The Patriots' excellent adventure begins again

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The Patriots' excellent adventure begins again

The Patriots have lost 42 regular-season games in the 11-year span since 2001. That's an average of less than four losses per season.

To put that in localized context, anyone over 30 can vaguely recall when the Patriots lost 61 games in five seasons (1989 to 1993). That's an average of 12 losses a year.

It's impossible to overstate how deeply entrenched the Patriots were as the NFL's laughingstock for most of their existence.

And now their excellence has become so routine that they've sucked the drama out of a question American sports fans obsess over at this time of year: "Can my football team make the playoffs; can it win the Super Bowl?"

Around here, the answers now -- and for more than a decade -- have been "Yes, definitely" and "Yes, maybe."

Like fall foliage and the Atlantic Ocean, the Patriots have become a regional privilege that we're aware and appreciative of, but no longer struck by. It's a fact of New England life.

Today, training camp opens.

The editorial staff at the region's paper of record, the Boston Globe, decided a soccer "friendly" between Roma and Liverpool at Fenway would be the centerpiece for their Thursday sports section. A scene-setting column for the London Olympics -- which begin Sunday -- was at the top of the page. Two Patriots stories -- including a column that referenced Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Bill Buckner and Hugh Hefner -- were wedged into the left rail.

The annual departure of the Red Sox equipment truck gets breathless coverage; the start of training camp for the AFC Champions gets a shrug and a "wake-us-in-January" feel.

Admittedly, there's a "chicken-or-the-egg" debate to why the Patriots don't rate.

They don't make it "fun." They believe in the "one-voice" theory, and that monotone and grunt-infused voice belongs to Bill Belichick. He believes a good day is one where his team is flying happily under the radar, and a scrimmage between European soccer teams gets center stage.

The 90 Patriots in training camp will sweat and run into each other from 1:30 until 4 p.m., and then come off the field and say they are "Happy to be back to work," "Working hard," "Taking it one practice at a time" and "Moving on from last year."

The actual stories are what happens on the field, not what the players and coaches don't say when they come off of it.

And there are stories. The addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd on offense. The pecking order at running back with BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone. The uncertainty on the offensive line because of injury and the absence of Brian Waters. The defensive transformation from one that favored wide-bodies up front to one that focuses on speed at the edges and depth in the secondary.

Watching the Patriots roll the rock up the mountain -- especially when they are at sea level -- may not be fascinating because the potential of the rock rolling back on them doesn't exist until they are near the peak.

But the process of getting the rock up there -- if you choose to look closely -- will never fail to be fascinating.

Patriots have perfect attendance at final practice of AFC Championship week

Patriots have perfect attendance at final practice of AFC Championship week

FOXBORO -- The Patriots had perfect attendance at Friday's practice, meaning they had all 53 players on their active roster present and accounted for at all three practices this week. 

Contrast that with how things have gone for the Steelers this week, and there is a stark difference. Star running back Le'Veon Bell missed each of his team's first two on-the-field workouts this week, and several Steelers players are dealing with a bug that seems to have circulated the locker room. 

The Patriots could have an interesting game-day roster decision to make should Chris Hogan (thigh), Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Danny Amendola (ankle) both be healthy enough to play on Sunday. They have not entered a game with five receivers in uniform this season but could potentially dress Mitchell, Amendola, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd.

Other players listed as limited participants in practice this week are Brandon Bolden (knee), Martellus Bennett (knee), Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) and Jabaal Sheard (knee).

Patriots pregame rituals: Step-by-step with the players on game day

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Patriots pregame rituals: Step-by-step with the players on game day

What goes through Dont'a Hightower’s mind in the minutes before he takes the field and lowers himself into a cauldron of collisions, pain and exultation?

Not a thing.

“I rest. I literally rest,” said the Patriots Pro Bowl inside linebacker. “I don’t do anything else. I sit at my locker, I don’t listen to music. I don’t do anything out of the ordinary. I don’t look at film, I don’t look at notes. I’m just relaxed. Calm before the storm. I’ve done enough preparing, I’ve done enough notes, I’ve done enough of that stuff during the week. If I don’t know it by now, I don’t know it. It’s not gonna help me last minute. It’s only gonna make me play slower.”

By the time an NFL team hits the field – in the Patriots case, runs out of a giant, inflatable helmet while Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” blares – they are primped, polished, taped and glistening.

But what is their day like leading up to that? I asked a few Patriots to take me through their game-day prep from wakeup to anthem to give me insight into what we don’t see.  

You can hear Hightower, Nate Solder, Alan Branch, Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich detail the steps they take to get game-ready. French toast is involved. So are naps. And sock preparation.

It all builds to that moment of theater that Ninkovich says is what players truly miss when they leave the game – that feeling of euphoria.

“When we finally get to run out, that’s the most exciting time in the world,” says Solder. “The crowd wasn’t there earlier when we went out there and all of a sudden, the crowd is there. Very exciting, very fun, especially with the guys you work so hard with.”

Says McCourty, “I always think when I run out of the tunnel to look up and say, ‘Thank you’ just to be able to play.”

Listen to them tell their stories here: