Patriots Refuse to Take Experience for Granted As They Gear Up for AFC Championship

Patriots Refuse to Take Experience for Granted As They Gear Up for AFC ChampionshipFOXBORO, Mass. — It can be easy for players to take this time of year for granted — not the experience, but the opportunity.

Wide receiver Wes Welker admitted as much earlier this week, recalling after Super Bowl XLII he thought he'd get to that point every year with the Patriots.

Really, it's a natural mindset. In Welker's case, he linked up with a franchise that just advanced to its fourth Super Bowl in a span of seven seasons and had previously been debated as the greatest team of all time. In that sense, it would be more logical for him to think that way than to believe he wouldn't win a single playoff game for another four years.

But so it goes. As the Patriots prep for Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, they're making sure they account for everything. There's only one game that matters for them right now, and they have no idea if they'll get this opportunity again.

"It's real difficult," defensive end Mark Anderson said. "The last time I was at this point was in '06 [with the Bears], and I haven't seen the playoffs since. You've got to cherish every moment."

Even with the four-year drought, the Patriots have experienced a brilliant run of success. If they topple the Ravens, quarterback Tom Brady would make his fifth Super Bowl start to tie John Elway with the most of all-time.

"To get to this point is very challenging," Brady said. "The game can't get here fast enough. There's a lot of anxiousness leading up to the game. You think about the game. It's the only thing really on your mind. Hopefully, we can go out there and do a great job. I'm really looking forward to it."

The Patriots have advanced to their sixth AFC Championship since 2001, which is the most in the NFL over that stretch. In that same span, there are 10 teams that haven't even reached the round once.

To take it a step further, the Patriots are trying to advance to their fifth Super Bowl in the last 11 years, which would also be the most in the league in that stretch. From 2001-10, the Patriots are one of 14 franchises to reach the Super Bowl.

This level of greatness has been unparalleled since the turn of the millennium, which can cause newcomers to think they've got it made. Then again, the run of success has also been the ultimate recruiting tool in free agency. Still, it's become important for them to cherish this chance.

"I never took it for granted how hard it was to get to this level," said wide receiver Matthew Slater, who arrived in 2008 and benefited from having Hall of Famer Jackie Slater as a father to teach him how these things work. "I didn't think I was just going to walk in here, and that's what we're going to do. I definitely appreciate the situation that we're in, what it means and hopefully take advantage of it, maximize this opportunity."

For all of their ups, there have been some downs, which likely hurt more after experiencing success. Running back Kevin Faulk is one of five players on the active roster who has won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, and he learned quickly how difficult it can be to maintain that success.

"We had that year after the '01 season where we didn't even make the playoffs," Faulk said. "You tend to understand if you open your eyes and see everything that's going on, you tend to understand how intense every game that we played that year was for us, how every team came to play us more than we thought it was. The intensity level was high."

That target has remained on their backs for the vast majority of the last decade, and this year's return to championship weekend will ensure that the bull's-eye will remain there for the foreseeable future.

But that's business the Patriots will wait to handle. For now, they're concentrating on the present moment, which involves a date with the Ravens. Since next year — or next week, for that matter — isn't promised, the Patriots  have grown to appreciate the challenge of trying to claim the Lamar Hunt Trophy that has eluded them for four years.

"It's very difficult," wide receiver Julian Edelman said. "We didn't get there last year. This year, we have a huge opportunity ahead of us, and we're going in to play the best team we've ever played this year. It's going to be tough."

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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