There are only three.
It’s natural to think there would be more. The Patriots are in the playoffs just about every season, this being their 10th turn under Bill Belichick. They win a lot of those postseason games, too; Tom Brady could surpass Joe Montana as the winningest playoff quarterback in history on Sunday. But when it comes to the big prize, the Super Bowl championship, that’s when the number of Patriots who have actually experienced the euphoria trickles to a trio.
Tom Brady. Vince Wilfork. Deion Branch.
Those are the only three remaining players who have a Patriots championship ring and the joy of winning it all. They’re becoming a bit of an endangered species around Foxboro, and there’s really only one way to replenish the stock. The opportunity presents itself again beginning Sunday as the Patriots host the Houston Texans in an AFC divisional playoff game.
It’s a familiar position for the Patriots, an accomplishment in itself. But it’s also been an unfulfilling one of late.
“Winning one early in my career (as a rookie), you kind of get the sense that it happens like this all the time, but it doesn’t,” Wilfork said this week. “It’s very, very hard to win at this level. At any level. We all play this game for one goal: to be champions, plain and simple.”
The Patriots have come close. They were nearly perfect in 2007, losing to the Giants in a dramatic Super Bowl XLII. Last season, they had the ball in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLVI as Brady threw it into the end zone only to have it fall incomplete, losing once again against the Giants.
It’s been so long since the Patriots have won a Super Bowl that the quarterback they faced in that game is no longer in the league and the coach who brought the team to face the Pats was just fired. That was Super Bowl XXXIX, a 24-21 win over the Eagles, following the 2004 season.
It was the third title in four years for the Pats, but now those games have taken on sepia tones.
“That was some kid back then,” Brady said of looking back on his first Super Bowl championship, a 20-17 win over the Rams that wrapped up the 2001 season, as if a stranger was playing quarterback. “You really don’t quite understand what has happened or what has been accomplished until you try so many times and you don’t get to accomplish those things. It’s very hard to win that final game of the year. We’ve had a chance and lost a few.”
Getting to this point has become routine for the Patriots. Since their last Super Bowl win, they’ve been to the postseason in six of seven seasons and won at least one playoff game in four of those ventures. But in many ways, they’re as inexperienced at winning it all as the Texans, a team that had never even been to the playoffs until last year.
“To be able to come as close as we did last year and have past failures in my previous (four) seasons here, it just drives you and motivates you more,” Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater said. “I think that we’re a team that’s very hungry. We don’t feel like we’ve accomplished anything, we don’t feel like we’ve arrived at all because it’s all for naught unless you do something in the postseason.”
That’s something that the Texans realize as well.
“Obviously last year we were very excited to be in the playoffs,” Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said. “We were happy to make it as far as we did, but this year, new year, new goals. Biggest goal of them all: Super Bowl.”
The Patriots, though, believe they have the advantage of experience, even if it’s not always been a good experience. It may be institutional and not individual, but there is a sense that the team knows what it takes to win it all … even if the vast majority of them never have.
“You have to understand what’s at stake,” Wilfork said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, for this team to understand where we’re at (and) what it’s going to take to win. That’s when you talk about how many times you’ve been in the postseason and stuff like that. But if you can’t put it out and you can’t execute, I don’t care how many times you’ve been at this level or how many games you’ve played in the postseason, it won’t matter. It will not matter.”