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Bob Ryan

There's a streak of determination in them

Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 19, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - What could possibly happen tomorrow afternoon that these guys have not seen? What new situation could occur? What could possibly faze them?

The answer, of course, is nothing.

The Patriots are stocked with jewelry-laden players who could give tutorials in both how to prepare and how to execute in certifiably Big Games. Ten men on the roster (counting Stephen Neal, who was inactive for the playoffs after the 2001 season) have been here long enough to have won three Super Bowl rings.

Four of them were presented to the media yesterday. The main purpose was to fill notebooks and provide sound bites. In that sense, it wouldn't have mattered if they had chosen to discuss the South Carolina primary. But there was more. For the discerning Patriots fan, there was an unspoken message: Trust us. We know what we're doing.

Noting that this will be his sixth AFC Championship game, for example, Tedy Bruschi said, "You learn to prepare for these games. These are the games you want to be in. You try to break it down. You break down the game to its simplest form. 'How do I do my job better? How can I best prepare?' "

But, of course, it is different this time. There was none of this 11-5, 12-4, 13-3, or even 14-2 regular-season stuff. The Patriots were not merely very good this season. They were not merely excellent. They were dominant.

They entered themselves into discussions about "Greatest This" and "Greatest That." They had normally sober-minded and thoroughly responsible people saying things about them that would put the analysts in danger of having their mental competency questioned had they been suggested back in August. They had a season such as no one has seen in 35 years, and they did it under a far different set of circumstances, on and off the field.

The media and fan mind-set is to assume that the 17-0 business is a burden. There has to be, you know, tremendous pressure on them as prepare for this game against the San Diego Chargers. What if they fall behind by two touchdowns? What if, God forbid, they should lose? Won't they be humiliated? What will be their place in history? Will 53 disgraced football players charter buses to deposit them at the nearest monastery? (They wouldn't have to go any farther than Brookline.)

But players aren't like media and fans, at least not these players. These are Bill Belichick's players.

"I haven't thought about that," Bruschi insisted. "That's not something we emphasize. 17 and 0. Undefeated. We don't want to have that kind of attitude of finality. We're just preparing for the San Diego Chargers."

Players are trained not to worry. Media and fans worry. They see what could go wrong. Players are different. How many times have you heard an athlete explain that he "doesn't worry about things he can't control"? Coaches teach players to anticipate situations. They don't worry about opponents. They don't fear them. They prepare for them.

Most of all, championship players practice and prepare to win. Win. Not to stay close. Win. Intellectually speaking, they know this is not always possible. But that's how they prepare, and that's how they think. The Patriots just happen to be a team for whom it's all worked out - 17 straight times.

If things don't work out in Game 18, they will look at it one way, and one way only: San Diego will be in the Super Bowl, and they won't.

"If we lose," Bruschi explained, "We won't be saying, 'Oh, man, the streak is over.' "

As difficult as it may be for media and fans to grasp, the players have the ability to compartmentalize. As long as there are games to be played, there is no time to rhapsodize about season highlights. When a game is over, it's over. The mind turns immediately to the next one. And when you get to the next one, there is no such thing as a fear of failure, or thoughts about history.

"You don't think about any of that," maintained Kevin Faulk, who has probably had more impact plays per minutes than anyone on the team during this great seven-year Patriots run. "You just concentrate on the moment and do what you should be doing. You know you have to play better than you did the week before. If you play the same way you did the week before, you may not win the game."

Experienced players at this level do not get overwhelmed by circumstance. Yes, it's a big game. Everyone knows that. But the way Tom Brady sees it, it's just the latest in a long line of signature games.

"We've been in big games all year," he said. "There was the buildup to the start. There was the week after Spygate. There was the Cowboys. There was the Colts. There was Baltimore on Monday night. There was Pittsburgh. And there was the last game with the Giants. We know how to handle these games."

The Patriots are fallible. They lost to Denver two years ago and they could not hold a 21-3 halftime lead against Indianapolis a year ago. But this game, unlike the other two, will be in Foxborough. This is a different team, a deeper team, a more versatile team. This is a group of men who are doing more than simply paying lip service to the concept of maximizing their enormous potential. They are actually doing it.

"We're excited," said Mike Vrabel, who, when it's all said and done, is the Patriots' Patriot. "This is a big game. We've got players here who have been in a lot of these. We realize how [much] fun it is to be in a game like this."

It's even more fun when you are surrounded by fellow professionals who, like yourself, can handle any emergency.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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