- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will play in their seventh AFC Championship Game in 12 seasons on Sunday, a remarkable string of success that has even owner Robert Kraft pinching himself. Kraft said Friday that he thinks of his eight grandchildren and how they've grown up in an era in which this is the expectation -- Super Bowl or bust.
Sometimes expectations can be a burden, but in words Kraft sometimes uses, they are a "high-class problem" to have in this case.
"I think about what our fan base has come to expect, and it is very high. We're going to do our best to keep sustaining it, and I think we have a system in place where we can do pretty well," Kraft said.
"Having a unique combination of [Bill] Belichick and [Tom] Brady is pretty special. I think both of them are the best at what they do in their positions. And doing this in the age of the salary cap, our organization tries to run the economic part of our business with the same kind of special skills that our folks bring to playing and coaching."
The Patriots, with an estimated $18 million in salary cap space for 2013 and many of their key players already under contract, show no signs of slowing down. That's bad news for the rest of the NFL.
In an offseason in which eight franchises hired new head coaches and eight will have new personnel chiefs, the Patriots once again are positioned to stay the course. The 60-year-old Belichick is currently the longest-tenured coach with the same team (13 seasons), and while details of his contract are not made public, all indications are that he'll be back in 2013 and beyond.
Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, Kraft said, "In life, you don't voluntarily break something down unless you get something better to put in its place. I'm very happy having Bill as my coach. I think he's happy coaching here. I think both of us would like to work out on a continuing basis."
Kraft sometimes has compared the dynamic between owner and head coach to a marriage. Like anything else, there can be challenges, but he paints a picture of synergy among the organization's top decision-makers.
"I think the key partners are independent thinkers but come together for the family," he said, playing off the marriage theme. "The other thing about this business that [can be different] is that issues come up that you can't plan for, and you need people with good judgment who react at the moment and in a way that they do the right thing."
It's clear that the Patriots pride themselves on the strategic aspects of what goes into building a team. It's also clear that they are good at it.
One example was the November trade for cornerback Aqib Talib. After eight games, the Patriots clearly needed help for their defensive backfield and one of the only ways to truly address the issue -- through a trade -- was about to pass the team by. So the club pounced just minutes before the trade deadline.
In doing so, there was confidence from Belichick that Talib, who had worn out his welcome with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in part because of off-field transgressions, would fit well into the Patriots' structured football-first culture. Belichick also felt the trade compensation -- Talib and a 2013 seventh-round pick for a 2013 fourth-round pick -- represented fair value from a pure football perspective.
That's one example where Kraft points to Belichick's excellence as a coach/executive when it comes to assessing player value, thinking about both the present and long-term picture, and making a key addition at a strategic time.
"We gave up a lot for someone for really less than half the season," noted Kraft, referencing how Talib is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2013. "[But] that's understanding the value of what we're giving up in next year's draft, with a lot of underclassmen, with the present value of what we have as a team and how long we can do it and what we had to do.
"I think the strategic thinking is excellent," he continued. "We're together as a unit. We have very lively discussions internally, but in the end we all come together as a unit. I think if you look throughout the league, division from within can become a very difficult thing to work against."
It was pointed out to Kraft that only Brady, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and receiver Deion Branch remain since since their last Super Bowl championship, yet despite that turnover, the Patriots have been regular participants in the AFC Championship Game.
"It's really a great tribute to our coaching staff, our personnel people and our players," Kraft responded. "Tommy is someone who takes great care of himself. I like to think I'm 35. I think he thinks he's 21. He takes care of his body, takes care of himself, and we're very lucky to have him as our quarterback. I clearly said before the season started, I think we're privileged to have the best quarterback of all time and I still believe it."
Kraft also reflected on what it was like when he was a Patriots season-ticket holder and how it was commonplace for the season to be over before New Year's. It's something a young generation of Patriots fans has hardly experienced.
"It's a horrible feeling; for those few years we haven't been in the playoffs you really go into withdrawal," he said. "I think in a bit of a way, we are spoiled. But if you're going to be spoiled, this is the way to go."
Robert Kraft doesn't shy away from high expectations for the Patriots.