Which of Patriots' nine recent roads to Super Bowl was most impressive?
Even the most dominant professional sports franchise of the 21st century has to overcome adversity.
Just ask the 2018 New England Patriots, who drew the 12-4 Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC Divisional Round and had to travel to Kansas City to face the No. 1 seed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
After the Patriots silenced the doubters to punch a ticket to Super Bowl LIII -- their ninth Super Bowl appearance in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era -- it's worth wondering: Was this the most challenging playoff route the Patriots have taken to reach the big game?
Well, let's find out. Read on as we rank the Patriots' nine Super Bowl appearances by order of least difficult path to most difficult path based on the strength of their postseason opponents.
9. Road to Super Bowl XLII (2007 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5 regular season record) at home, 31-20
AFC Championship Game: Beat San Diego Chargers (11-5) at home, 21-12
This is the closest the Patriots had to an AFC cakewalk. The David Garrard-led Jaguars offered a minimal threat in the Divisional Round, while New England's stout defense handled a young Philip Rivers in the title game, holding the Chargers to four Nate Kaeding field goals.
It's almost like New England wasn't challenged enough and didn't see the 9-7 New York Giants coming in Super Bowl XLII... (Sorry, Pats fans.)
8. Road to Super Bowl LI (2016 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Houston Texans (9-7) at home, 34-16
AFC Championship Game: Beat Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at home 36-17
Fortune favored the Patriots in the 2016 postseason. After a rout of Brock Osweiler and the mediocre Texans, New England appeared to face a test in the Steelers -- until running back Le'Veon Bell left the game with an injury in the first quarter. Pittsburgh's offense was a shell of itself without Bell, as the Patriots took care of business at Gillette Stadium before their historic comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
7. Road to Super Bowl XLIX (2014 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at home, 35-31 (Edelman pass to Amendola)
AFC Championship Game: Beat Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at home, 45-7
The Ravens were better than their 10-6 regular season record showed and actually led 28-14 in the third quarter, forcing the Patriots to get tricky to pull off a come-from-behind victory.
But that set up a laughable AFC title game matchup with the Colts, who looked completely overmatched at a rainy Gillette Stadium and mustered just 209 yards of total offense. The only adversity came after the game, when the first reports of deflated footballs surfaced. (New England beat the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 two weeks later, anyway.)
6. Road to Super Bowl XLVI (2011 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Denver Broncos (8-8) at home, 45-10
AFC Championship Game: Beat Ravens (12-4) at home, 23-20
If we're ranking this whole list by individual matchups, the Broncos might be on the bottom: The Patriots stamped out "Tebow Mania" by eviscerating the .500 Broncos at home. But New England needed a gift to defeat a strong Ravens team at home, as kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard chip shot that would have sent the game to overtime. This game bumps the 2011 postseason up a few rungs on the difficulty ladder.
5. Road to Super Bowl LII (2017 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Tennessee Titans (9-7) at home, 35-14
AFC Championship Game: Beat Jaguars (10-6) at home, 24-20
There's a theme to many of New England's Super Bowl runs: A first-round bye, a blowout of a mediocre team in the Divisional Round and a hard-fought game against a tough opponent in the title game.
That was the case in the 2017 playoffs, as the fiesty Jaguars gave the Patriots all they could handle at Gillette Stadium and led 20-10 in the fourth quarter before Tom Brady and Co. stormed back. New England didn't have any magic left in the Super Bowl, falling to Nick Foles and the Eagles for their third Super Bowl loss under Brady and Belichick.
4. Road to Super Bowl XXXVIII (2003 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Titans (12-4) at home, 17-14
AFC Championship Game: Beat Colts (12-4) at home, 24-14
Knocking off two 12-4 opponents led by two Pro Bowl quarterbacks (Tennessee's Steve McNair and Indy's Peyton Manning) is no easy feat. But the Patriots had Mother Nature on their side: The Pats-Titans game was four degrees at kickoff, while Manning had to battle sub-freezing temperatures and snow flurries in the AFC title game. The 2003 Patriots solidified one fact: It's really hard beat this team in Foxboro after Christmas.
3. Road to Super Bowl XXXVI (2001 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Oakland Raiders (10-6) at home, 16-13 (in overtime)
AFC Championship Game: Beat Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) on road, 24-17
Hey, our first road playoff game! How's this for a wild stat: In their nine Super Bowl trips, the Patriots have played in just three road playoff games and zero Wild Card Round games.
We all know the adversity New England battled in the Divisional Round: The Tuck Rule and Adam Vinatieri helped upend a talented Raiders team in a Foxboro blizzard. But the next victory was even more impressive, as Drew Bledsoe picked up the slack for an injured Brady to score a road upset of the top-seeded Steelers, who lost just one game in regulation all season.
2. Road to Super Bowl XXXIX (2004 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Colts (12-4) at home, 20-3
AFC Championship Game: Beat Steelers (15-1) on road, 41-27
The 2004 Patriots were a juggernaut. So, why are they No. 2 on this list? A 20-3 statement win over Manning's Colts (again) earns them brownie points, but their 41-27 upset of the 15-1 Steelers may be their best non-Super Bowl win of the Brady-Belichick era.
Pittsburgh boasted a 15-1 regular season record with an average margin of victory of 7.7 points and hadn't lost since Week 2 -- before the Patriots racked up 41 points at Heinz Field en route to a third Super Bowl title in four years.
1. Road to Super Bowl LIII (2018 season)
AFC Divisional Round: Beat Chargers (12-4) at home, 41-28
AFC Championship Game: Beat Chiefs (12-4) on road, 37-31 (in overtime)
That's right, folks. This year's path to the big game was more difficult than any other Super Bowl run. The Chargers were supposed to be one of the toughest Divisional Round opponents the Patriots had ever faced, pegged by some as a Super Bowl dark horse.
After putting that narrative to bed, the Pats entered Arrowhead Stadium as underdogs against Patrick Mahomes and an explosive Chiefs offense. This was supposed to be where the dynasty died; instead, Brady and Belichick are preparing for their ninth Super Bowl in 18 seasons against the club they beat in the first one.