FOXBORO -- It goes beyond Tom Brady.
When the Patriots take the field Saturday for the Wild Card playoff game against the Titans, it could end up being the last time several members of New England's core play in front of a Gillette Stadium crowd. There are a dozen players on the roster -- all in possession of Super Bowl rings, some with multiple rings -- scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.
Brady, of course, is the headliner. But the list of potential departures also includes captains Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, key contributors Kyle Van Noy, Joe Thuney, Nate Ebner, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton, as well as role players like Phillip Dorsett, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras and James Ferentz. Between them, 27 rings.
Brady was asked several questions on Thursday about the possibility that this would be the final time he'd play in front of a stadium full of fans who've cheered him for two decades. The idea didn't seem to phase him much.
But he was also asked if he'd be provided any added motivation by the understanding that this playoff run might be the last bite at the apple for a group that's helped to usher in the second iteration of the Patriots dynasty.
"I just think it’s important for all of us not to take anything for granted," Brady said. "I think that’s what you think about because if you think about it, every year that we’re in the playoffs, it’s really that same thing – the team will not be together if we lose, whether that was 2010, ‘11, ‘12, all the way to now. Even if you’re going to the Super Bowl, it’s the same feeling. It’s, 'This is our last one and let’s try to go end it the right way.' "
Brady has known since the summer, when he signed a one-year pact with the Patriots, this could be his last go-round with the team. It would be only natural for him to consider that possibility -- somewhere between studying up on Titans single-high safety coverages and Mike Vrabel's pressure packages -- for a moment or two.
His teammates in contract years certainly have.
"I think it always comes up into your mind at some point during the season. It's human nature," McCourty said. "I think when it does, you just need to bring yourself back and stick to being in the moment. And I think especially right now, there's no bigger moment. Next year will be whatever next year will be. But now you have an opportunity to do something that a lot of us in this locker room have done. We've won that last game of the year, and we know how special that is. To give time elsewhere to anything else, you kinda know what you do to yourself. You just lessen the chance you have to play in that last game."
"I think everybody has that in their minds sometimes," Shelton acknowledged. "But at the same time, it becomes one of those things, you put the team before yourself. We have a lot of players like that. They put the team before themselves. It's more of a situation where we don't want it to be the last time we play with each other. We want it to be a situation where we're coming to work next week, you know?"
Whenever the 2019 season comes to a close for the Patriots -- whether it's Saturday or with another Lombardi Trophy next month -- the locker room could have a very different feel.
It could be absent the playful jawing between Slater and McCourty, teammates for the past decade. The seat right by the room's entrance, occupied by Van Noy, could go to someone else. Special teams brethren Ebner and Slater could be separated for the first time since Ebner entered the league in 2012. The pack of offensive linemen shuffling in from meetings could have a different shape without rookie classmates and friends Thuney and Karras.
Asked about the potential for finality associated with the postseason and that this could be the last hurrah for this group, Thuney explained that even if his mind goes there it can't stay long.
"It's wild," Thuney said. "I mean, you don't really think about it. The season is just so long, and you get so locked into it. Like you said, the finality -- there's 12 teams left. Twenty teams are just hanging out. It is a weird thought.
"Just gotta try to channel those emotions and that energy into preparing for this game because feeling sentimental or emotional isn't gonna help anything. Just gonna focus on what we can do to prepare the best we can for the game."
The changes to the 2020 Patriots could extend beyond the locker room, too.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is scheduled to take head coaching interviews next week. Special teams coordinator and receivers coach Joe Judge is getting head-coaching interest as well. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio, pro scouting director Dave Ziegler and college scouting director Monti Ossenfort could be on the move. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be 72 in February. Running backs coach Ivan Fears is 65.
"It's a one-and-done type of situation," Shelton said. "That's just what adds into the seriousness and just intensifies your mindset every day going to work. It's just something you gotta have in the back of your mind when you work. It pushes you to do extra, to try and be perfect and just execute your job."
If they're going to extend the run and give themselves a chance to savor these moments a little longer, they're going to have to do something they haven't done in ages. The last time this team played in the Wild Card round was 2009. Brady, Slater and Julian Edelman are the only players on the active roster who were around for that loss to the Ravens.
"For me, that's all I've been thinking about," McCourty said. "Just trying to get to that last game. It's a new road for all of us -- for a lot of us. Tom has been [to the Wild Card round]. But for a lot of us, 10 or 11 years, we've done it the same way. And now, to me, the new journey is exciting. You have an opportunity to do something that's different. That's new.
"As a competitor are you gonna rise to the challenge or not? That's why I love this team because I think everyone has that mindset...There's no tomorrow. I'm gonna do everything I can to get healthy. I'm gonna do whatever I can to feel 25 instead of 32. You're going to do all of those things because you do realize, 'Hey, I'm in the playoffs in my 10th year in the NFL.'
"No one says you're going to make the playoffs for 15 or 20 years straight while you're playing anywhere else. I think that's what has to burn you to continue to try to do your best and being here late. My family understands that I'll be late each day that we still have work. Because the reality is, 'Don't worry -- if I'm late today and we lose, I'll be home early every day.' I think it's that mentality more than where I'll be next year."
Their minds may occasionally wander. This group of free-agents-to-be may wonder what's next. But their collective ability to fend off that which could take away their focus from the task at hand is part of the reason they have more than two dozen rings between them.
There's time for nostalgia, but they know this ain't it.
"I know this game, we haven’t played in this particular round of the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter," Brady said. "If we win, then what’s the difference? We’ve just got to go win. You’ve got to go win. You’ve got to do everything you can when that ball is kicked off to do the best you can to help the team win, and put yourself and put the team in a great situation to go win."