HOUSTON - Few players are enjoying their Super Bowl experience more than Chris Long. After spending eight NFL seasons searching merely for a winning record let alone a playoff berth, Long has at times looked like the proverbial kid in a candy store amid the constant media circus that is the NFL's main event.
While he admitted he watched in awe as fans lined the team's departure route on Monday and again when they landed in Houston with media waiting just off the runway, it was the idea of winning that drew Long to New England.
"I kind of bet on the fact that this is the place that would give me the best opportunity to be here in this situation," Long said. "There's a reason for that. I've learned that through the year and why these guys are in so many positions like this. They treat them as opportunities. We treat them as opportunities. You can't take them for granted and I think that's why we're here. We've earned that. Atlanta's earned this opportunity. Two great football teams."
Long provided modest contributions on the field, finishing with 35 tackles and 4 sacks while seeing his playing time gradually decline as the season wound down. But he stayed healthy, something that was a problem for him in his final years with the Rams, and was able to play in every game after picking up a difficult defensive system.
"Well, it's a really tough system to learn and all of the players in it are expected to play a lot of different roles," Long explained. "At the end of the day, Coach Belichick does a great job of bringing in people he knows that will fit well. Whatever that role may be, it might not even be apparent to you at the time.
"I think preparing every week like it's the most important game in the world makes things a little easier once you get in situations where a lot more people are watching and it might be a lot more important for people outside of the building," Long added of his experience in New England. "Every week we're grinding it out like it is our last game and then when it is our last game it makes things easier."
Whether his stay in New England continues beyond Sunday, Long had some advice for any potential free agents thinking of signing with the Patriots in the future.
"I think just being able to come in and expect nothing and not have something in your head, like, 'Well this is what it's going to be,'" Long explained. "Because things change all the time here, and week to week your role can change and it's not going to be the same all the time.
"So just being able to put the team first and truly make that deal with yourself, that everything you're going to do for the next year — you know, I signed a one-year deal, and I knew that OK, for the next year, whatever it is, I'm going to put the team first the best I can."
Much has been made of Roger Goodell's travel habits since he hasn't attended a Patriots game in Foxborough since the Deflategate scandal began. After his state of the league address on Wednesday, things may be changing.
"If I'm invited back to Foxborough, I will come," Goodell said. "I have no doubt that if I wanted to come up to a Patriots game and I asked Mr. Kraft, he would welcome me back. That's up to him."
Evidently Kraft agreed. Shortly after the press conference, Kraft issued a statement and offered some thoughts on the subject and indicated that if his team is fortunate to win on Sunday that Goodell would be welcomed at the stadium for the 2017 season opener.
"I've talked to a lot of fans who would love to welcome Roger back to Gillette Stadium," Kraft said. "If we are fortunate enough to win on Sunday, the kickoff of the NFL season would present the perfect opportunity."
Goodell attended back-to-back games in Atlanta during the playoffs this year instead of attending the AFC Championship Game. He pointed out that two years ago, he attended back-to-back Patriots home games in the playoffs.
Duron Harmon has been part of a secondary that has often included three corners and three safeties. The unit has performed well through the balance of the season, and is currently immersed in a stretch in which it has created a boatload of turnovers.
The Patriots have forced 19 turnovers over the past eight games and the secondary was responsible 16 of them. The strong play on the field has led to an even stronger bond for the group off it.
"I'd say it's definitely a brotherhood just with the guys, me, Dev [Devin McCourty], Loge [Logan Ryan]," Harmon explained. "I mean, we're all close, but I wouldn't say it's just the secondary. I would say I love all my teammates. It's a brotherhood between each and every Patriot and everybody within the staff. Everybody cares for each other.
"We chill with each other, we spend time with each other and we're just going out here playing this game as a family. I think that's what's really let us have the success. We go out there just trying to not let each other down, play hard for each other, go out there, tackle, catching a pass – I just know everybody's out there doing their job just trying to hold up their end of the bargain for their brother."
The New England Patriots prepare for Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.
Jarrett Bell of USA Today is handling the pool reporter duties this year for the AFC and offered the following practice report from the Patriots first day of work in Houston.
"The New England Patriots added another layer of preparation for Super Bowl LI on Wednesday with their first full practice session since arriving in Texas.
It was hardly a "typical" Wednesday practice.
Not this time of year. The Patriots conducted three practices and a long walkthrough during the bye week in Foxborough, Mass., last week, when they installed much of the game plan for the matchup Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Now it's a matter of refining that plan.
"We're way ahead of where we'd be on a normal Wednesday," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the two-hour practice at the University of Houston. "Some of the move-the-field stuff, red area, we normally wouldn't get to the Wednesday before the game."
As Belichick alluded to, the Patriots spent significant time on Wednesday working on situational football, including red zone packages and a two-minute drill near the end of the practice when Tom Brady demonstrated high energy and the expected rhythm and sharpness as he moved the offense down the field.
"They're out there trying. Worked hard," Belichick said of his overall impression. "There are some things we need to correct and work on. That's the way it usually is. We got some things right, executed just about how we wanted to and there are some other things we need to refine."
Belichick mixed up the rotation matching the various units throughout practice. Brady saw snaps against the Patriots' first-team defense as well as the scout team defense. The starting defense, meanwhile, got extensive looks from a scout team quarterbacked by Jacoby Brissett.
The session also represented another step in the progress of special teams ace Nate Ebner, who has been in the concussion protocol since the AFC Championship Game, but has been cleared to practice. Ebner wore the type of red jersey on Wednesday that the quarterbacks wear to signal that he is to avoid contact. He seemed to move well and without incident.
Belichick was awaiting word on whether Ebner is fully cleared to play, which is usually determined by an evaluation in the days following a return to physical activity.
"Where he's at exactly, I'm not sure," Belichick said of Ebner's status.
All other players were accounted for and participated in the practice, with no apparent setbacks due to any injuries sustained on Wednesday.
The Patriots finished practice roughly an hour before their scheduled media availability was to begin.
While the Falcons had their media session at 8 a.m. local time, the Patriots didn't go until 4 p.m. Belichick said the only other slot offered was 10:15 am., after the Falcons -- getting first choice as the designated home team -- claimed the earliest slot.
The 10:15 a.m. slot was less appealing, when considering practice and meetings.
"Right in the middle of the day," Belichick said of the earlier slot. "So we're just doing it all [later in the day]. It's just the better flow for us."