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JACKIE MACMULLAN

The Club's ranks are dwindling

FOXBOROUGH -- The Club becomes more exclusive as each season passes.

At one time, cornerback Ty Law, offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi, receiver David Patten, and linebackers Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer were members, but they turned in their cards following the 2004 season. Last summer, The Club lost kicker Adam Vinatieri and linebackers Willie McGinest and Matt Chatham.

So now there are 10 (technically 11, if you count Patrick Pass, who is on injured reserve). The remaining charter members of all three Patriots Super Bowl championship teams are Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Matt Light, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Larry Izzo, Lonie Paxton, and Stephen Neal. Their average age is 30.6 years.

So much has happened to this core of players since Feb. 3, 2002, when Vinatieri kicked a football 48 yards through a set of indoor uprights as time expired and changed the fortunes of the Patriots' franchise -- and its players -- forever.

In the frenzied four-year Super Bowl run, Brady transformed himself from a charismatic young buck who captured lightning in a bottle to a poised, seasoned quarterback who has become the standard by which most young upstart throwers are measured (that's you, Philip Rivers).

Neal, a kid who never played college football and was barely a factor in the first championship, worked his way into a starting job alongside Light, who has established himself as one of the mainstays of the offensive line. Izzo carved out a niche as a special teams wizard, and Faulk thrived in his role as the irrepressible all-purpose back.

Brown, the team's redoubtable receiver, immortalized bingo, while Paxton cornered the market on snow angels -- with or without the white stuff.

Vrabel became the envy of every linebacker in the league -- an offensive "decoy" who actually caught touchdown passes with adeptness and style.

Bruschi, whose guile and energy came to epitomize the bend-but-don't-break defensive mentality of this franchise, finally earned a coveted Pro Bowl slot in 2004, then nearly lost his life days later after suffering a stroke.

As they prepare for another crack at a championship with the league's best team, the San Diego Chargers, standing squarely in their path, a number of things have changed for the members of The Club.

Brady and Seymour are in their prime, stalwarts on opposite sides of the ball. Yet each lost his coaching guru, Charlie Weis to Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel to the Cleveland Browns.

Brown is still, in his own, quiet way, one of the most respected players on the team, but has been lumped into a group of receivers that has been maligned for lacking the talent and firepower its quarterback so richly deserves.

Vrabel and Bruschi remain powerful presences in the locker room, but they have become, at times, afterthoughts to a media contingent that has celebrated the emergence of a young defensive front anchored by Seymour and including young stars Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork.

The linebackers, always one of the most tight-knit groups, have even suffered the indignity of national pundits suggesting they have lost a step.

"Go ahead, see what they have to say about that," said one player.

I tried. But Vrabel wouldn't stop to chat as he walked briskly through the locker room yesterday.

"I'm on my way to lunch," he said. "Want to come?"

Vrabel has played in every game this season, but teammates say he has been fighting through excruciating back pain that has forced him to miss portions of practice both last week and this week. Vrabel is listed as probable for Sunday's game in San Diego.

What, you think he's going to actually miss this?

Bruschi, meanwhile, broke his arm early in the season and missed just the opener against Buffalo before fashioning various removable casts to allow him to play. His arm remains swollen and sore, but he lines up every week, anyway. Ditto for Seymour, whose elbow has been badly injured since he hurt it in the second Buffalo game.

Asked if he thought the criticism bothered his defensive pals, Brady said, "I'm sure it bothers them a lot when we lose. When we're winning, really, what can people say?

"No two years are the same. One guy can have a really great year, but a lot of things have to be aligned to make it happen.

"People said why did Tedy drop that pass? Well, why do you think he dropped it? He's playing with one hand. He's been wearing different casts all season. Mike Vrabel, he's playing inside linebacker for us. Well, he's an outside linebacker, and he's banged up. And in spite of all that, we're 13-4."

The younger teammates recognize the toughness of the veterans. In fact, they've come to expect it.

"Those guys have been through it all," noted cornerback Asante Samuel, a two-time Super Bowl alumnus. "You can't win the whole thing without veteran leadership. They know what it takes. We've been following their lead all season."

Does the "old guard" feel it has something to prove? Brady is too smart to gripe about Pro Bowl votes, but he's also too savvy to bypass an opportunity to motivate himself. The linebackers, not unlike their injured friend, Rodney Harrison, thirst for even a hint of a lack of respect. They'll devour it like a plate of steak and fries after four days on Slim-Fast.

This is not to suggest the members of The Club are going from locker to locker and inciting pep rallies this week. The veterans laid the groundwork for their leadership last summer, when they provided the model on how to be committed, focused, and team-oriented.

Backup quarterback Matt Cassel said Brady's demeanor has changed very little since the playoffs began.

"The most amazing thing about Tom is he approaches every week with the same intensity and enthusiasm," Cassel reported. "It doesn't matter whether it's Week 1 or the postseason.

"I suppose what does happen this time of year is some of the young guys flip a switch and say, 'Hey, we're in the playoffs. We've got to really dig in.' But our veterans have been saying that all along."

There were few Club members on hand yesterday to discuss their unique perspective (except for Brady, who dutifully held his weekly press briefing). They might not be as formidable as they were when they were younger, hungrier, and intact, but they remain the pulse of this football team, injured or not.

"We've got a core group of veterans who know how to get it done," said Izzo, making a cameo appearance before hurrying off to get treatment. "But sometimes experience is overrated. We have some talented young guys who will help us, too."

As he scurried away, Izzo was asked if some of his teammates felt overlooked this season.

"Winning is what matters," he said. "That's the only thing those guys care about."

He's right. It is the bylaw by which all the members of The Club have adhered to from the start.

They know the Chargers are oozing talent on both sides of the ball. They know the Patriots are underdogs, even with their padded résumés.

But they figure experience matters. Former Club member Law heard all year that he was too old and too fat and too slow to be an impact player anymore, then almost single-handedly provided his Kansas City Chiefs with an opportunity to upset Indianapolis last Saturday with two interceptions.

Can someone in The Club do the same for the Patriots? Or does membership no longer include such privileges?

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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