THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

First-timers are sticking to the script

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 12, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - They have adopted the “it’s just another game’’ mantra.

But, truth be told, when the Patriots host the Broncos Saturday night in an AFC divisional round game at Gillette Stadium, it will be anything but for the 14 New England players, including eight rookies, who will be making their first NFL playoff appearance.

Just another game?

With the top-seeded Patriots looking to halt a three-game losing streak in postseason play, it would seem otherwise.

“It’s really like everybody says - it really is just like preparing for another game,’’ said offensive lineman Nick McDonald, a second-year player who was on Green Bay’s 53-man roster last season, and witnessed the Packers’ run to a Super Bowl title, but was inactive for all 16 regular-season games and four postseason games.

“The stakes are awfully higher,’’ said McDonald, who was signed off the practice squad Dec. 3 and made back-to-back starts at center against Indianapolis Dec. 4 and Washington Dec. 11. “It’s a one-game season, and it’s either win or go home. So everybody’s got to be prepared just as they are every other week.’’

While McDonald has seen what it is like to prepare for an NFL game amid a playoff-type atmosphere, the debutantes on the roster have no such experiences to draw upon.

For rookie running back Stevan Ridley, a third-round selection in 2011 from Louisiana State, there is only one thing on his résumé that can remotely compare to being in an NFL playoff game.

“It’s really like playing in a bowl game for me - a big bowl game, a BCS bowl game,’’ said Ridley, who played in all but two games this season, making a pair of starts, and was second on the team in rushing with 87 carries for 441 yards (5.1 yards per carry).

“That’s the closest thing I can compare it to, because I haven’t been in the league that long. This is my first time to go around, so I know there’s going to be a lot of intensity. Everyone is going to be amped up. It’s going to be a big-time game.’’

For Malcolm Williams, a reserve rookie safety from Texas Christian, the last time he played in such a big-game atmosphere was the 2011 Rose Bowl, when his Horned Frogs defeated Wisconsin.

“I remember running out of the tunnel to a crowd of 100,000-plus,’’ Williams recalled. “It was crazy. It was exciting and the emotions were running everywhere.

“It was just like a rivalry game, but it wasn’t a rivalry game. My emotions were everywhere. I was ready to go and ready to hit somebody.’’

But Williams balked when he took full measure of Wisconsin’s gargantuan offensive line.

“I’ve never seen human beings that big in my life,’’ he said with a chuckle. “Those Wisconsin kids were huge. They weren’t small.’’

According to Williams, the only contest in which the Horned Frogs were overmatched by Wisconsin was the annual Lawry’s Beef Bowl, a prime rib eating competition.

“Oh yeah, they destroyed us,’’ Williams said. “We had no chance. They out-ate us by a good deal, like 300-something pounds. We were a small, fast team. So when it came to eating, there was no way we could keep up. Those were some big guys.’’

Ridley’s last such appearance in a big game was the 2011 Cotton Bowl, in which LSU beat Texas A&M. And there was a familiar opponent in that game.

“I played against Von Miller,’’ said Ridley, referring to the rookie linebacker who was the Broncos’ No. 1 draft pick. “So I know he’s a hell of a player.

“He’s one of my good friends. So it’s going to be a rematch for the two of us. To be going against each other again, it’s going to be a lot of fun, it really is.’’

Miller, however, will have the upper hand in one respect. He already has a playoff victory under his belt after helping the Broncos score a thrilling 29-23 overtime victory against the Steelers last Sunday.

“He’s already played his first playoff game, and it’s going to be my first playoff game, so hopefully we’ll get it done,’’ Ridley said.

The Patriots know there can be no deviation from the approach they have taken in their game preparation all season.

“Yeah, it’s the same every week,’’ said Sterling Moore, a rookie cornerback from Southern Methodist who was signed to the 53-man roster Nov. 9 and was NFL Rookie of the Week after making a pair of interceptions in the Jan. 1 regular-season finale against Buffalo.

“It doesn’t change, no matter if it’s a playoff game, a regular-season game, it’s all the same,’’ Moore said. “That makes it easier because the attitude doesn’t change.’’

As for his own approach to his playoff debut?

“I just try to keep it the same,’’ he said. “You know, you don’t want to go out and put any more pressure on yourself than you usually do. You want to keep it regular, and I think it’s going to help throughout the week.’’

Said McDonald, “Everybody’s got to be prepared, just as they are every single week. It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s a playoff game. We’re going to work this much harder than we work already.’

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing and be prepared.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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