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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's all old hat to them

FOXBOROUGH -- They know things other players don't know. And it might help in Houston a week from Sunday.

There are 24 Patriot players (29 counting injured reserve) who were on the field when New England won the Super Bowl two years ago in New Orleans. These players need no introduction to Walt Coleman. They remember Bob Kraft trying to dance on the podium at City Hall Plaza. They've got the tennis ball-sized championship rings.

But only six members of this group go back to the 1996-97 Patriot team that lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay in the very same Superdome. The Club of Six includes Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown, and Adam Vinatieri.

These are the Patriot veterans who can warn young teammates about being content just to be in a Super Bowl. These are the guys who know what it's like to fly home with an empty feeling. And no parade. And no rings.

Law, Bruschi, Johnson, McGinest, Brown, and Vinatieri were Parcells Guys. They played for the Patriots in the Super Bowl when Drew Bledsoe was the franchise quarterback, the next big thing in the NFL. They played in the Super Bowl when Bill Belichick was a genius defensive coordinator -- unable to talk to the media per orders of the mighty Tuna. It was only the second Super Bowl appearance in Patriot history and the first under Kraft, who hadn't yet cut a deal with Connecticut Governor John Rowland to move the team to Hartford.

"This is my third time around," Bruschi said yesterday (he had no comment about his injured leg, per orders of the mighty Belichick). "I remember everything about that first one. There's no question that it's special. When you've got a chance to be a world champion and you've got a chance to go for it, you go for it."

What most Patriot fans remember about the '97 Super Bowl is the late Will McDonough breaking the story that Parcells would quit the team after the game. The news thunderbolt completely overshadowed New England's Super Bowl week and the Patriots were run over by Packer return man Desmond Howard in a 35-21 loss to the NFC champs.

A lot of Patriot watchers felt that Brown (then a special teams artist) might have made a difference in Super Bowl XXXI. Brown played in all 16 regular-season games in '96 and was part of the Patriots' first two playoff victories, but a hernia sidelined him for the Super Bowl and he was not there to tackle Howard when the Packer roadrunner went 99 yards for a game-breaking touchdown in the third quarter. Brown probably should be honorary captain of the Club of Six. When he was drafted in 1993, the franchise was owned by James B. Orthwein.

Like Brown, McGinest, Vinatieri, Bruschi, Law, and Johnson, Belichick was with the Patriots when they were beaten by Green Bay (assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia is the only coach who will have been with the Patriots for all four Super Bowls). When the Tuna chose not to fly home with his team after the game in New Orleans, owner Bob Kraft sat with Belichick during the flight and had a lengthy talk with the defensive coordinator. Years later, when he moved mountains to acquire Belichick from the Jets, Kraft cited the crucial conversation conducted at 10,000 feet.

Johnson was Belichick's starting middle linebacker against the Packers.

"I remember it well," said Johnson, who plans to send teammates to his father's restaurant in Houston. "I think there's an advantage to having been there twice. Things that are unknown can always be a problem, but the guys that have been there understand the magnitude of the event.

"I think it's probably human nature, when you are a young player and you first make it, maybe you're just happy to be there. You might give in to the environment and enjoy all the Super Bowl has to offer. Now we just think of it as a big, tough road trip and we'll remember it a hell of a lot more if we win."

Vinatieri knows both sides. He didn't kick any field goals in his first trip. His second appearance was somewhat more eventful -- a walkoff 48-yarder to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Experience can only help the cool-as-ice kicker.

Law, meanwhile, wasn't biting.

"As a football player, you don't get caught up in the hype," said the corner who intercepted three of Peyton Manning's passes in the AFC Championship game last weekend. "Experience is overrated."

Too bad, because the Patriots have it and the Panthers don't.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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