communication that comes by controlling the noise. The momentum aided by the crowd. When setting the odds each week, Las Vegas gives virtually every home team three points based on those benefits. And when they're on the side of a great quarterback and a great coach, that combination is supposed to be almost unbeatable.
Yet Brady, Belichick and the Patriots were beaten at Gillette by the Ravens when Joe Flacco completed four passes for 34 yards. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots were beaten at Gillette by the Jets and second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots were beaten at Gillette by the Ravens, again, when the fourth-highest-scoring offense in NFL history was limited to just a single touchdown by an aging and deplete defense.
Those are games the Patriots shouldn't have lost — and games they didn't lose early in this era that has spoiled a generation of New England football fans. Debuting at 24, Brady was 32 before he lost a playoff game at Gillette, going 8-0 from 2002-08, and while the landscape has certainly changed in the near-decade since the Pats were last champs, what's frustrating is that these are games the Patriots still aren't losing in the regular season.
Not only have they won 46 of 49 Brady starts over the past six seasons, since he returned from knee surgery for the start of 2009, the Patriots have three times — including this current one — finished a regular season undefeated in Foxborough. Three times they've outscored their opponents by at least 100 points over the eight contests, and on average have outscored their foes by more than 13 points per tilt. They've outgained their opponents by better than 50 yards per game. They've generally been dominant.
At least until the postseason. And that's where today is important for the Patriots, beyond the obvious opportunity to advance in the postseason, and play for the AFC championship. If New England were to lose again today, and get eliminated at home for the fourth time in five seasons, it would all but eradicate whatever mystique the enemy encounters when it comes to Foxborough, and whatever mental advantage that affords the Pats.
Some have made the case that Baltimore has played New England so tough through the years because they take the right attitude into those games, and aren't intimidated by the challenging chore of taking on Brady and Belichick in their own house. But if the Patriots lose today, by the start of next year there's no reason every team shouldn't deplane in Providence with that same approach.
Indianapolis is a good enough team to finish 11-5, and to rally from 28 points down in a wild-card stunner against the Chiefs. But top receiver Reggie Wayne is done for the year. They don't run the ball well. Their defense is vulnerable in the run game, too. And they're mediocre in the air on both sides of the ball.
As beat up as New England may be, this is a team the Patriots should beat.
OVERRATED: Deion Branch's acquisition. The Patriots' offense has changed since he was part of the mix last season, and he's unlikely to make much impact for the Colts after sitting out the entire season. He's no threat to New England, either as a turncoat or a pass catcher.
UNDERRATED: Vontae Davis. The corner had only one interception this season, but he did break up a dozen passes — and the ex-Dolphin has picked Brady twice in his career. .
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.