- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The way former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi recounts the story, a handful of New England players, fresh off winning their third Super Bowl title in four seasons and second in a row, were huddled in Honolulu, the last members of the 2004 AFC Pro Bowl squad to be introduced given their champion status.
"Guys, seriously, we still had confetti in our pockets from the parade -- the celebration and euphoric feeling we had from the Super Bowl still was there," Bruschi explained.
"Tom Brady looks to all of us and goes, 'No one's ever won three [Super Bowls] in a row, guys.' And it was sort of just a hanging thought to all of us, like, 'This is what I want and this is a goal.' We all looked at him and said, 'Come on, Tom!' It was like, 'Take a break, take a little bit of a break and enjoy it.' I was sort of in disbelief that he was already there. He was already thinking about what was next."
Success has seemingly never spoiled Brady, but it's easy to imagine how it might have become a bit of an expectation given the accomplishments in his early years.
Brady and his teammates failed in that quest for a third consecutive title in 2005, stumbling in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs against the Broncos. And while Brady has experienced plenty of success over the past seven seasons -- the Patriots posting an 86-26 record in regular-season play, including a 16-0 mark during the 2007 campaign -- they haven't been able to reach the top of the mountain again.
Time might have afforded the now 34-year-old Brady the opportunity to better savor the chance to savor the climb.
Brady will compete in his sixth AFC title game Sunday when the Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium. It's been three long years since his last conference title game appearance. His 2008 season was wiped out by an ACL injury (coincidentally, thanks to now-Ravens safety Bernard Pollard), and New England got bounced in its first playoff game in each of the past two seasons.
It's clear Brady understands the magnitude of simply having the opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl.
"We're very fortunate to be playing in this game," Brady said Thursday. "It's hard to get to this game. There are some great teams that aren't playing this week. We're one of the teams that are playing, so hopefully we're going to go out there and take advantage of it."
Brady need not worry about his NFL legacy, though he does stand on the cusp of joining some more elite company. A win Sunday would push him through to his fifth Super Bowl appearance (only John Elway has done that), while adding a fourth Lombardi Trophy would match the exploits of only Terry Bradshaw and Brady's childhood idol, Joe Montana.
And while Brady is seemingly aware of the magnitude, he's also incredibly focused on the moment.
"I've been in a great place where a bunch of teammates have really committed to themselves and to each other to make it to this point," Brady said of another AFC title-game appearance.
"We've put a lot of work in. There has been a lot of practices and a lot of meetings and so forth. To get to this point is very challenging. Every team is talented. Every team has the same rules and there are 32 teams that start the year with the hopes of being in this position.
"The team that is going to win this weekend is the team that plays the best. There's nothing that anyone will say or do before Sunday at 3 o'clock that will have an influence on the game other than the way you prepare and the way you rested and the commitment to practice that we bring to the table. The game can't get here fast enough."
For Brady, the AFC Championship Game has never been his finest stage. Oh sure, he boasts a 4-1 record (the only loss being to the Colts during the 2006 season), but his stats are somewhat pedestrian -- at least by his lofty standards -- with Brady completing 91 of 143 passes for 1,000 yards with six touchdowns, five interceptions and an 83.7 passer rating.
Coming off both a brilliant regular season in which he passed for a career-best 5,235 yards and a divisional-round playoff win over Denver in which he matched an NFL record with six touchdown passes, it's pretty clear to many of his peers just how driven for success Brady is at the moment.
Heck, over New England's current nine-game winning streak, Brady has thrown 25 touchdowns (against only three interceptions) and the Patriots are averaging a whopping 37 points per game.
As Steve Young, another three-time Super Bowl champion, opined this week, "Don't miss this game. It might be the best Tom Brady football you've ever seen."
First off, there's a bit of revenge. Brady produced maybe the worst playoff effort of his career against the Ravens back in January 2010, completing 23 of 42 passes for a mere 154 yards with two TDs and three interceptions in a 33-14 loss. There's still a lot of familiar faces on that defense, and Brady was highly complimentary of the Ravens' talent this week.
But then there's the championship drought. And it's not hard for those that have been around Brady throughout his career to identify how intense that desire is to win it all again.
"His intensity level is still there," said Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, the longest-tenured member of the team and one of the handful remaining from those three title teams. "He's still a fiery guy that wants to win every football game that he plays, and wants to make every throw good."
As veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters, in his first season with the Patriots, echoed: "Any time you see a guy that is as great as [Brady] is, with all the physical talents and all the mental strengths that he has and the way he's prepared and then the way he focuses and his competitive level on a day-to-day basis, is something to be proud of and [I'm] definitely proud to play with. It also drives you that you don't want to disappoint that guy because you know how much effort and energy and time that he's putting into it."
Brady caused a bit of a stir when he sat out Wednesday's practice with what the team classified as a left shoulder ailment. He was peppered with questions on the topic Thursday before returning as a full participant at practice.
Brady stressed that he'll be ready to lead his team on Sunday. And he'll bring maybe even a greater desire to win than he displayed in Honolulu while fantasizing about a third straight title, the benefit of time only increasing his drive.
It's that drive that has allowed Brady to maintain his success.
"I try to be the best I can be every week," he said. "I learn something from every game that I play. You try to get better. You try to work at it in practice. You try to get better in your film study and your preparation. You try to be the best leader that you can be for this team. That's where my focus is at."
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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