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Being in big game scores with them

HOUSTON -- Apparently it is possible for the human body to distinguish chills when the windchill is 3 degrees, as the Patriots discovered yesterday when several thousand loyal fans packed a parking lot at Gillette Stadium and lined the sidewalks on Route 1 to wave goodbye to the AFC champions as they departed for Logan Airport, and then for Houston and Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"I think a lot of guys got excited when we left our stadium, and we had all the fans come out and cheer us on getting on the bus," Willie McGinest, one of New England's coolest customers amid the Super Bowl hype, said last night after the team's delayed journey by bus finally was complete. "Especially being as cold as it was. That kind of sent a chill through a lot of guys. That was special, and we want to thank them for coming out and supporting us. That's probably the only time I've been excited, when I saw our fans out there at the stadium to see us off."

Years, or even weeks, from now, when Christian Fauria looks back on his first Super Bowl experience, he wants to have something tangible at which to look. Thus, his new camera goes everywhere with him. As he was snapping photos of the fans in Foxborough yesterday afternoon, it dawned on him that the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, and he is fortunate enough to be one of them.

"I was pulling into the hotel and I was like, `Am I actually playing in this game or am I just a guest here, and I'm going to sell my tickets and go home before the game starts?' " Fauria said last night at the team hotel. "Which is what I usually do, if I even come to the Super Bowl, or if I even watch it. I think it hit me when we got on our buses from the stadium and we were leaving and all the fans were there. I was taking pictures. I was like, `Holy cow, this is great!' It reminds me of a bowl game; where I went to college [University of Colorado] we had a bunch of them. It's kind of got that feeling, but instead of not meaning anything, this game, obviously, has a lot of implications for us personally and team-wise."

Fauria said that on the flight here, "A lot of guys had cameras and they were trying to figure them out. Everybody had a new camera." This experience isn't foreign to Rodney Harrison. He's been through it before, although it's been nine years. So it took the most focused of Patriots a little while longer to step back and appreciate the big picture.

"Even when the fans were out there in numbers sitting in the cold, I really didn't feel the impact that I feel now," Harrison said. "When I walked into this hotel, to see the media, to see the fans, I mean, I couldn't believe it. My heart just started racing, and I started getting so excited. I don't know how I'm going to sleep. Really, when I walked into this hotel, I started saying, `This is for real.' "

It was while taking a shower two weeks ago that it sunk in for Tom Brady the Patriots were playing for the conference championship. This time the jolt of reality struck during a team meeting. "[Saturday] morning, we got our schedule for the week," Brady said. "I looked at it, and I turned around to Damon [Huard], and I said, `Damon, can you believe it? We're going back to the Super Bowl!' I mean, sometimes it just hits you. It is another game. But it is the Super Bowl."

Which is why Bill Belichick and his players have promised that this will be a week more for work than play. The party atmosphere is for fans, they say. The Patriots can have fun after they've finished playing the Carolina Panthers Sunday.

"That's all we're here for," Belichick said. "That's what every trip is for. We're not here to go sightseeing and all that. We're here to play Carolina. It's the biggest game of the year. I don't know how anybody could take it any other way."

Harrison acknowledged he took getting to the Super Bowl for granted as a rookie with the Chargers almost a decade ago. Yesterday he recalled thinking, "This is easy to get to the Super Bowl."

"I'm thinking, `It's going to happen like this every year,' " Harrison said.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't. I have a greater appreciation now, so therefore, I have more focus now. I'm going to enjoy my family, I'm going to enjoy everything that's going on to a certain degree. But this is a business trip. It's really for a waste if you go out here and party too much and don't take care of your business."

Said Fauria, "If you put too much emphasis on, `Oh God, I'm really at the Super Bowl,' you're going to lose what's really important. Which is, this is a business trip, although it's almost like a circus-like atmosphere, minus the tent, the bears, and the juggling clowns. But it is a business atmosphere."

The way Fauria is toting around his camera, one would think he were also in the photography business. He even took photos of media members. "I just want to have [photos], so when all of this is over, I can actually say I was there, and it wasn't a dream," he said.

Or, worse, a nightmare, which a Super Bowl loss has been known to inspire. "Getting here is one thing," Fauria said, "and it's fun and it's great, but it's really not going to be what it should be if we lose. The experience isn't just about coming to the Super Bowl. It's about coming and winning the Super Bowl."

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