New England begins its playoff push on Saturday against Tennessee in a new role for the franchise: favorites.
It's not that the Patriots haven't had their moments. There were Super Bowl appearances in the 1980s and '90s. Of course they won it all just two seasons ago.
But favorites? Bullies? A team to be feared?
Never. New England always has been an underdog, and often a colossal one, for its entire existence. In their three Super Bowls the Pats went off as major dogs. At 14-2 and riding a 12-game win streak, the Patriots now are the favorites in Vegas to win it all.
"There couldn't be anything less relevant than that to me," New England coach Bill Belichick says.
That's what is a coach is supposed to say, which is fine. But confidence is contagious in football, especially when the deck is stacked in your favor: a decided home-field advantage that comes from winter weather and snow-crazed fans.
This entire franchise transformation can be traced to a single day: Jan. 19, 2002. That was Oakland vs. New England in the – depending on which bay you live by, Massachusetts or San Francisco – "snow game" or "tuck game."
With one major storm, one controversial call and two clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, New England became a team to believe in and Foxboro became one of the league's most dreaded road trips.
Since then New England is 13-3 at home, including 8-0 this season. In their last six home games the Pats defense allowed an average of 3.7 points a game and pitched three shutouts.
Moreover, they have become adept at winning in all sorts of New England elements.
Which is why Saturday night presents a particularly tough problem for Tennessee. The weather forecast for Foxboro is harsh: a low of about 0 degrees, clouds rolling in at dark and a chance of snow.
"We're going to leave the Florida guys home," jokes Titan coach Jeff Fisher, who is unconcerned. "We'll bring them up on Saturday, put them up in the press box, give them some pizza and let the rest of the guys play. ...
"What you have to do is dress so you can execute. That's the bottom line. They'll be able to gather themselves on the sidelines. I don't expect any problems with it. We've gone on the road before to some cold environments and done just fine."
There is no secret to winning in the elements and New England is built perfectly for it.
Quarterback Tom Brady may hail from California, but he cut his football teeth at Michigan and his short passing game is ideal for tough weather. He went 32-for-52 for 312 yards against Oakland two years ago. Running back Antoine Smith looks back on that game, in which solid footing was tough to come by, and smiles.
"Actually, it was kind of fun," he said.
Then there is Vinatieri, whose game-tying 45-yard field goal through the snow and wind was one of the greatest in league history. Growing up in South Dakota he's seen worse.
Defensively, New England can get physical with anybody in any weather. But the Pats' D is at its best on a tough winter day. In a 12-0 victory over Miami during a Dec. 7 snowstorm the Pats allowed just 134 yards.
The Pats swear it's all about mental preparation and confidence. Clearly they have both.
"I love the cold," safety Rodney Harrison said. "But weather is only an issue if you make it an issue. We've played in some of the worst storms out here ever, but I'm sure Tennessee's going to be ready for it."
We'll see. The Titans (13-4) are plenty tough. They fear nothing.
"I don't think the guys are worried about how cold it's going to be," McNair says. "The weather's not going to be a problem. I've played in cold weather. I've played in rain. I've played in snow."
The challenge is doing it at night in New England, where a confident favorite awaits with a major home-field advantage, where conditions should be eerily similar to a turning-point game two Januarys ago.
- New England