Post Pattern, Playoff Edition: Pleading the Fifth

It’s almost fitting that the New England Patriots’ 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, advancing them to their fifth straight AFC Championship Game, tied the record of consecutive conference championship game appearances once held solely by the great Oakland Raiders teams of the 1970s. (What? You can’t imagine seeing the eyepatch on the Raiders’ logo being replaced by a hoodie? Of course, you can!)

Bear with me for a minute, though. Would comparisons to the 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers and/or the 1980s 49ers – teams that won multiple Super Bowls during their historic stretches – be more apt ones to make? Perhaps, if not absolutely. During the same stretch run when disco and Happy Days were ruling American pop culture, the Raiders, who appeared in the AFC title game in every season from 1973 to 1977, only managed to win one of those five conference title games, reaching – and winning – Super Bowl XI to conclude the 1976 season.

Along with being some of the greatest teams ever assembled, the hegemonic days of those Packers, Steelers and 49ers caused their squads to universally liked, well-respected and, in many circles outside of their home bases, beloved.

Unlike those 1970s Raiders. And also unlike these Patriots of the 21st century.

At least so far.

That’s just the beginning of the striking parallels that can be made between the two squads that now share the record for consistency in getting to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. New England is sure to have their share of players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though only quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are the only members of this particular five-year run that are surefire locks for Canton. (Adam Vinatieri, the placekicker who was on the first three Super Bowl-winning teams, is sure to join them.) Tight end Rob Gronkowski is well on his way, if injuries don’t end up catching up to him in the longterm.

Ten different players who played at least one season for the Raiders between 1973 and 1977 are Hall of Famers, and those don’t include owner Al Davis, executive Ron Wolf and head coach John Madden, who are all also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Almost criminally, one of the greats who wore the Silver and Black who’s not in the Hall of Fame is the quarterback who led the Raiders to all of those title game appearances, the late Ken Stabler. Before too long, Brady and Stabler will both be in Canton, with Stabler currently a finalist for the Class of 2016. Brady may not have as much of the flair for the dramatic as “Snake,” but both have pulled their teams out of the fire on many different occasions, especially when the stakes have been at their highest. Also, both men happen to possess looks fitting for Madison Avenue, keeping in line with the tradition of the glamour and prestige that comes with being a star quarterback donning the No. 12 jersey (Stabler, Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw to name a few).

Both franchises have had memorable playoff games decided by fortunate – if not, lucky – bounces that went their way: Oakland has the “Sea of Hands” play in the 1974 Divisional Round matchup against the two-time defending Super Bowl-champion Miami Dolphins. New England has Pete Carroll inexplicably having his Seattle Seahawks call a pass play from the one-yard line at the end of Super Bowl XLIX last year.

Stabler (l.) and Madden during their finest hour in Pasadena, when the Raiders won Super Bowl XI. (Hans Kluetmeier/SI)
Stabler (l.) and Madden during their finest hour, in Pasadena, when the Raiders were dominant in winning Super Bowl XI over Minnesota. (Hans Kluetmeier/SI)

Conversely, the two teams have been on the wrong end of historical Kodak moments in NFL playoff history. For every flashback Patriots fans have to Super Bowl XLII that involve David Tyree, Raiders fans (well, at least those fans old enough to remember) have “The Immaculate Reception” and Franco Harris as the main antagonist to nightmares of theirs for years and years.

Two of the great football minds the game has ever seen, Madden and Belichick, are woven into each team’s history. Interestingly enough, both have been, and maybe forever will be, least remembered for their actual Xs and Os acumen on the gridiron. Madden, who most people under 30 only know as the person who lent his name and likeness to one of the most popular video game franchises ever, became a household name as the longtime color commentator and broadcast partner of Pat Summerall, forming the gold standard of broadcasting duos in American sports television. Belichick, to most fans (especially many outside of the New England states), will be known as the enigmatic footballing genius in the hoodie who was at the center of Spygate, which casted a ominous shroud of doubt over the Patriots’ run of three Super Bowl championships over a four-year span from 2001-2004 and its legitimacy.

(By the way, one of the mantras that stuck, figuratively and literally, with the Oakland Raiders during their glory years was, to paraphrase, “If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not tryin’.”)

Of all of the things one can mention when talking about two of the founding members of the American Football League in the same breath, there’s one phrase that might be most fitting and relevant to bring up.

The Tuck Rule. You all remember that, right?

It was against the Raiders in a blizzard on a January 2002 evening in Foxboro where the Patriots’ run of near invincibility truly started – yet almost died before ever getting started. Since that game, New England will have appeared in 10 AFC Championship games (including the one this coming Sunday) and has won four Super Bowls. Oakland, which traded then-head coach Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just one month after that game, has only recorded one winning season afterward, and that was in the following campaign, in 2002, when the Raiders reached the Super Bowl – only to lose to Gruden’s Buccaneers in the Big Game.

How both teams are remembered in generations to come might also be very similar. The Raiders, like the Patriots of today, were regionally adored but, for the most part, loathed by millions outside of the Bay Area. Over time, however, a thaw set in, with the Silver and Black of the 1970s being more widely appreciated as their collection of colorful personalties, with their antics and swashbuckling style, took on counterculture and antihero status.

“Antihero” probably won’t be the term associated with the Pats anytime soon, nor will many compare their modern day dynasty to that of those Raiders. What can be said is the Patriots, for almost two decades running, have embodied the slogan made famous by the late former Raiders’ owner, Al Davis: “Just win, baby!”

(Or, in the next few years, will that be replaced by “Do Your Job”?)

[Cover photo (Brady, Belichick) courtesy of Maddie Meyer/Getty Images]

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