FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Being a member of the New England Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era has generally meant a guaranteed place in the playoffs.
Still, for 20 players on the Patriots’ active roster Saturday will mark the first taste of the postseason of their NFL careers.
That group includes a pair of starters who have filled significant roles for New England this season in defensive end Chris Long and receiver Chris Hogan.
Long hadn’t won more than seven games in any of his eight years with the Rams from 2008 to 2015 prior to signing with New England this offseason.
Hogan, in his fourth season, spent the previous three seasons playing for AFC East rival Buffalo. The closest he came to the playoffs with the Bills was a 9-7 finish in 2014.
“I’ve never experienced it before so this is all new to me,” Hogan said. “Just talking to some of the guys, the playoffs, you talk about preseason going into the regular season, the speed kind of picks up, and I’ve heard that from a number of guys that the playoff speed picks up a little bit more.”
Long’s playoff drought is the longest of any of the Patriots.
“I think everything happens for a reason. Sometimes you might not like it, but listen, it is what it is,” he said.
“I’ve been very lucky throughout my career in a lot of ways, so whatever brought me to this point... I’m just going to be excited to be in the moment. Everybody earns it.”
Hogan has fit right into the Patriots receiving group, making 14 starts. He’s fourth on the team with 38 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns.
Long has appeared in 16 games this season with 35 tackles and four sacks. He’s helped fortify New England’s pass rush following the trades of Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Long’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“I think he has enjoyed the process and just really as far as that is concerned has been a guy that’s out there working really hard every day to get better and play hard for his teammates,” Patricia said. “That’s all you can really ask for.”
Another Patriots offseason addition is being reacquainted with playoff football.
Tight end Martellus Bennett spent his first four NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, and had a forgettable experience of the postseason in 2009 in which he was targeted just four times in two games.
He’s back seven seasons later, and is trying not to take anything for granted this time with a franchise used to making deep postseason runs.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed to Bennett’s unselfishness as being the thing that’s helped him integrate so well into New England’s system.
He leads the team with seven receiving touchdowns and is second in yards (701) behind only Julian Edelman (1,106).
Bennett said he thinks the 2012 season he spent with the New York Giants was beneficial to his growth as a player. It’s also helped him to appreciate the opportunity he has now.
“(The Patriots) win a lot of games. I hadn’t really won that many games in my career,” he said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of individual things as far as numbers go, but individual goals aren’t really important. This is a lot more fun than catching 90 balls and losing 10 games.”
Does that mean he sees this as an opportunity to win an elusive Super Bowl?
“I just crave the big-game moments and playing in games that matter,” he said. “A lot of times, you don’t really get to do things that matter and I have a chance to do that right now.”
It’s a mentality shared by the Patriots’ playoff newbies.
“These guys that have been here and have been in the playoffs before have earned it, and guys like Marty and myself and other guys, we just came in and tried to earn it with them,” Long said. “And here we are.”