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Notes: Kraft's personal touch impresses players

In social media circles, Thursdays are for throwbacks.

People get a kick out of sharing with their friends and followers a fond memory of something meaningful to them that took place in the past, often on that particular date (though not necessarily).

This "Throwback Thursday" is, in fact, a noteworthy anniversary for the team, for it was 22 years ago that Robert Kraft and his family purchased the club. In that span, the Patriots have gone from pariah to paragon, from laughingstock to standard-bearer, while winning four Super Bowls in the process.

This Sunday in Denver, Kraft's Patriots will appear in the AFC Championship Game for the 12th time in club history, with 11 of those coming during Kraft's ownership.

Think about that for a moment: 11 AFC title game appearances in 22 years. Precisely half the time the Kraft family has owned the team, the Patriots have been in the AFC Championship.

"It's obviously a huge impact on our team and our organization, his expectations for us and how he sets the tone for us," QB Tom Brady said of his Kraft's stewardship. "He sits in almost every squad meeting that we have [and] I think he's always got a pulse for how the team is doing, how the coaches feel about the particular week, how the players are feeling. He's always involved, so I would say he's very hands on. He used to come out to practice a lot more, but not as much lately. So, yeah, he really sets the tone for us."

As Brady indicated, Kraft enjoys attending practices, which is plain to see during training camp. Almost without exception, Kraft can be seen making a daily appearance on the practice fields, to the delight of the often packed-to-capacity crowds of fans who attend the summertime practice sessions (the only ones open to the public throughout the year).

Kraft, who famously was once a fan sitting in the stands himself before he purchased the team, thrives on the personal contact he enjoys between his players and staff and the fans of the team.

He's developed so strong a bond with his players that they've come up with a term of endearment for him: Mean Mug.

"There are a couple of jokes," safety Patrick Chung grinned, without divulging the etymology of Kraft's playful sobriquet.

Chung was more than willing, however, to explain just how much it means to him to have his owner be hands-on and down-to-earth, without being overbearing or intimidating.

"Every morning we see him in the squad meetings just sitting right there in the back just paying attention, and that's good to see as a player. Most owners aren't really doing that. He's in there just paying attention. He's always walking through the locker room, [I've] seen him working out [in the players' weight room] and stuff. It's good to know that he's working just as hard as we are. We're on the field, he's off the field and it's good to know, good to know that your owner has your back and he's going to be there to make sure that he knows what's going on, also. We like Mr. Kraft."

Defensive tackle Alan Branch has played for three other NFL clubs – the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Bills – yet the 8-year veteran insists he's never been around an owner as relatable as Kraft.

"He walks up and he knows everybody personally. Just working for a man like that is pretty nice," Branch declared. "I'll just say this, unlike any team I've ever been on, I've seen Mr. Kraft more in a half-year last year than I've seen any other owner for the rest of my eight years before meeting him.

"It's just cool. It's a great atmosphere [at Gillette Stadium]. It makes it an atmosphere where you're not nervous or worried when he comes around. Some teams when the owner comes around people get kind of jittery. I mean here it's an everyday occurrence so it's nothing new."

Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski has been with New England since the Patriots drafted him in 2006. He's known no other NFL owner but Kraft, whom he describes as being more like a friend or family member to him than anything else.

"Mr. Kraft has been around a lot ever since I've been here and it can be intimidating being around a guy who's got so much, but he comes off as a normal guy. He'll come up to you… he called my wife when she had a surgery, sent me a baby gift when I had a baby… He's just a great guy.

"They preach family around here and it starts with him," Gostkowski remarked about the Kraft family. "As crazy as it is in this business with people getting cut and traded, and year-in and year-out people going different places, they do a really good job of making us feel welcome while we're here because we're here a lot of the time and I think most of that credit should go to Mr. Kraft.

"I remember having a bad game and Mr. Kraft came up [and] consoled me... He's a human being and he's also the owner of this team and when there's a guy up there that you see around and is as invested as he is – not just monetarily, but emotionally – it's a lot easier to go out there and play for a guy like that.

"We love Mr. Kraft. He's always welcome around us in the locker room – I mean he owns the place, he can go wherever he wants," Gostkowski joked. "You know, he's very welcome in the inner circles of the locker room, camaraderie and it's cool to be a part of."

Brady-Manning XVII

Way back in the first meeting in 2001, few could have imagined the heights that the rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would reach. For more than a decade, the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks have dominated the championship conversation in the AFC while simultaneously rewriting the NFL record books. Here's a game-by-game look at the best QB rivalry the world has ever seen. *silver game numbers indicate playoff games

When you have Roman numerals attached to a game, you know it's a big one. Aside from the Super Bowl, no other showdown gets such treatment as when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning – two of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks – face one another. This Sunday will mark the 17th time in their storied careers that the two friendly foes' teams will face off with the two of them under center.

"I'm sure it's a big deal," wide receiver Danny Amendola commented. "Both of them have been playing football for a long time at a very high level, so for Tom, I know that it's another game. It's an opportunity to win and to play well, and I know he's excited about it."

Even though their teammates are as close to the action as anyone, some say they still take a moment to appreciate the historic nature of the rivalry.

"It's been pretty cool," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty admitted. "You go into it and you're just playing football, you're not thinking about it, but after each game you kind of look back at that and usually see two quarterbacks make some great plays throughout the game and throughout different situations to give their teams chances.

"Being on the defensive side, it's our goal to try and make sure Tom looks better at the end of the game. They'll always talk about it's not about them two going against each other, it's just about the defenses trying to play and stop two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. I'm sure Denver is the same way with their defense. It's a huge challenge. I think defensively in the AFC Championship Game with an opportunity to try and advance to the Super Bowl, you can't ask for a better challenge then going against two of the greats. If you deserve to be there then you have to go out there and prove it on Sunday."

Others are more reluctant to gawk over the Brady-Manning legacy while they're in the heat of the moment.

"If I do that, it's six [points] over my head," cornerback Logan Ryan smiled, "so no, I'll do it afterward, but during the game, I'm kind of zoned in.

"You see they're two great competitors, they're leaders of their teams," Ryan acknowledged. "We like our guy, we like [No.] 12. There's no one better [than Brady]. That's one of my toughest challenges every day [in practice]. The guy's so accurate and so smart that he makes us better cornerbacks for sure."

A first for Gronkowski

As great a player as All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is, there's at least one thing he's never done in his NFL career… until today.

Gronkowski normally addresses the media from in front of his locker, which causes a weekly chaotic scene with reporters and their photographers jockeying for the best position to get their microphones and lenses as close as they can to the gregarious Gronk.

On Thursday, he was finally afforded the honor of fielding media questions from the podium inside the team's media work room (where Brady and head coach Bill Belichick normally conduct their press conferences).

For Gronkowski, it was clearly a thrill.

"Wow, my first podium. I'm big time," he giddily announced as he stepped up to the microphone with the fancy, sponsored backdrop behind him. "Oh it's been a dream, six years."

Gronkowski had to know that one of the questions he'd face would be about a Tweet he posted earlier in the week, in response to a Broncos defender saying the best way to guard Gronkowski is to take him out at the knees. Gronkowski took the bait and responded with a suggestive comment toward this week's opponent.

But Gronkowski shrugged off the question like he often does defenders – with ease.

"I was just having a little fun with it, hoping to get a little laughs, which I think it did. It's just all fun and games with that."

He added that he's not really upset with anyone from Denver about the low-hit remark.

"It's just part of the game. They're not doing anything illegal out there. It's just part of the game. I've just got to be aware of it. [I've] maybe just got to step up my game a little bit. Maybe throw a juke, I mean I don't know how many jukes I've got, but I've just got to be aware for it. It's football and it's just part of the game."

Practice Report

For the first time in quite a while, the Patriots had perfect attendance at practice on Thursday. It couldn't have come at a better time, either, as the team had just a walkthrough session on Wednesday. Thursday's workout was a full-pads affair.

New England will conduct one more practice here in Foxborough on Friday morning before heading west to Colorado in the afternoon. That will give the team a full day to get accustomed to the thin, Rocky Mountain air before Sunday's 1:05 Mountain Time kickoff against the Broncos.

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