By Bill Burt
---- — FOXBORO -- Maybe they should rename the American Football Conference Championship game next week at Gillette Stadium the "Bill Belichick Invitational."
For the seventh time in a dozen years, Belichick's -- and your -- New England Patriots will play in the AFC Championship game. This one will be a rematch with their new rivals from Baltimore next week at Gillette Stadium (6:30 p.m., Ch.4).
That feat has been accomplished by only two other teams before as the Dallas Cowboys amazingly went to nine NFC Championship games in 12 years from 1971 to 1982, and Oakland Raiders won seven in 11 seasons from 1971 to 1981.
If the Patriots win on Sunday -- they were installed as 8 1/2 point favorites 30 minutes after the game -- they will headed to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
And by the way, if that good fortune were to happen it would be their sixth Super Bowl visit in 12 years. No team, not even the Cowboys, accomplished that.
"From the outside, you wonder why they are always in the hunt every year," said Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, whose role will increase with the news that Rob Gronkowski is out for the playoffs after re-injuring his forearm.
"Then you get here and you understand the seven AFC championship games in 12 years. It's more than hard work. Everyone here has a focus on their job. It's about consistency every day."
What the Patriots did last night, beating the Houston Texans, 41-28, was not as easy as it looked (they led 38-13 in the fourth quarter).
If you were watching the divisional playoff games this weekend, you understand. First round "byes," are nice for healing the mind and body, but they just don't mean what they used to.
Wild Card round "bandits" like the Seahawks and Ravens are every bit as good as the Falcons and Patriots. Which should make several million New Englanders appreciate another Final Four appearance.
The Texans haven't been the same since they arrived here a month ago for a Monday night game looking like the "best team" in the NFL at 12-1 record. In fact, their all-time greatest player, wide receiver Andre Johnson called it the most important game in franchise history. Well, the 42-14 beat down the Patriots put on the Texans sent them on a tailspin, which included four losses in five games, including last night.
Last night was more of the same, but with a bigger penalty. The Texans are finished for 2012.
"This is my first playoff game," said Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. "It's another level faster than the regular season. Everything is bigger, better and louder. I had a lot of fun (last night). Probably the funnest game I've ever played in."
Talib might want to put the seat belt on because he hasn't seen anything yet. In fact, a seat belt will not be enough to bundle the excitement in Gillette Stadium next Sunday night.
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.