NEW ORLEANS -- There it was hanging in the Patriots Heinz Field locker room. It was up on the wall for all to see. A Super Bowl XXXVI T-shirt to use as motivation.
Of course, the T-shirt donned the logos of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis Rams. But as all know too well now, something happened to Pittsburgh on the way to New Orleans.
Last week the Patriots embraced the underdog role and used it to fuel the fire that melted the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Now the label is old hat. When no one gave you a chance to be here in the first place, you don't care when those same prognosticators give you no chance to win the big one.
"All it does is add motivation to a good team," outspoken safety Lawyer Milloy said with much less vigor than he spoke with about that very subject a week ago. "It's not about what everybody else thinks on the outside. Hopefully, we'll win it and then nobody will be invited to our party."
Oftentimes a team like New England that comes out of nowhere to win takes the us-against-the-world approach to motivate itself. Whatever works. But make no mistake, this team came out of nowhere whether any Patriots players want to admit it or not.
It entered 2001 with the expectations that a 5-11 record the previous year totes along with it. It started 0-2 and stood at 5-5 with six weeks to go in the season. But something clicked after the Patriots 24-17 home loss to the St. Louis Rams, which just so happens to be the last loss the team suffered.
Eight wins later and the Patriots are preparing for those very Rams in a battle for NFL supremacy. But despite an 11-5 record, an AFC East title and playoff wins over everyone's AFC favorites – Oakland and Pittsburgh – they find themselves no closer to earning the respect of the football world.
"It's all about us," Milloy added. "That's why we are where we are right now. It's always been about us because nobody ever gave us a chance. This is nothing new to us. We're familiar with being the underdog. We don't worry about that. We don't view ourselves as underdogs. We believe in ourselves."
How can you blame them for believing? All they have done is win since Nov. 25 when they physically pounded the New Orleans Saints – a team that came to Foxboro Stadium with the reputation of being one of the league's tougher physical clubs.
That game proved that reputations, statistics and labels don't always mean that much. Then the Patriots proved that again last week when they cost some overaggressive or stupid T-shirt vendor in Pittsburgh a boatload of money by completely shutting down the league's No. 1 rushing attack.
These Patriots do believe. Their us-against-the-world mentality is warranted even if it's cliché.
"It doesn't matter what people label us," Milloy added. "You can't worry about that. That's the reason why we can win in overtime, we can win in the snow, we can get a call overturned and still produce and be focused on the job at hand and not worry about the call. That's why we are who we are. That's why we're here."
It's also why St. Louis entrepreneurs should hold off on selling the Super Bowl Champion T-shirts they've already ordered.