The Patriots have been in this position four straight seasons, one game away from the Super Bowl. So, for most of the players on this roster, it is familiar territory.
For the Indianapolis Colts and their young QB Andrew Luck, however, this is a relatively new experience.
Still, the magnitude of the conference championship is sure to stoke the emotions of any player who takes the field this Sunday, as the final four teams in the AFC and NFC vie for two spots in Super Bowl XLIX. The challenge this week is controlling those emotions to harness their powerful benefits when necessary.
View photos from media access during AFC Championship week as the Patriots prepare to face the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 18, 2015.
"You just got to go out there and play football, and definitely it's an emotional game. When the emotions get rolling you've got to put the team first, that's all," observed All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will appear in his third AFC title tilt after missing last season's with a right knee injury.
"You've got to play with emotions – go out there play hard, play physical and be mentally ready. Emotions definitely come into play but you've got to be emotionally ready too, no doubt. You don't want to hurt the team at all but at the same time you want to go out there with some fire underneath you and go out there with some passion."
"We want to win the championship," wide receiver Danny Amendola acknowledged. "We want to be the last team standing. It goes unsaid in this locker room. That's what we're working for. We're focused on this week and we're going to go out there and prepare today and try to get ready for it."
For players like defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and quarterback Tom Brady, both co-captains on their respective sides of the football, being in this position is a familiar feeling, and they're the only two in the current roster who remain from the last Super Bowl champion Patriots squad in 2004. Naturally, their younger teammates might look to them for an example of how to approach this week.
"It's always a pleasure and an honor to be playing in this game. We don't take anything for granted. Winning is hard," Wilfork remarked. "Everybody needs to enjoy this feeling. It's exciting because you've worked your tail off to get here. So as far as having experience in this game, you know, one thing I always try to do is try to treat it like a regular game. Our next opponent, which is a good opponent, a team that's different now than the last time we faced them. A lot better team."
"You've got to be at your best physically and mentally," stated Brady, "so, whatever it takes for us to get there over the course of the next four or five days is what we have to do. I just try to stress that to everybody and hopefully we can go out and execute as well as we can on Sunday."
The theme that emerged from various players' comments was easy to detect: experience will be irrelevant on Sunday once the ball is kicked off.
"This game, it's all about playing well," declared defensive end Rob Ninkovich, now playing in his fourth straight AFC Championship. "Everyone's got to do their job, and all three phases have to play well. Experience? You have to play well against a good football team."
"We've got a job to do and we have to play good football," echoed Amendola. "Whatever you need to do to get your emotions right, that's what needs to happen. What do I do? Just focus on my job."
Will Gray matter?
It's hard to examine this Colts-Patriots matchup without reflecting on their Week 11 encounter in Indy on Nov. 16, when Jonas Gray ran for two football fields' worth of yards and four TDs on the Colts' home turf.
Gray made the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week, but has been a virtual non-factor in the offense ever since. He was inactive in last week's playoff game against Baltimore and has been coping with an ankle injury since the Week 16 Jets game. So, while he was the hero during the regular season against the Colts, it remains to be seen if he'll even be on the active game day roster this Sunday for the rematch.
Nevertheless, just before the Patriots went out to practice Wednesday, Gray was a popular man with the media as he suited up.
"Since the last time we played [Indianapolis], they're playing with a lot of momentum," Gray noted. "They got a few key guys back in a few areas. They're more physical, and overall, this is going to be the best defense we've faced all year."
It was another frosty day in Foxborough when the Patriots put their full pads on and went out onto the Gillette stadium game field this Wednesday.
Rookie center Bryan Stork (right knee) was the only player not on the field. He was conspicuously absent during locker room interviews as well.
However, two other players who appeared to get shaken up against Baltimore were back at it today: cornerback Brandon Browner (right knee) and running back Shane Vereen, who looked like he took a hard hit to the helmet when he fumbled in the fourth quarter.