Almost every NFL season of this century has started with the strong possibility of the New England Patriots reaching the Super Bowl. Many of them have ended that way.

The Patriots are playing in the AFC championship game for the seventh consecutive season and the 12th time in 17 years. They’ve won five Super Bowls in the Brady/Belichick Era, and here comes another opportunity. In advance of Sunday’s game vs. Jacksonville, a closer look at the Patriots.

Team’s theme

New England has produced a dynasty unlike any other franchise in any sport in this century, with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady teaming for seven conference titles. The Patriots expect to reach this stage every season, and they’ve done so again with the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense and a defense that allows a lot of yards but not many points.

How they got here

The Patriots went 13-3 to win another AFC East title and earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. They had to survive a wild game at Pittsburgh in December to claim the top seed. As it turns out, that victory mattered only in the sense of New England’s meeting Jacksonville in the AFC title game rather than one round earlier.

New England dominated Tennessee in a 35-14 victory in the divisional round, before Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville.

Local connections

BYU alumnus Kyle Van Noy has become a fixture at linebacker in his first full season with the Patriots. Van Noy missed three games late in the regular season due to injury, but he returned against Tennessee and was a big factor in the Patriots’ pass rush.

Ex-Utah cornerback Eric Rowe’s season was even more disrupted by injuries. He’s back in a utility role and made four solo tackles vs. the Titans. New England’s defense ranked 29th among 32 teams in the NFL in yards allowed but was fifth in scoring defense (18.5) during the regular season.

New England Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe, left, intercepts a pass intended for New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall (15) during the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Trevor Reilly, a former Utah linebacker, has had an adventurous season in New England after being signed to the Patriots’ practice squad in mid-October. That’s his status now, although he was promoted to the 53-man active roster for two months after former BYU star Harvey Langi was injured in an auto accident and lost for the season.

Reilly was waived Dec. 26 when the Patriots signed NFL veteran James Harrison, then was re-signed to the practice squad a week later.

Moment in BYU/Utah opponent history

Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks was the star of Oregon State’s 51-48 overtime defeat of Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2013. Cooks caught nine passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns, including a 6-yard TD reception that ended the game. Reilly and Rowe were starters for Utah’s defense.

Best player

Brady, at age 40, is the traditional answer, but tight end Rob Gronkowski also is in the conversation this year. Gronkowski made the All-Pro first team after catching 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in a bounce-back season from injury.

Best player you’ve never heard of

James Develin, fullback. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl, and he’s just the kind of player the Patriots tend to maximize. Develin, from Brown University of the Ivy League, never carried the ball while catching six passes for 38 yards during the 2017 regular season. But he’s valuable as a blocker in certain packages.

Reasons to cheer for them

Van Noy and Rowe are the only active players from Utah schools in Sunday’s two championship games. They are trying for their second Super Bowl rings. And whether the proper view is respect, grudging appreciation or complete admiration, the Patriots deserve credit for what they’ve done in a league that’s designed to spread success around.