FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a wide-ranging news conference Friday leading into the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft talked about what made this season and this team special for him and rained praise on coach Bill Belcihick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Kraft talked about the Patriots as a member of his family, one that has provided invaluable support in the wake of the death of his wife, Myra, in July. The team has dedicated the season to her.
"The team has been my savior," Kraft said. "[I have] my four sons and eight grandchildren, and this team has been like an extended family, and also past players."
Kraft reflected on addressing the team before the season on how much it meant to the family that players would wear a patch with Myra's initials (MHK).
"I'm a great believer in spirituality," he said. "I pinch myself that I have the privilege of owning this franchise. It's such a great group of young men. They've been great to me, really great. Sometimes, a few of them come through and they touch the patch and say 'That one was for mama.' I hope we keep it going."
It was a sentiment echoed by some players on Friday.
"He knows we truly love him and we're here for him," said Branch. "We'll be trying to go out there (Sunday, in the AFC title game against the Ravens) and try to execute our jobs for him.
"But it's a bigger picture than just playing the game of football. We're thankful he gave us the opportunity to do what we're doing."
Kraft also shared his thoughts on what he described as a special chemistry between players on the 2011 team.
"I think it sort of happened midseason. You can see the chemistry in the locker room. It's just a feeling," he said. "If you go to practice, you see the interactions, the little things, the things in the lunch room, the pranks they pull on one another, the groupings of how they interact and talk.
"I have this thing that the world is going in a direction of more and more technology, which is making everyone more efficient. But in the end, the way you sustain special relationships and winning is building relationships. That's from interactions that you don't program. You can school and learn, but you have to have trust and respect for one another. I think this team has it. That makes me excited. I'm also mindful that the other teams, the teams remaining, are pretty darn good. I'm just happy we're playing at home, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough."
The Patriots face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line. For Kraft, it would be the fifth time the team has reached the Super Bowl since he bought the team in 1994.
"You think about it, our family has been privileged to own the team 18 years and this is our seventh AFC championship game, five of which have been played at home," Kraft said. "When I go around the league and I speak to some great players, Pro Bowl players perennially, they've never had the privilege of playing in a playoff game where they win.
"I think back to when I was sitting in the seats with my boys and our season would be over at the end of December. My sons know what it was like to have the season over, and my grandchildren, I think, are a little spoiled because we had the privilege of being in the postseason a great deal. It's a great credit to the coach, and the coaches we've had here and the players we've had here. We hope to have a lot of fun this Sunday at 3 o'clock."
A Super Bowl berth would be the team's fifth in the 12 seasons Belichick has been at the helm.
"I think he'll go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL, because he's really competing in the era of the salary cap," Kraft said. "When I bought the team, it was the beginning of the salary cap, and I think a lot of great coaches had difficulty understanding how to balance the economics of the game and the budgets. His product knowledge is so great.
"I really like this team a lot this year, and I think he's done a great job assembling people. We have a very good locker room. We had the privilege of being the No. 1 seed back to back and I personally can feel a big difference in the locker room this year [compared to] last year."
Kraft was equally complimentary of Brady, recalling a story of running into the Patriots quarterback shortly after the team picked him in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.
"I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole, and he introduced himself to me and said, 'Hi Mr. Kraft' and he was about to say who he was," Kraft said. "I said 'I know who you are, Tom Brady, our sixth-round draft choice.' He looked me in the eye and said 'And I'm the best decision this organization has ever made.' It looks like he could be right. Although hiring Bill Belichick has also been a pretty good decision...
"Watching Tommy grow and evolve, from being a single guy in the marketplace, to getting married, and going to his wedding, and seeing the kind of father he is. He's just a very unusual young man and a great leader. He's matured beautifully. He's still kept his humility and I'm really happy we have him as our quarterback. I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game. I guess to prove that, we have a little more execution we have to do over the next few years. I surely hope we do it."
Kraft pointed to the team's resilience as a key to the 2011 season.
"What really makes a difference in this game is mental toughness, and when teams get down, how do they react? Just think of that game (against Buffalo in the season finale) we were down 21-0. We've been down a number of times this year. I think we're privileged to have him as a head coach. I think he has done an outstanding job."
Kraft then capped off his remarks with a humorous line.
"I know how forthright he is when you ask him questions, so full disclosure to the media has always been important and helpful to him in doing his job," he cracked.
Kraft was then asked a follow-up on planning for life after Belichick, whenever that may come.
"Anyone who is a good manager, in any business, tries to plan for the future and contingencies," he said. "I just went through an experience this past year that I'm trying to enjoy every day as it goes, and appreciate the blessings we have. We're in the AFC Championship Game competing to go to the Super Bowl, and I'm excited about that."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.