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Down this road before

Experience may count, but for just how much is always tough to figure

FOXBOROUGH -- Always, the topic has captivated the spirit and provided rich flavor for pundits and philosophers, the curious and the couch potatoes. So much history is there to the subject that the esteemed Ralph Waldo Emerson penned an essay on it, entitled "Experience."

It was published in 1844, long before Bill Belichick slipped into his first gray sweatshirt and began to reinvent playoff football, and while Emerson was actually moved to put ink to paper after the death of his son and not a postseason pigskin game, the greater point is this: Experience has been a concept to be considered for a long time. It's just that there's never been agreement as to how one can quantify "experience," and nowhere is that more true than in today's NFL.

Case in point the Patriots, as they prepare for tomorrow's playoff game against the New York Jets. New England's active roster includes 34 players who have combined for 231 playoff games, which we are told translates into a whole bunch of experience, especially when compared with the Jets' numbers (27 and 117). Just the thought of all that experience oozing from the home sideline at Gillette Stadium is enough to get Patriots fans booking exotic South Beach accommodations in preparation for Super Bowl XLI.

But put down those cellphones for one second and reflect upon the Rocky Mountain proceedings of just one year ago:

1. Tom Brady had been intercepted just three times in 331 postseason passes. Then in his 11th playoff game, he got picked off twice by the Broncos in 36 throws, one a toss into the end zone that turned into a game-turning 100-yard return by Champ Bailey.

2. Troy Brown (in his 17th playoff game) and Kevin Faulk (in his 11th) fumbled for the first time in the postseason.

3. Oh, and Mr. Super Bowl-Winning Kicker himself, Adam Vinatieri, in his 17th playoff game, misfired on a 34-yard try at a crucial point.

Veteran champs, all of them. But on that mild winter night in Denver, they were veteran chumps as the Patriots saw their 10-game playoff winning streak end. Which begs the question: How did that experience work out for the Patriots last year?

Not very well, did it? Which is probably why more than 125 years after Emerson wrote his essay, another great thinker would sit in his Boston Garden office amid a great many mementos, one of which was a wooden plaque that read: "Experience don't mean [expletive]."

To Red Auerbach, games weren't won with concepts; they were won by players who executed well.

No coach would want a roster that consists of 53 names, none of whom has ever dressed for a playoff game, yet there's proof that a lack of experience doesn't always derail a capable team. Think back to the 2002 season, when critics laughed off Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, especially an offense that featured just two -- two! -- players with playoff experience, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and offensive lineman Lomas Brown. The quarterback, Brad Johnson, was not to be feared, and he didn't have playoff experience, either.

So, what happened? The Buccaneers put a Super Bowl beating on Oakland, 48-21. Having Jerry Rice -- who was playing in his 1,365th playoff game, or so it seemed -- didn't provide the Raiders with any answers, nor did it help to have Tim Brown and Rich Gannon . In fact, just as it was with the Patriots last January, the experienced veterans were the ones who let down the Raiders, particularly Gannon, who was picked off five times.

It was as if George Bernard Shaw, another premier thinker, had called it years earlier when he tackled the subject and reflected, "We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience."

Meaning what?

Meaning experience isn't an infomercial, complete with a money-back guarantee.

"All I know is, we have guys who've played in playoff games in this locker room and we have guys who haven't played in playoff games in this locker room," said Larry Izzo, the Patriots' special teams captain and a veteran of 15 postseason games. "The New York Jets have players who've played in playoff games in their locker room and they have players who haven't played in playoff games in their locker room. They've got plenty of experience over there."

While he doesn't dismiss the value of experience -- perhaps with last January's game against the Broncos fresh on his mind -- neither does Izzo let it consume him.

"You've seen guys who've excelled in big games who've never played in big games at this level," he said. "Experience is definitely an advantage, but I don't think that not having experience is going to prevent anyone from being effective. We're all professionals. We've been playing this game for a long time and you expect to perform at your highest level, regardless of whether you've been in that situation or not."

That sentiment is echoed a few lockers away by Vinny Testaverde, who fulfills the ultimate utility role in this, his 20th NFL season.

"You've still got to go out and play, no matter how much [experience] or how little you have," said Testaverde, who'll dress for his seventh postseason game. "It comes down to execution on Sunday. From a player's point of view, it's still about lining up and going out and playing football."

That point conceded, the question still lingers. If experience were a topic to be brushed aside, why have so many profound thinkers pondered its substance for years? And why has it been viewed from so many aspects by these people?

Oscar Wilde: "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

Mother Teresa: "If you have not the experience, ask. There is no shame in asking, but do not pretend you know when you don't."

And, of course, Yogi Berra, who once remarked that, "Bill Dickey is learning me his experience."

Which brings us back to the Patriots-Jets game and the NFL playoffs. If we accept that experience is present, how does it manifest itself?

"Experience is having your backs to the wall or being in front of a large crowd and making the plays you have to make," said Patriots free safety Artrell Hawkins, poised for his third postseason game in this, his ninth NFL season. "When you don't have experience and the crowd is alive and you know it's being broadcast nationally, you can end up being a deer in the headlights. You could be distracted by things that aren't important.

"Experience is what it is. [It's saying to yourself], 'Football, I've been playing it. I go out and I execute and I perform, regardless of the situation or circumstances.' "

OK, so if it's a feeling, a state of being, does it translate into an advantage for the experienced player?

"I think it's an edge. Yeah, it's definitely an edge," said Hawkins.

His colleague in the New England secondary, Ellis Hobbs, agreed.

"We've been here before," said the second-year player who'll be involved in his third playoff game. "I can say that myself now. I know what type of atmosphere it is, I know how serious it is."

And experience, at least the productive kind, is not noisy or chaotic, at least as far as Hawkins is concerned. He looks in every direction in the Patriots' locker room, from Tedy Bruschi (16 playoff games) and Mike Vrabel (13) to his left, to Brady (11) to his right, to Tully Banta-Cain (7) far to his right.

"It's wonderful to be around so many guys with a lot of experience, a lot of big-game experience," said Hawkins, for so long stuck with the hapless Bengals. "There's a lot of guys in this locker room with experience, but you don't ever hear, 'Well, this is how you handle the situation.' They don't have to talk about it. They've been there, done that, and it rubs off on the players who haven't."

Of course, others will roar loudly about experience, sometimes until it's irritating. Take Kansas City coach Herm Edwards, for instance. His Chiefs secured a postseason berth in dramatic fashion last Sunday, but he sounded as if he had coached the Raiders all season when questioned about today's foe, the Indianapolis Colts.

"We have seven starters who have never been in a playoff game. Seven starters!" bellowed Edwards. "This team we are playing [the Colts] has been in the playoffs five years in a row. They understand the tempo. They understand the mode. They understand what's getting ready to take place."

Edwards could have added that the Colts have another sort of experience -- they understand how to lose playoff games -- but the Kansas City coach is entitled to his view. After all, everyone else, it seems, has chimed in about the nuances of experience.

Like the person who once said, "Good judgment is the result of experience and experience is the result of bad judgment."

Or, as humorist Jacob Braude observed, "There's no fool like an old fool -- you can't beat experience."

Apparently, he'll go with the Patriots against the Jets.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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