The Patriots' streak of 11 postseason games as a favorite is over.
For the first time since the AFC championship game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, New England is a playoff underdog, against Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game on Sunday.
Tom Brady & Co. are willing to use that as motivation for the game that will send the winner to the Super Bowl.
“We play with a chip on our shoulder,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “We like to play that way.”
Count the Patriots out?
Go right ahead, fullback James Develin said.
“I can't really speak for everyone, but I personally love the underdog story,” he said. “It just kind of keeps a little bit of the pressure off you and I just like to prove the doubters wrong.”
Brady sounded the first “woe is us” note during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio Monday.
“I know when we played Baltimore nobody picked us to win,” Brady said. “I'm sure no one's going to pick us to win this week. We've had our backs against the wall for a while. Really, the whole season we've lost players, and teams have really counted us out.
“We've got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we'll be an underdog again.”
The Ravens were favored to extend their four-game winning streak in the next to last game of the regular season. Baltimore was at home, but the Patriots won 41-7.
Now New England (13-4) is preparing to go on the road again. And Brady's teammates figure if playing the underdog card against Denver (14-3) is good enough for him, it's good enough for them.
“If Tom's going to embrace it, I'm going to embrace it,” New England running back LeGarrette Blount said with a smile. “That's the leader of this team, and if that's how he feels, I'm sure that's how most of the guys out here feel.”
In that loss to the Colts seven years ago, the Patriots held an 18-point lead late in the first half but lost 38-34. Indianapolis went on to win the Super Bowl.
That also was the Patriots' most recent playoff road game. Since then, they're 7-2 at home and 0-2 in Super Bowls at neutral sites.
This season, they were underdogs at home against Denver on Nov. 24, but won 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas missed that game with a knee injury. Now he's back, one of five Denver receivers with at least 60 catches this season.
“He's a heck of a football player, a playmaker, go-to guy for them,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “He can create mismatches and things like that, so he's a good football player. But they have a lot of good football players.”
The 250-pound Blount creates mismatches as well, able to elude big linemen and run over small defensive backs. He ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday night's 43-22 win over Indianapolis after rushing for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the previous game, a 34-20 win over Buffalo in the regular-season finale.
“I can do a lot of improving,” Blount said after watching video of the Indianapolis game. “I've seen a couple of holes I could have hit, and I've seen a couple of cuts I could have made. I'm going to go out there and look at what they're going to give me, and hopefully explode somewhere.”
Blount got off to a slow start this season, his first with the Patriots.
It would be dangerous to underestimate him now, just as the Broncos would be unwise to put too much stock into their status as favorites.
After all, Brady fooled all those teams that bypassed him in the 2000 draft until the Patriots took him in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick.
“He came into the league as a big underdog,” Develin said, “so I'm sure he's used to that.”