For many Patriots, a new challenge

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By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots arrived for training camp last July, much was made about the new look in the halls of Gillette Stadium. The photos celebrating past championships and momentous victories had been removed. Most of the players in those photos were no longer members of the Patriots and in some cases no longer playing in the NFL.

Most of the Patriots on this season’s roster weren’t around for those days and are riding the mystique of previous teams into the playoffs. This week will be the first chance for this team to achieve something for itself. Of the 53 players on the active roster, 37 have never won a playoff game.

On Sunday, the Patriots will host a Jets team that squeezed out a 17-16 victory against the Colts in a wild-card game Saturday night. Last season, Jets coach Rex Ryan led his team to the AFC Championship game. The Patriots went home after a first-round loss to the Ravens.

The Patriots may have a league-best 14-2 record, but that is not where they want their accomplishments to end. Wide receiver Deion Branch was around for the Super Bowl celebrations in the previous decade. And while he can remember that feeling, he knows nothing can be achieved simply by reflecting on the past.

“It doesn’t seem that far away, honestly,’’ said Branch of the Super Bowl championships. “I wouldn’t say it’s a thousand years.

“I think, back in the day, we took advantage of the opportunities at the time, and I think you still have that sense of urgency that it’s right here in our palms. The biggest things right now are taking advantage of the Jets, going out and executing our plays.’’

Branch isn’t walking around Gillette Stadium wearing his rings; he and his teammates keep them at home. He may have been around for the postseason wins, but Branch wasn’t around last season when the Patriots suffered the first-round loss to the Ravens at home.

Now that the Patriots are preparing for the Jets, Branch said he can sense that some players want to get over last season’s disappointment with a victory Sunday. But regret can’t be their motivation.

“I think the biggest thing is we try not to focus on the stuff that happened in the past,’’ Branch said. “That’s why you don’t hear a lot of guys talking about the Super Bowl.

“I’ve been other places. There were times in Seattle where guys talked about the Super Bowl so much in ’06, but you lost. That’s the big difference. I think here, we’ve won in the past, but guys don’t harp on it. They don’t talk about it. That doesn’t matter anymore; the game is over.’’

Preparing for the playoffs is a challenge in itself, but preparing for an opponent for the third time in the same season adds another element. The Patriots have a batch of leaders who can guide players. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady remain constants. Offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Matt Light, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and receiver Wes Welker all know what it feels like to win in the postseason.

Tight end Alge Crumpler said players can have a sense of urgency during the playoffs but they cannot lose themselves in the hype.

“I think it’s OK to be urgent; it’s a big game,’’ Crumpler said. “Everybody’s pretty excited about the opportunity that we have, but I think for the most part, you just have to be mentally tough. You have to be prepared for anything that happens throughout the ballgame.’’

Whether or not a player has been before, there is no mistaking that this is the postseason, said linebacker Jerod Mayo.

“We know who we’re playing,’’ said Mayo, who is in his third year but has yet to win a playoff game. “We know our opponent. We’ve played them twice before. It feels like the playoffs.’’

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