Having posted convincing victories over Cincinnati and Denver, the Indianapolis Colts unquestionably belong in the AFC championship game.
In a sense, though, the Colts are party crashers.
Andrew Luck is the only remaining quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, and Chuck Pagano is similarly the odd man out among the final four head coaches.
Then again, the Colts — coming off three consecutive 11-5 seasons — have steadily gained postseason ground during that span. They lost to Baltimore in the first round in Luck's rookie season; pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory over Kansas City in the first round last year, then were pounded at New England in a divisional game; and now are one victory away from playing in the NFL's marquee event.
In order to reach the Super Bowl, the Colts will have to knock off teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. The first part of that has been accomplished, obviously.
"I think there's a competitive spirit in all of this. Hey, the harder it is, the better," Luck said. "Let's go try and make it happen."
Luck led the NFL this season with 40 touchdown passes, eclipsing Manning's single-season franchise record with 4,761 yards passing. Luck has thrown for at least 250 yards in each of his first five playoff games, an NFL record.
"He was pretty good when he came in and he's even better now," said New England Coach Bill Belichick. "He's got a lot of strengths, no weaknesses."
Don't forget Tom
This is the fourth consecutive AFC championship game for Brady, who will be playing in the ninth of his 15-year career. A lot of people thought he was done this season, especially when the Patriots got off to a 2-2 start, but Brady proved he still had plenty of victories in him.
Brady had three touchdown passes against Baltimore last week, giving him 46 in playoff games, which surpasses the 45 of his boyhood idol, Joe Montana.
The last two times the Patriots played Indianapolis — both of them convincing New England victories — they got huge rushing performances from a couple of backs not known for them.
In a 43-22 divisional win last year, LeGarrette Blount trampled the Colts for 166 yards and four touchdowns. And in November of this season, the little-known Jonas Gray topped that with 201 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-20 victory.
"I think they're a different team, obviously they're a top-two team in the AFC," Gray said this week of the Colts. "This is why they're here. They earned the right to be here. They've played well on defense."
This game pits two of the most successful franchises of this generation.
Indianapolis is seeking its third trip to the Super Bowl in nine years, having won a Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 2006 season with a victory over Chicago, and lost one in 2009 against New Orleans.
New England is aiming for its sixth Super Bowl appearance in 14 years. The Patriots won championships after the 2001, '03 and '04 seasons, before losing a pair of Super Bowls to the New York Giants.
This could be the last time that former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri faces his old team.
At 42, Vinatieri is the NFL's oldest active player and still rock-solid reliable for the Colts. The teams he's played on are 6-0 in conference title games, and he has four Super Bowl rings. He's the league's scoring leader in career postseason games (233 points) and Sunday will pass Jerry Rice for the most career playoff games (29).
Also within reach is a fifth Super Bowl ring. Only Charles Haley has one for the thumb.
By the numbers
How teams compare statistically. All regular-season statistics are per-game averages, except for turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):
IND | NE
Points scored: 28.6 (6) | 29.2 (4)
Points allowed: 23.1 (19) | 19.6 (8)
Pass offense: 305.9 (1) | 239.8 (16)
Rush offense: 100.8 (22) | 104.3 (24)
Pass defense: 229.3 (12) | 239.7 (17)
Rush defense: 113.4 (18) | 104.3 (9)
Sacks: 41 (9) | 40 (13)
Penalty yards: 54.1 (15) | 47 (4)
Turnovers: -5 (22) | +12 (2)
The Colts are a better team than they were earlier this season when the Patriots clobbered them. Regardless, it's so tough for a visiting team to win at Gillette Stadium, particularly in January. Count on the Patriots to be more offensively balanced against Indianapolis than they were in the divisional round against Baltimore, when they abandoned the run early. Finding somebody to effectively cover tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to be a real problem for the Colts. The key for Indianapolis will be getting some traction with its anemic running game to keep Brady and that offense off the field. That's a tall order.