PHOENIX (AP) — When the conversation turns to Super Bowl losers, the Bills and Vikings immediately come up.
Both are 0-4, Buffalo managing the feat in consecutive seasons.
The Broncos were in that sinking ship until John Elway completed his Hall of Fame career with two championships.
The Patriots? They own a share of the short-term success mark in Super Bowls: three in a four-year span. They've been back twice since their previous championship victory and failed to add to their collection.
Should they lose to Seattle next Sunday, these Patriots will become three-time losers, too. Those with short memories could begin wondering where that winning touch went?
Then again, a win at University of Phoenix Stadium will tie Tom Brady with the likes of two more Hall of Famers, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, for Super victories. It would lift Bill Belichick onto the same level as Chuck Noll, the only coaches with four Super Bowl rings.
But the other side of the ledger can't be ignored: Despite their amazing run of success in their division — the admittedly mediocre AFC East — the Patriots have gone a full decade between titles.
"I would say the excitement is high, but it's also more focused," says receiver Julian Edelman, who was on the squad that lost to the Giants three years ago.
"You have guys that have been to this game, guys that haven't been to this game. You have guys that won the game; you have guys that haven't won the game when they've been there. Everyone is kind of just focused and trying to get ready to prepare for this team. We're playing the champs."
They used to be the champs, but since beating Philadelphia in Jacksonville for the 2004 NFL crown, the Patriots have seen the Giants grab the Lombardi Trophy twice against them; seen Pittsburgh also win it two times; seen Baltimore, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Seattle conclude their seasons with a championship. New England also lost twice in the Super Bowl before Belichick and Brady took over.
What has happened for New England, other than dozens of wins except for one in the big game?
Many factors have contributed to the streak the Patriots can end next weekend:
—Slippage on defense.
Yes, Belichick earned his stripes as a defensive mastermind, but ever since Brady matured into a dominant passer, New England has been an offensive team. That's been important to remain a contender as the NFL has evolved into a high-scoring league. But in the biggest matchups, often against other potent attacks, the Patriots' defense has been lacking. They haven't had a true stud pass rusher or a star defensive back (until signing Darrelle Revis this season), and they've also had some unfortunate injuries, particularly to linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Belichick has been willing to make do with inconsistent running backs or retreads, and he also has soured on some of them, especially if they can't hold onto the football. That disorder in the backfield has put more pressure on Brady and the passing game. Fortunately for New England, Brady is an all-time great.
But the changing cast behind him can be disruptive.
Of course, since that most recent Super Bowl win, he's had the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Edelman to throw to. Any QB would like that group.
Yet opponents have found in the playoffs that they rarely will be beaten by the Patriots' run game, so they have loaded up on the pass rush, on coverage, and on making Brady uncomfortable.
The opposition, especially when the Patriots were winning their past two titles, often reacted to what New England was doing instead of emphasizing their own strengths. That changed altogether in the 2008 Super Bowl, when the Giants unleashed monstrous pressure on Brady, didn't make mistakes on either side of the ball, and shattered the Patriots' chase of perfection.
Pretty much the same thing has occurred in every postseason since, including after the 2011 schedule when the Giants beat them again for the prize. Think of how Baltimore and the Jets strutted their stuff in postseason matchups at Gillette Stadium.
Say what? Belichick holds the record for postseason victories with 21, surpassing Tom Landry last week. But twice he was outmaneuvered in Super Bowls by Tom Coughlin and his defensive coordinators. And two other times, John Harbaugh made many more correct moves in a playoff matchup.
It would be foolish to think that Belichick no longer can handle the sharpest spotlight — which he ignores anyway. So it will be one of the most intriguing story lines of this Super Bowl to see how the chess match goes against Pete Carroll, perhaps the finest coach Belichick will have faced at this juncture.
It would also be ill-advised to play up the recent postseason shortcomings and ignore the earlier successes. Still, should they lose, lots of people could wind up judging the Patriots more on what has happened in the past decade than what occurred in those glorious early seasons of Brady/Belichick.