But for 10 veterans and eight rookies, many of whom play significant roles on this year's club, this weekend's game will mark their first taste of NFL postseason action. How those players respond to the increased intensity and pressure could go a long way toward determining the Patriots success.
New England has eight rookies who all play and contribute in one way or another and four of them -- safety Eugene Wilson, cornerback Asante Samuel, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Bethel Johnson -- play significant roles on offense or defense while defensive linemen Ty Warren and Dan Klecko along with linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and safety Shawn Mayer all play spot roles defensively and bigger roles in the kicking game.
Those players have learned on the fly this season and now face a new test. Head coach Bill Belichick offered them this bit of advice.
"I think emotionally, the best thing for the rookies is for them to prepare well for the game, to study as hard as they possibly can on what our game plan is and what Tennessee is doing and then go out and play with 100 percent effort and play as physically as they can. I think that will do more than anything else. I think it will do more for them than wearing the same socks they wore last week or parking in the same parking space they parked in two weeks ago. I think preparing for the game and playing well is the best thing they can do for themselves, the team and their families for that matter. They have been told that."
The magnitude of the game certainly hasn't been lost on the playoff newbies. "It's the biggest game of my life," Samuel said. "Being a rookie, I've had a great opportunity to play on a team and make it to the playoffs. I have to be well prepared. You want to be intense, but you have to make sure you come relaxed and ready to play the game. You just try to stay focused and not try to get too rah-rah. But you wouldn't be a football player if you didn't think you were a player that liked to step up in big games or big situations."
"I know it's another speed," second-year wideout Deion Branch said. "Everybody's up. I don't want to go home and we as a team don't want to go home so we have to make the best of it."
Former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, who works in the club's community relations department, was asked to recall his first playoff experience and how youngsters keep their emotions in check.
"If you're concentrating on the things you're supposed to be concentrating on and taking care of business defensively, you don't worry that much about being on an even keel. You just practice, work hard and just play. Everybody around you will keep you on an even keel," Tippett said.
The Patriots home accomplishments are well documented this season but certainly worth revisiting as they get set to host the first ever playoff game at two-year-old Gillette Stadium. Ironically, the first ever playoff game at the team's old facility, then named Schaefer Stadium, was against the Oilers/Titans organization and that game stands as the Patriots only ever home playoff loss in five games. Houston won that game 31-14 in Foxborough.
But New England is 8-0 at home this season and allowed just 68 points (8.5 per game) in those wins, including 22 in the last six games. The Patriots, who scored 169 points at home, posted three home shutouts and had a plus-15 turnover ratio with only five giveaways. New England's defense scored as many touchdowns (4) as it allowed at home and it allowed just one touchdown in the final six home games while stopping 74 of 75 drives short of the end zone.
However, two of the four touchdowns allowed at Gillette Stadium came against Tennessee and 30 of the 68 points allowed also came against the Titans. Overall, New England's 238 points allowed (14.9 per game) were the fewest in football and it held opposing quarterbacks to a 56.2 cumulative passer rating while allowing 11 touchdown passes with 29 interceptions. Titans quarterback Steve McNair had a 68.8 rating against New England -- his lowest of the season.
Nose tackle Ted Washington had T-shirts made up this week that say, "Homeland Defense -- We must protect this house." The shirts featured the faces of Washington, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law and Rodney Harrison. Harrison also wore a winter hat that said "Homeland Defense."
"Our level of play increases at home," guard Damien Woody said. "We draw off the crowd. It's not as loud as the old stadium, but being at home in front of your own fans gives you a boost. You want to perform for your home crowd." ...
This will be the Patriots 12th playoff appearance in 44 years and sixth in the last 10 years. New England has won seven division titles, qualified as a Wild Card four times while also qualifying for the 16-team postseason tournament during the 1982 strike-shortened season. The Patriots are 10-10 in the postseason and will go for their fourth straight win. They also are 4-1 at home in the playoffs.
With the temperature Saturday night expected to be well below zero with the wind chill and slightly above zero without, the Patriots may have an advantage against the Titans. The Patriots are 14-2 since 1993 when kickoff temperature is below 35 degrees, including a 3-0 mark this season.
Special teams is often a factor in a team reaching the Super Bowl. Both New England and Tennessee used big plays in the kicking game on their most recent paths to the NFL final. In 1999, the Music City Miracle helped the Titans stave off elimination against Buffalo before they eventually lost to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Patriots scored two special teams touchdowns in their AFC Championship win over Pittsburgh before going on to upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Patriots rookie kickoff returner Bethel Johnson returned kicks for 50 and 71 yards against the Titans back in October and Troy Brown had a punt return for a touchdown called back by a block in the back well away from the play that was even called on the wrong player. The Titans also have big play returners in Justin McCareins and Derrick Mason. Watch for one of the returners in this game to make a big play that impacts the outcome.
Third down could be a deciding factor in a close game this week, which would give the Titans an edge. Tennessee is eighth in the NFL offensively on third down, converting 40.8 percent of the time while leading the league defensively, allowing a 27.7 percent conversion rate. The Patriots, meanwhile, ranked 14th offensively, converting 37 percent of their third down chances while holding opponents to a 34.5 percent success rate, good for seventh in the league. The Patriots converted 50 percent of their third downs against Tennessee in the first meeting while the Titans converted 40 percent.
Two years ago when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they did it behind a stingy red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 38.8 percent of trips inside their 20 (19-of-49). They improved on that mark slightly this season, allowing 18 touchdowns in 47 red zone trips for a 38.3 percent success rate. Both years represent a far cry from 2002, the year in between, when the 9-7 Patriots allowed 34 touchdowns in 54 trips (63 percent).
BY THE NUMBERS:
22 - The number of consecutive games the Patriots have won when leading at the half.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"There couldn't be anything less relevant than that to me. I couldn't think of one single thing less relevant than that." -- Bill Belichick on the fact that the many odds makers predict the Patriots to win the Super Bowl.