January 18. 2013 12:20AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats' golden era stacks up well

Special to The Union Leader

When Matt Light came to Foxborough in the spring of 2001 as a second-round draft pick, he found a franchise for which winning was far more aberration than expectation.

There'd been a couple of Super Bowl blips, but only two AFC teams at the time had fewer appearances in the conference title game - and those were the three-time AFL champion and Super Bowl IV champion Chiefs, and the five-year-old Ravens, fresh off a Super Bowl title. Even the Jaguars had as many as the Patriots' two. And they'd been around all of six years.

But the franchise Light entered almost a dozen years ago is far different from the one he exited last spring, or the one his kids and their friends have known their entire lives.

"These kids that grow up in the New England area, that go to school with my kids in the Foxborough school system, they have no idea what pain some of these other people went through," the retired left tackle said this week, "because their entire lives the Patriots have just been at the top of the top of the list."

The Patriots can put themselves at the top of the list on Sunday, when they welcome the Ravens to Gillette Stadium for an AFC Championship Game that marks the club's seventh time playing for the conference title in the past 12 seasons. A long way from that laughingstock, the Patriots could tie the Steelers' record with an eighth American Football Conference title, and even more impressive is that a victory would be New England's sixth in the dozen campaigns of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

An era that - just by getting this far - may already be the greatest extended period of dominance in AFC history.

The younger fans Light referenced would have no trouble believing such a statement, considering that since their Pats made a most unexpected run to a ring in 2001, Pittsburgh's five appearances in the conference final makes the Steelers the only other team to reach the AFC title game more than three times - and the Steelers lost both of their head-to-head meetings with the Patriots.

It's the older fans who may have a hard time accepting that New England's current run as the best the conference has ever seen. Especially those who fondly remember football in the 1970s. Although it's New England's ability not only to get to the game, but to win the game - and to continue doing both over such a lengthy span - that sets it apart from the others.

The Dolphins of that era won three straight AFC titles, but it took them nine years to get back to the championship game after that, largely due to the Steelers and Raiders, who were rolling out rosters chock full of Hall of Famers for much of the mid- to late-'70s.

From 1972-79, a period of eight seasons, Pittsburgh went to six AFC championship games and won four titles - but the Steelers didn't reach the conference final again for another 16 years.

And that's where the Patriots were better: New England played in five title games over a seven-year period, winning four, then followed it up by getting to the championship game twice more in the subsequent five seasons.

Oakland had a run similar to the Patriots in duration, which lasted from the conference's inception in 1970 straight through to 1980. The Raiders reached seven title games in those 11 seasons. The rub, though, was that they lost five of them.

And that's where the Patriots were better: New England has lost just one of its title-game appearances, and that setback required the Colts to rally from 18 points down in making the comeback in AFC championship history.

The Bills had a record-setting run from 1988-93, when they won the AFC four straight years and played for the conference title five times in six seasons - but in the following six seasons they won just one playoff game.

And that's where the Patriots were better: New England has won 17 playoff games and 10 divisional titles in a 12-year stretch, while Buffalo won 11 and six respectively.

Maybe the run closest to the Pats since the Bills was the Steelers of 1994-2005, a stretch that spanned Neil O'Donnell to Ben Roethlisberger and featured six AFC championship appearances. The difference is that four of those were losses, including the previously noted pair against the Patriots - which makes it really difficult to consider the Steelers dominant over the era.

Which is really the point: It's not enough to be mentioned in the conversation.

At different stages this century, teams have threatened New England's claim to the crown. First came the Steelers. Then the Colts. For a brief period the Chargers were a legitimate rival. Now it is the Ravens.

But the Patriots beat all four of them in an AFC championship game during a period that'll eventually be remembered as a peak in the history of those franchises, and that speaks to the fact that rarely have the supposed elite among their contemporaries been better than the Patriots in the short term - let alone over the length of a dozen years.

In the 12 uncertainty-defined seasons before Light arrived at a moribund franchise in 2001, the Patriots won 77 games. In the 12 diamond-defined seasons since, they've won 164 games - which is 28 more than the Steelers, 27 more than the Colts. And if the Patriots add No. 165 on Sunday, they'll have won as many AFC titles as the rest of the conference combined over the past dozen years, even though Brady missed one of those years due to injury.

Is that a dynasty? Light's kids and their friends have in fact seen others ascend to the thrones of both the AFC and the NFL, so no, not by definition.

But, darn, is it dominant.

More dominant than the AFC has ever seen.

Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com. Twitter: @davedonofrio