We’ll know Sunday if the 2013 Patriots are a Super Bowl-worthy team. But like a proud papa, owner Robert Kraft didn’t wait until the team faced Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos to declare this iteration of the Patriots super.
Kraft called them “super-special,” comparing them with the Patriots team that won the Super Bowl in the 2001 season.
He also said that Sunday’s AFC Championship game in Denver has legacy implications for the quarterback-coach coupling of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, that he thinks former Patriot Wes Welker, who joined the Broncos after rancorous contract negotiations in Foxborough, belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that his intent is to have Brady and Belichick retire as Patriots.
Speaking by telephone, Kraft reflected on the state of his franchise and a season in which the Patriots reached their third consecutive conference title game and the ninth of Kraft’s tenure, which marks its 20th anniversary on Tuesday.
This season has brought both scrutiny and praise, seen both acrimony and team unity, and supplied Kraft with a shocking nadir in the arrest of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and the potential to reach the apex of the NFL for a fourth time.
When the 2009 Patriots fizzled out in the first round, Kraft remarked that the team lacked chemistry. He has no such concerns now. Gridiron gestalt is in full effect.
“We’ve had some wonderful experiences and some wonderful teams, but this team really is super-special,” said Kraft. “When you go through the locker room, you can get a feeling for the chemistry, how guys feel about one and another, the camaraderie.
“This team really reminds me of that 2001 team, a lot of players who weren’t household names, but they bonded together. They weren’t the best team on paper. But it’s not the team with the most talent, but rather the team that has the players who play the best together as a team and make the fewest mistakes.”
What makes this Patriots team so remarkable is it has overcome a bevy of injuries and key absences to reach this point. Six starters have been relegated to injured reserve, including former All-Pros Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Rob Gronkowski. The adversity started off the field with the arrest of Hernandez.
“There are so many things that happened in the offseason that were unfortunate and that we didn’t want or plan for,” said Kraft. “It’s another reason I love this team.”
Sunday’s game has been painted as yet another clash of the two most iconic quarterbacks of their generation, Brady and Manning, forever foils, jockeying for the top perch on the medal stand of history.
Patriot Place has become Legacy Place, as both Brady and Belichick have been grilled about the possibility of reaching a sixth Super Bowl together.
Brady would become the first quarterback to lead a team to six Super Bowls. Belichick would tie Don Shula as the only head coach to do it. Kraft is already the only owner to preside over six Super Bowl teams.
Kraft acknowledged history is part of the equation Sunday.
“For [Tom], for Bill, it’s about legacy now. We’d like to be able to create something that is pretty unique,” said Kraft. “We’ve had some wonderful experiences and all of us would like to close the order. We need things to work our way, and have our best players put their best feet forward.
“The great thing about the NFL, and the reason the networks pay us so much and the fans stay interested, is that no one knows what’s going to happen — no coach, no QB, no owner. That’s the beauty of this game.”
Another golden opportunity to play for the sterling silver symbol of NFL preeminence also brings to mind that the Patriots have a finite amount of shots to take with Brady, who will be 37 next season, and Belichick, who turns 62 in April.
The curtain eventually closes on every great act.
“It will probably be impossible to replicate the sense of what we have now in terms of our two key people,” said Kraft. “I’ve learned in my other businesses when you have a great, outstanding manager you’ll never find a replacement, but you try to find a complement of people who can do things.
“I pinch myself [that] we’ve been able to have the two leaders we have and have them as long as we have; usually, these things break up. We’ve worked hard to have this thing together, and hopefully it continues for quite a while. It’s my intent that they both retire as Patriots.”
Kraft would like to retire the talk about Welker’s acrimonious and equivocal departure. A deal couldn’t be closed to keep a receiver who was always open in New England.
Kraft was loath to rehash events, but expressed great admiration and personal affinity for Welker.
“Like many of our fans, Wes was one of my favorite players,” said Kraft. “He is one of the toughest, grittiest wide receivers I’ve ever seen. He was a fan favorite because you knew he was going to give you every ounce of effort he had on every play.
“I loved watching him play, loved spending time with him off the field. He was great in the community.
“I expect that one day we will honor Wes in our Hall of Fame. I’d like to see him get in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I will be a big supporter of that. That’s the way I feel about Wes. We had a very warm greeting back in November.”
The Patriots are not favored by the oddsmakers on Sunday in Denver. But in a league rigged for parity, they’ve already beaten the odds just by being there.
The Patriots are a constant contender — 13 straight winning seasons and 11 consecutive seasons of double-digit wins.
You might not always agree with the Patriots’ logic, methods, or their unsentimental milieu, but you can’t argue with the results. Or the idea that the success revolves around the trinity of Kraft, Belichick, and Brady.
Like the 72-year-old Kraft, winning never seems to get old for the Patriots.
“Once you’ve tasted it, it doesn’t get old. You just want it even more,” said Kraft. “We get to these conference championships, and you realize you might never get to that again . . . I really cherish it, and hope it goes all right.”