- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Patriots owner Robert Kraft reflects upon the team's 10-6 season, one of the highlights was the return of quarterback Tom Brady.
"I think last year was very tough on all of us, seeing Tommy go down," Kraft said as his team prepares for Sunday's home playoff game against the Ravens. "You see Brett Favre and you see Peyton [Manning] and you think these guys are indestructible, and then an act of God or a force majeure, you realize how fragile everything is. It's been nice having Tommy come back and phase in and get back to a place where he pretty well is functioning as one of the elite quarterbacks, which he surely is in the league."
With Brady starting all 16 games, the Patriots earned their 11th playoff berth in the 16 seasons since Kraft purchased the team. That's a measure of pride for the owner.
"Our objective every year is to make the playoffs, hopefully by winning the division because your fans are treated to a home playoff game," he said. "Then you have a real chance."
The Patriots' chances took a hit in last Sunday's season finale at Houston when receiver Wes Welker tore ligaments in his left knee. The vision of Welker agonizing on the sideline with his head buried in a towel resonated with many, including Kraft.
"I think a lot of us feel like we've had Wes taken from us, as in many ways he has come to personify what's special about the Patriots, sort of like Troy Brown," Kraft said. "He is a guy who puts the team first, and who many of us with medium height can relate to, because he represents us all out there. Of course, his physical and mental toughness, how he'd get hit and pop up like the Energizer Bunny. We were all broken up to see him get taken out down there.
"We have to find a way to let the fans know that we know how they feel. I feel robbed of Wes because he represents something so special. He took all those hits during the year, and then to see that happen, I think there is a hurt through Patriot Nation because of that. I received an unbelievable amount of phone calls and e-mails from all over the country, people who relate to Wes. Hopefully a year from now, one of the things we'll see is Wes coming back like Tommy."
While Welker's injury deflated many, Kraft painted a picture of a team that was working with spirit and a sense of purpose at Friday's practice. Kraft visited the session -- something he tries to do because of his appreciation for the nuances of the game -- and liked what he saw from coach Bill Belichick and the players.
"I think it's a real advantage this week, the guys practicing in the stadium," Kraft said. "That's the benefit of winning your division, to practice on your home field and simulate game conditions, hopefully. I'm pretty proud of this group and this organization. This is Bill's 10th season we've finished, and I'm not sure the general public can understand how hard running an NFL franchise can be, and how having good people, like any business, is critical. I marvel at these coaches, how hard they work and the hours they put in."
Kraft also respects the commitment of players. On Monday, for example, he arrived at Gillette Stadium at 6:30 a.m. for physical therapy and wasn't expecting to see any players as the team had returned from Houston late Sunday night.
Yet when Kraft walked into the team's weight room, he saw veteran receiver Randy Moss, among others.
"The hard work and energy is something. It's hard for people to understand. It's a game and entertainment, but there is a lot of preparation that goes into every game," Kraft said.
Looking back on the season, losses at Denver, Indianapolis and Miami were "disappointing" because "those are three games that we just didn't close out." Two other losses -- to the Jets and Saints -- were a bit different, because the Patriots didn't play as well in those contests.
On the flip side, the Patriots posted an 8-0 record at home. Brady hasn't lost at Gillette Stadium since November 2006, after the synthetic grass playing surface was installed.
Since Kraft purchased the Patriots, the franchise has had 11 home playoff games. The franchise had only one before that, a loss to Houston in 1978 that Kraft attended as a fan. The Patriots also have the best won-loss record of any NFL franchise in Kraft's ownership tenure.
"What's been super about the NFL in this environment is that it's been like a flight to quality in terms of entertainment," Kraft said. "People have been watching games, and it's because of the unpredictability. You don't know what is going to happen. The owner doesn't know. The head coach doesn't know. The quarterback and the captain of the defense doesn't know. It's just great. We're lucky to be part of the NFL.
"Sometimes I pinch myself. As we sit here, we have a home playoff game, and we hope we can win and take the next step. I've been watching a game almost every night, but the dangerous part about what is happening now is that if you lose a game, you don't have another one until next summer. That's a tough adjustment, not just for me but for all fans. It's sudden death, and only one guy is standing at the end. That's part of what makes it great."
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