If you’re younger than 25, you may not recall a time when the New England Patriots weren’t kings of the NFL.

In fact, there were some dark times. In the five years from 1989 to 1993, the Patriots won 19 games. Total. They played in an antiquated stadium where many fans sat on metal bleachers.

Enter Robert Kraft.

In 1994, Kraft purchased the Patriots for $172 million. He built a modern stadium (Gillette Stadium) and the neighboring shopping/entertainment center known as Patriot Place.

In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated the Patriots’ value at $3.2 billion, second only to the Dallas Cowboys among NFL franchises.

The team’s success on the field has been no less impressive: four Super Bowl victories, six AFC championships, 13 AFC East titles over the past 15 years.

With a win Sunday in Denver, the Patriots would head to the Super Bowl for the ninth time – most in NFL history and the seventh under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

The Patriots play the Broncos for the AFC championship at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. It marks New England’s fifth consecutive appearance in a conference championship game, a feat matched only by one other team – the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders – in NFL history.

It’s also the Patriots’ 10th AFC championship game appearance in the 15 years that Brady has been the starting quarterback.

“It’s so hard to be consistent in this league and I think that’s something that every franchise hopes to establish, some consistency and stability,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots special teams captain. “And we’ve been really fortunate to have that here. I’ve mentioned it a few times throughout the course of the week – I really think a lot of credit goes to Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

“The way they’ve approached their roles – and they’re all different, obviously – has really allowed this franchise to have the success that it’s had.”

That the Patriots are playing against the Broncos and old rival Peyton Manning is all the more fitting. This is the 17th time Brady and Manning will face each other, the fifth time in the playoffs. Brady has an 11-5 record against Manning, but it is only 2-2 in the playoffs. In fact, Manning’s teams have won the last two playoff games between the two, both AFC championship games: 2006, with Indianapolis, 38-34; 2013, with Denver, 26-16.

Their rivalry – one they hesitate to discuss – has achieved a mythic status akin to Larry Bird against Magic Johnson. Each time they take the field, you are watching two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Brady’s first victory as a starting quarterback came on Sept. 30, 2001, against Manning and the Colts, a 44-13 stunner at old Foxboro Stadium. They’ve had some great shootouts. They’ve had great comeback victories against each other.

“I think playing someone 17 times is pretty cool, especially someone as great as him,” Brady said. “To play against those Peyton Manning-led teams, you know you’ve got to play 60 minutes and you’re going to be in for a tough game.”

And while they may appear to be heading in opposite directions – Brady, at 38, had one of his finest seasons this year while Manning, 39, had perhaps his worst while batting injuries – the Patriots know better than to overlook Manning’s leadership and abilities.

“There isn’t a player off our team that I have any more respect for than Peyton Manning,” Belichick said. “I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances.”

The respect that Manning has for the Patriots and Brady, in particular, is mutual.

“All I can say about Tom Brady is he plays the position the way it’s supposed to be played,” Manning said. “He’s extremely talented. He’s a very hard worker, very competitive guy and he just plays the position the right way. When you do that, there’s a reason you play for a long time and play well for a long time.”

Manning didn’t play in the teams’ regular-season matchup, won by the Broncos 30-24 in overtime Nov. 29 after the Patriots lost a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. But having played against the Patriots and Brady so many times, Manning knew there was a good chance the teams would be meeting again.

“There’s a reason their head coach and quarterback have been there for as long as they have because they’ve both been outstanding at their respective jobs,” Manning said. “You have to give a lot of credit. When the season schedule comes out and you know you’re going to play against them in the regular season, every time after that final second ticks off, you have good feelings you probably will see them again if you do your job and get to the playoffs.”

And here we are, once again: Brady versus Manning for a spot in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.

Just like it should be.