• How they got here: As usual, New England dominated the AFC East with a 12-4 record that was good for a No. 2 seed. The Patriots beat Houston 41-28 in the divisional round and earned another home game via Denver's loss to Baltimore.
• Super Bowl-bound if: Wes Welker keeps delivering. There's no more dependable player in the NFL, disregarding his critical drop in the Super Bowl last February. Welker caught eight passes for 131 yards against Houston, continually helping the Patriots sustain drives.
• Homeward-bound if: They fail to top 21 points. That's been the cutoff point for their postseason success or failure, ever since their 24-21 win over Philadelphia in the Super Bowl that followed the 2004 season. The Patriots also will be in trouble if they allow the volume of big plays that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has produced in the playoffs.
• Biggest variable: It's not how the Patriots will replace tight end Rob Gronkowski, because they've thrived without him. The issue is whether they can keep taking away the football. New England fields the NFL's 25th-ranked defense, but had a plus-25 turnover margin in the regular season and was plus-1 against Houston.
• Best player: Brady. Even with losses in four of six playoff games prior to Sunday's win, he's now 17-6 in postseason play, topping Joe Montana for the most quarterbacking victories. Brady passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns, against Houston and his game shows no signs of slippage at age 35.
• Best player you've never heard of: Shane Vereen unless you remember his two rushing touchdowns in California's loss to Utah in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. The Patriots always have interchangeable players, and he's one of them, accounting for 124 yards and three touchdowns via rushing and receiving against Houston in relief of Danny Woodhead.
• Local connection: In his Fresno State days, All-Pro offensive guard Logan Mankins was coached by Mark Weber, formerly of BYU and now Utah State's line coach.
• Reasons to cheer for them: They've lost to the Giants in dramatic fashion in their last two Super Bowls. So even if you're tired of seeing them in the playoffs, it's not as if they win the championship every year. The NFL's No. 1-ranked offense surely would deliver another entertaining Super Bowl, and you have to admire a culture that maintains consistency in a league that's programmed to prevent it.
• Reasons to cheer against them: They're considered cuddly only in New England. Everywhere else, they're viewed as the smug, condescending, Belichickian bunch that's difficult to embrace. Three titles is still enough.
Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe introduces the NFL's championship game contestants. Today: New England Patriots.