FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — One by one they walked up to the podium in the standing-room only media room at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday. First Bill Belichick. Then Tom Brady, followed by Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater.

The head coach and captains of the New England Patriots.

And one by one – as if they had signed a pact – they did their best to ignore the three items placed on a table about four feet to their right: the shiny helmets of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, and the gleaming Lamar Hunt Trophy, which goes to the winner of the AFC championship game.

The Patriots and Steelers will play for that trophy at Gillette Stadium at 6:40 p.m. Sunday.

For the Patriots, it’s their – yawn – sixth consecutive appearance in this championship game, the fourth time since 2008 the game is played at their home stadium.

They understand the significance of their streak. “We really feel blessed to be in the position we are,” Slater said.

But they also know the stresses of playing in this game. They are 2-3 in the previous five championship game appearances, losing three of the last four.

“You’re playing for your survival,” McCourty said.

Win and you go on to play one more game, the Super Bowl, with a chance to become immortal. Lose and go home, and ponder what went wrong.

The teams face a delicate balance. You understand the stakes yet you don’t want to focus solely on the stakes. You have to believe that what you are doing is going to be good enough. You can’t be so uptight that you forget you’re playing a game.

“You’ve got to understand it’s still football,” said McCourty. “You want to enjoy the moment and take care of business, but you also want to have a sense of urgency to know that everything you can do this week to prepare, put a little extra in there, everything possible.”

McCourty said Belichick provides that message every morning. And he did so once more Wednesday.

“We’re in a one-game season,” he said. “We don’t have any more than Sunday night’s game unless we earn it. So I expect everybody will put their best effort into doing the best they can Sunday night – myself, the coaching staff, all the players involved in the game, everybody involved in the game, all the support staff, everybody.

“This is what we play for. We’ve worked all year for this to get to this position. We’ll put everything we’ve got into it. I would expect that from everybody.”

Hightower, drafted in the first round in 2012, has never played a professional season that didn’t include an AFC championship game appearance. He’s been to two Super Bowls, winning one, and has lost in this game three times.

He knows about the trappings of Sunday’s game, the pressures that are building. Yet, he said, “At the end of the day we still have to put on our helmet and shoulder pads, and go out and execute a game plan. That’s going to be the key to it just like any other week.”

But this isn’t any other week. They don’t trot helmets and trophies out to the interview room every week. Doesn’t that mean you have to do a little more, you have to prepare a little harder?

Not if you’re the Patriots. They approach each week the same way. They practice every week to win and that consistency is what pushes them through the weeks leading to the big games. They trust that they’re going to be prepared to play their best.

“We don’t want to go out after the game and wish we could have watched a little bit more film or done things a little bit different,” Hightower said. “I think everybody has the right attitude and we’re attacking this thing the right way.”

This is not going to be an easy game. Like the Patriots, Pittsburgh hasn’t lost since Nov. 13, going 9-0 since losing to Dallas 35-30 in the final seconds. New England lost to Seattle 31-24 that night. Since then the Patriots have won eight straight.

The Steelers have perhaps the most dangerous offense the Patriots could face right now, with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. And they have a defense playing its best.

Maybe that’s why the Patriots weren’t in a playful mood Wednesday.

“We have to play our best game of the year,” said Brady. “I think that’s what it comes down to. We’ve got to all do whatever it takes to be at our best for those three hours on Sunday night.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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