INDIANAPOLIS -- This is not your 2007 Patriots team.
Comparisons abound this week -- resist them. This has not been a season built to the sky on gaudy, easy wins. There has been failure, there have been dogfights, and there have been moments of tense doubt. But one thing these Patriots have that the 2007 team never seemed to need (until it was too late, perhaps) is resilience.
New England guard Brian Waters says they've depended on it.
"It's a key part of what we do," he said Sunday. "The mental toughness, execution, and the way we prepare -- and I think we've got some supremely talented players -- are the reason why we're here."
Waters is a 12-year NFL veteran. In 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he was part of a sub-.500 team six times. He never went beyond the Divisional playoff round.
He knows how easy it is to lose.
"There have been a lot of players that have been hurt over the course of our football season -- and we're no different than any other team -- but I can tell you there's times when you see players go down for four or five weeks that never recover. There's times when there's guys who are at the same position with a player and see that player do really well, and them not do as well sometimes that really affects their game. Here, it hasn't happened. Guys have been happy for one another. We prepare the same week-in and week-out. And guys take that team pride, and doing it for one another, very seriously."
Matthew Slater, special teams captain, didn't hesitate to agree.
"It's just the 'team first' concept," he said. "You think about mental toughness, you think about doing what's best for the team, even though it may not be convenient for you as an individual. We've had 53 guys, and our practice squad guys, and everybody involved with this team to really buy into that concept."
Slater is one of the most thoughtful men in the Patriots locker room; his words are always underscored by introspection. Sunday night Slater hunched over the NFL's media table where he was stationed, shrinking in his seat, seemingly weighted down by graciousness. He reflected on the season's battles. He considered the consecutive losses to the Steelers and Giants and the 10-game streak of victory that followed.
He knows how hard it's been to win.
"At times this year, like when we lost those back-to-back games, we really rallied around one another and believed and stayed mentally tough, and we were able to respond. I'm just really proud to be a part of this bunch. We've showed a lot of character throughout the season and hopefully that pays off for us."
Is resiliency something that separates good teams from great teams? Is it an armor that can not only deliver a team to a Super Bowl, but help that team win one?
"Definitely," Waters nodded. "You definitely have to be a mentally strong football team to have a chance to win here. You have to."