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NFL's final four have survived long, winding roads

    There are the 2007 Patriots, a juggernaut, and the 2014 not-so-dominant version.
    There are the current Seahawks, not quite as fearsome as last year's championship edition.
    Throw in a Packers team that doesn't much resemble the Lombardi squads, and a group of Colts who have experienced more ups and downs this season than the rest of this Final Four.
    Yes, it's been a long and winding road to the conference title games for New England, Seattle, Green Bay and Indianapolis.
    "It's been quite gratifying because of the challenge of answering the Super Bowl accomplishment," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose Seahawks were 3-3 and fighting off the championship hangover in October.
    They've won 10 of 11 since, and their defense became immovable once All-Pro inside linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from a right foot injury.
    "When I went into this year with the thought that this is a very unique chance at showing that you can handle all of that — it's been difficult for people and the history of it shows you that it's hard to come back and get yourself back into this kind of position again. So this is exactly where we'd hoped we would be right now."
    It should be. Until the Seahawks beat Carolina last Saturday, the last defending Super Bowl to win its next postseason game was New England — nine years ago.
    Just as much in the doldrums back in early autumn as the Seahawks: Tom Brady and the Patriots. They were 2-2, coming off an ugly loss at Kansas City in prime time.
    The three-time Super Bowl winner had little cohesion with a mediocre group of wideouts other than Julian Edelman. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski was slowly coming back from injuries that basically wiped out his previous season. Questions abounded concerning the running game, the offensive line, and a defense that had been torched in two of the first four games.
    In the next 12 weeks, the Patriots won 10 times. Between Oct. 5 and Nov. 23, they never scored fewer than 27 points and averaged more than 39 points in a seven-game winning streak.
    Think New England straightened things out?
    "It's hard to be oblivious to things," Brady said of commentaries that the Patriots were no longer elite. "We all have TVs or the Internet, or the questions I get and the emails that I get from people that are concerned. Nobody died or anything. It's just a loss and I think we've always done a great job putting losses behind us quickly."
    Coach Bill Belichick sees no magical formula for getting on the straight and narrow.
    "I think at this point really it's just about everybody doing their job," he said. "I don't think it really matters how many games you've played or how long you've been here."
    Green Bay's issues in a 1-2 start — spotty offense, weak blocking, questions about the secondary — soon disappeared as the Packers won nine of 10.
    But one bugaboo that never truly was answered could be especially damaging on Sunday at imposing CenturyLink Field: Green Bay's road performances.
    Consider that the Packers had only one truly memorable performance in going 4-4 away from Lambeau Field, a 38-17 rout of Chicago in Week 4.
    Indianapolis has fed off being considered an outsider in the AFC, and especially among the remaining quarter. The other three have Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, for instance.
    Then again, the Colts might have the best bet for the future at the position in Andrew Luck.
    Indy's losses (to Denver and Philadelphia to open the season, routs against Pittsburgh, Dallas and, yes, New England) were more notable than its victories, the best of which was a 27-0 romp past Cincinnati. The Colts looked vulnerable heading into January.
    Then came the latest twist: wins over the Bengals and at Denver.
    "That's the whole point of playing every single week," defensive end Cory Redding said. "We don't want to be the best team Week 1 and then basically shut it down for the remainder of the season. We want to grow and get better week in and week out."