HOUSTON — It seems awfully familiar, mostly because it is. We've seen this act before, and the principal characters remain the same.
The cool, calm quarterback who always seems to find an open receiver at just the right time. The rumpled coach in a hoodie on the sideline who usually looks like somebody just kicked his dog.
Toss in an owner with a grudge, and the cast is pretty much set.
In a league where parity is supposed to reign, they're in the Super Bowl for the seventh time together. Win this one and they've got a handful of rings, along with a spot in the record books that may never be erased.
For most anyone outside the New England area it's hardly cause for celebration to see the Patriots in yet another Super Bowl. There's just not a lot to like about a coach and players who never let anyone get too close to what they're feeling or what they plan to do.
For Roger Goodell, it's even worse. His relationship with owner Robert Kraft was fractured over Deflategate, and the thought of having to hand him the Super Bowl trophy on Sunday has to be unsettling even if the commissioner insists that's not the case.
The good news is that the Atlanta Falcons are live dogs, as they say in Las Vegas. Matt Ryan has done a pretty good impression of a dominant Tom Brady this year, and Dan Quinn has shown signs in his second year as coach of the Falcons that he may have the kind of stuff Bill Belichick has built a dynasty with.
And before you put out the chips and dip, here's something to ponder: The Patriots may get to the Super Bowl an awful lot, but once there they're not exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Yes, they've won four and lost two, a winning percentage any coach whose last name isn't Belichick would take in the Super Bowl. But three of those wins were by just 3 points and the other was 4 points.
Take away the still inexplicable decision by the Seattle Seahawks to throw the ball on the goal line two years ago and they'd be a .500 Super Bowl team on a three-game losing streak in the title game.
"We've been in this position and gotten to this point, and don't close the order," owner Robert Kraft said. "It's the worst feeling. It's sudden death in the playoffs. Hopefully we win and then it carries for the whole year. If you don't, that also carries."
That's the nature of the Super Bowl, of course, where only one team can hold the gleaming silver trophy and the other is consigned to history's scrap heap. The collapse of the Carolina Panthers this year after losing the Super Bowl is a reminder how difficult it is for any team to remain relevant after a Super Bowl loss.
Not the Patriots, though, who will now have played in seven of the 16 Super Bowls since Brady became the starting quarterback in the second year of his remarkable career. They did it this year with the kind of distraction that can sink a team, the four-game suspension Brady served to begin the year for his (alleged) role in Deflategate.
If the best quarterback ever argument is still raging, it won't be if Brady and the Patriots win a fifth ring.
"In my mind, he's the greatest quarterback ever," said Julian Edelman, the undersized receiver who is Brady's favourite target. "I grew up a Niners fan — a huge Joe Montana fan. I love him to death. Joe is still 'Joe Cool'. He's still way up there. I've watched Dan Marino. I've watched all of the guys. I personally think he is the best."
Hard to argue with that, but defences have stepped up to disrupt Brady in several Super Bowls. The Giants beat him twice, holding the Patriots to just 14 points in the first game and 17 in the second, and he's missing his big tight end target in the injured Rob Gronkowski in this one.
Add to that the MVP year Matt Ryan has had in Atlanta and the way Julio Jones breaks tackles in the open field, and it's hard to see this being the kind of lopsided game the Patriots enjoyed against Pittsburgh in the AFC title game.
That should be good news for the NFL, which badly needs a competitive and exciting Super Bowl to cap a post-season filled with mismatches. With ratings down, the league suddenly seems a bit vulnerable, which has to make a lot of people nervous.
Expect high scoring, perhaps something in the 30-27 range. Expect Lady Gaga to do or say something people will talk about the next day.
But don't expect the Patriots to win just because they've been there six times before.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
By Tim Dahlberg, The Associated Press