FOXBORO -- This whole AFC Championship Game thing may be old hat for Tom Brady since Sunday's game in Denver will be his eighth in 14 years.
And even though Brady and the Patriots have earned a spot in three consecutive final fours, there are several key New England players who will be playing in their first AFC title game.
Defensively, linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive tackles Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga and corner Logan Ryan are all first-timers. There are a handful on the offense as well. Running back LeGarrette Blount, receiver Danny Amendola and rookie wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have never played in a game of this magnitude.
Brady explained in his press conference on Thursday that it's always been a part of his job to help bring along his younger teammates, even long before the pressures of playing for a Super Bowl berth become reality.
"I think I’ve always tried to do just whatever I thought we needed to do to try to fill the spots that the coaches can’t always do," Brady said. "There are a lot of different rules with the offseason program now. I think there are things we can do as players to try to get ahead. I think there are things that we can do as players to try to get ahead, maybe that other teams don’t have the ability to do.
"I’ve been around here long enough so I have an understanding of what our coaches ask of us. I’ve been coached really hard over the years and I try to convey a lot of those messages to the players as well. We’re not necessarily in a meeting room -- we’re in the locker room, we’re on the airplane or something like that. I’m constantly kind of a pain in their butt."
Earlier in the press conference, it had been brought to Brady's attention that he was the least liked quarterback in the NFL, according to one poll. He joked that those polled may have been some of the players to whom he's a "pain."
"Maybe they’re some of the guys you polled -- some of my receivers that dislike me," Brady said with a laugh. "I could definitely see that. I just try to convey whatever message I need to in the hopes of us just all being on the same page so that we can go out and execute our best."
Those messages may be heard in a meeting room, or in the locker room, or on a plane, as Brady said, but they've become expected in practice.
Thompkins said Brady's perfectionist nature shines through when players are on the field running plays to prepare for that weekend's game.
"I wouldn't say it's to the point where we hate him or anything like," Thompkins said, "that but he's definitely a tremendous leader. He likes to execute everything he does. He knows practice and everything rolls over to the games, and so if you have a bad play in practice he definitely gets after us and tells us, 'C'mon you gotta get that right' because if we call this play in the game, he expects for it to be right.
"I think it comes with being a quarterback and being the great leader that he is. It's pretty much his job to get on us and control the things that he can, and I think he does a great job doing it."
Brady remembered when he entered into the NFL that he needed a crash course in how to handle his new job. Upon his arrival, there were a handful of players left over from the team that went to Super Bowl XXXVI who showed him how to play what Brady called not necessarily "postseason football" but "winning football."
"I think guys like Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown and Willie McGinest and Drew Bledsoe," Brady said, listing his mentors, "Guys I really learned how to become a professional football player [from]. Wes Welker, guys like that that I played with that you watch and you see what it takes on a day-in, day-out basis to prepare yourself so you can be your best for the team. That translates in the postseason, that translates in the regular season, that translates in the offseason.
"Ultimately you’re trying to be the most consistent player you can be for the team and show up so the team can count on you and they trust you to do your job. If you’re playing next to a guy and he doesn’t believe that you can do your job, you’re going to affect his mental preparation because he’s worried, ‘Oh my God, is this guy going to get that. Is this guy going to get this block or this signal? Is he going to make that tackle?’ Then you start questioning that and you’re not able to play at your best. Doing your job is a big statement around here and we use it quite a bit but it’s what team football is all about. There are 53 guys in the locker room that have really committed to that this year. I think that’s a big part of why we’re in this position. Everyone that plays a role has really been focused on what their role is and they’re going to go out there and try to do it the best they can."
Over the course of the season, those same lessons passed down from Patriots of yore to Brady have made their way to Thompkins, who was 12 years old in Brady's rookie season.
"It has everything to do with being in the playbook and coming into work each and every day with your antennas up and just pick up on the things that aren't even about you," Thompkins said. "Coach might be in the meeting room and correct somebody else, and I kind of just try to always have my antennas up and take that note as well even if he's not talking to me. I could end up in that spot one day, and I gotta make sure that I know that. It's just making sure you're in the playback, and just being on the same page as the coaches, and trying to be on the same page as the quarterback."
Over the years, that hasn't always proven easy -- even for veteran receivers. But Brady has helped his young, relatively inexperienced group feel comfortable. The benefits of that comfort and chemistry can't be understated heading into the AFC Championship game where the Patriots will be forced to try to keep up with the historically potent Broncos offense.
"I think he's a tremendous teacher," Thompkins said of Brady. "He's obviously been playing for a very long time, and he'll go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. To have him as a quarterback with the knowledge that he has, it definitely helps us a lot."