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Gary Johnson, Tom Brady's uncle, watches the AFC Championship Game in his son, Paul "Pickles" Johnson's garage Sunday afternoon just outside Browerville.

Skol Patriots!

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Deep in Vikings territory, one family gathers each football Sunday to root on a team from 1,500 miles away.

The venue: A garage near Browerville decorated with mounted game, fish and a whole lot of New England Patriots regalia. On Sunday, like dozens previous, the big screen in the corner is tuned to their favorite team's game. This week, the Patriots visited the Denver Broncos for the AFC Championship and a chance for yet another Super Bowl appearance.

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The fans: 13 Minnesotans of all ages who have a special affinity for the New England quarterback.

Tom Brady's their relative, after all.

"I can't remember missing one game," said Brady's cousin Paul "Pickles" Johnson, who has hosted parties in his "man cave" for nearly every Patriots game over the past decade.

"I'm a little nervous about this game," he said just before kickoff.

But his mother, Brady's aunt Diane Johnson, predicted a 10-point Patriots victory. Pickles' kids, Kenley and Benton, were also optimistic.

"It's going to be a good game," said Kenley, a student at the College of St. Benedict who sported a New England cap and a Rob Gronkoski jersey (one of five she owns). "I know that we're going to win."

When the Patriots win, it's fun to brag, but when they lose, the worst part is students and teachers rubbing it in the next day, said Benton, a Browerville Secondary senior.

Brady's mother Galynn grew up in Minnesota before starting a family in California. She and her husband Tom Brady Sr., still visit from time to time. Brady's grandfather, 96-year-old Gordon Johnson, lives in a Clarissa nursing home. He hosted parties early in the quarterback's legendary career, which includes five Super Bowl appearances and three victories.

In their childhood, Brady and his three older sisters visited their grandfather's dairy farm and enjoyed some Minnesota summers. Pickles' wife Kelly recalls bringing them to the Todd County Fair in the mid-80s.

"We kind of grew up with them," Pickles said.

The family has been to three Patriots games. In 2004, at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, they watched New England slaughter the Carolina Panthers. The next year, they saw the team lose to the Chiefs in Kansas City. And in fall 2006, the last time the Patriots visited Minnesota, they witnessed a resounding New England victory.

The family plans to attend the next Patriots game in Minnesota, this upcoming fall at the Vikings temporary home, TCF Bank Stadium.

Pickles still stays in email contact with Brady. In a message last week, he told the quarterback he hoped to catch some sunnies ("Minnesota lobster") for the weekly football feast. The wicked weather prevented it, but a veritable smorgasbord of hot dogs, salads and desserts covered a long counter along the garage wall.

"Family, food and football - it brings you together," said Kathy Noska, Brady's second cousin who lives in Pequot Lakes.

Despite Brady's success, she said, he remains down-to-earth.

"Tommy's a very humble young man," Noska said.

Diane Johnson seconded that thought. "He's got such a nice level-headed personality."

"I hardly ever watched football until our nephew played," she said. "I learned to like it a lot."

Throughout the first half Sunday, the Patriots failed to establish a running game and Brady didn't connect with his hodgepodge receiving corps. Their defense, already decimated by injury, lost key cornerback Aqib Talib on a collision with former New England superstar Wes Welker, which hurt the team's chances of stopping potent Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as the game progressed.

With the Patriots trailing 13-3 at halftime, Kenley kept her faith.

"(New England Coach Bill) Belichick always figures everything out at halftime," she said.

Pickles doubted the Patriots could repeat their week 12 come-from-behind performance, when they overcame a 24-point halftime deficit to defeat the Broncos.

"Mr. Negativity, don't choke on your hot dog," teased Verna Christopher, Pickles' mother-in-law.

The Broncos widened their lead after halftime, while the mood in the garage turned progressively grimmer.

"It's looking tough, isn't it," said Gary Johnson, Brady's uncle, as the Patriots went for it on fourth down, trailing 20-3 near the end of the third quarter.

It was perhaps the pivotal moment of the game.

"If they don't make it here, they're done," said Kathy Noska's husband Brian.

Brady was sacked.

"That's the game," Pickles said. "It ain't the good game everybody was predicting."

He turned philosophical. "To get this far, one game from a Super Bowl. That's an accomplishment with all these rookies."

At 36-years-old, Pickles isn't sure Brady will ever make it back to the Super Bowl. But, Pickles said, "he's definitely not a washed up quarterback. Gotta give him some weapons again."

Diane Johnson said she would love for the Patriots to win, "but if they don't I'd like to see somebody else get in there that never has been."

That means, she - like the rest of the Johnson clan - will be cheering on the Seattle Seahawks come Super Bowl Sunday.

"I'll be rooting against the Broncos," Pickles said.

As the clock ticked down to a 26-16 Broncos victory, Kathy Noska focused on the day's positive side: spending time with people she loves.

"Sometimes, it's just about family," she said. "Life is fast paced. It's fun to get together."

Benton, who managed to score Noska's strawberry trifle recipe Sunday afternoon, also kept things in perspective.

"Life goes on."

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Bryce Haugen
(218) 631-2561
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