Edd Hodsdon recaps how the Patriots made it to their record ninth Super Bowl appearance

Even with star quarterback Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the season as a result of the DeflateGate scandal, the Patriots were still one of the top contenders in the AFC. Many experts thought if they could go 2-2 without Brady, they would be in good shape.

Instead, they went 3-1, upsetting Arizona in the season opener.

Brady's return against the hapless Browns started a four game win streak for the Patriots. Despite losing 31-24 at home to Seattle coming off their bye week, the Patriots would not lose again, avenging last year's AFC Championship game loss to Denver with a 16-3 win in Week 15. Brady posted another vintage campaign at 39, throwing 28 touchdowns to just two interceptions while averaging 296.2 yards per game. Even losing once-in-a-generation tight end Rob Gronkowski to injury in Week 12 could not slow the Patriots down as they won their 8th consecutive AFC East title, finishing 14-2 and clinching a 7th consecutive first round playoff bye.

But it's not just Brady and the offense who have led the way, as Bill Belichick's defense has been a key component. The Patriots are the league's stingiest defense, allowing an average of only 15.6 points per game. New England's defensive success this season is remarkable because Belichick has adjusted his roster on the fly.

The Patriots jettisoned arguably their best pass rusher in Chandler Jones in a trade with Arizona before the 2016 season. Then, they sent a conditional 4th round pick to Philadelphia for cornerback Eric Rowe, who was fifth on the Eagles' depth chart. After swapping low round picks with Detroit for linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Belichick stunned the football world by trading Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a compensatory 3rd round pick. Add wide receivers Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd and tight end Martellus Bennett, who struggled for Buffalo, Arizona, and Chicago respectively, Belichick has built yet another championship team by turning trash from other teams into treasure.

In the Divisional round, the Patriots faced the Houston Texans. Both teams made mistakes in a messy game, but the Patriots prevailed thanks to the defense intercepting Brock Osweiler three times and adding three sacks. Brady battled Houston's formidable pass rush to deliver a 34-16 win, setting up an AFC title game clash with old rivals Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh arrived in Foxborough on the back of a nine game winning streak and two huge playoff performances by running back Le'Veon Bell. But after Bell aggravated a groin injury on the second play of the game, the Steelers' offense collapsed. Brady dominated Pittsburgh's young zone defense with a relentless no-huddle approach, throwing for three touchdowns and 384 yards in a 36-17 beat-down. The Patriots were headed to Super Bowl 51, a record-breaking ninth appearance in the Super Bowl and the seventh appearance of the Brady-Belichick era. 

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