FOXBOROUGH — Chris Long has never been to the playoffs. The defensive end played eight years for the St. Louis Rams before signing with New England and packed up his locker after Week 17 every single time.
Not this year. Long got his first hat and T-shirt Sunday when the Patriots clinched the AFC East by winning in Denver. For the first time, he can be sure he won’t have to watch the playoff games from home.
Some players whose teams miss the cut can’t bear to watch, but Long always did. His brother, Kyle, has never made the playoffs either but his father, Howie, has covered games as an analyst for Fox. No self-respecting member of the Long family is turning off the game in January or February, so Chris always found a way to enjoy himself.
“I usually had enough to drink,” he said.
Long now plays with many teammates who think making the playoffs is a normal event. On the current roster, only Tom Brady, Matthew Slater, and Stephen Gostkowski have ever not made the playoffs during their time as Patriots. Rob Ninkovich, whose locker is next to Long’s, can rattle off memories from playoff appearances in Indianapolis and Denver and Arizona on top of plenty in Foxborough. Long remembers where he was for those games, too.
“I can remember which bar,” he said, laughing the way people laugh when they tell embarrassing stories from back in the day. “In my life, I can remember which bar I was at. When they talk about playoff games that they were in, I’m like ‘Oh, I was at this bar when you guys were playing in that playoff game.’ But that’ll change.”
That it will. In fact, things already have changed. At one point Tuesday afternoon, Long was actually a little flustered, standing at his locker firing off text messages.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking up. “Christmas.”
Most of Long’s shopping is done, and he has a list in his head of what’s left, but the holiday crept up on him this year. The last few weeks of the season usually haven’t been this busy for him. They haven’t mattered this much.
“I played a lot of years when this time of year, no one was watching our games,” Long said. “It still meant a lot to me so it’s going to mean no different, any time you take the field you’ve got to take pride in what you do. Certainly here there’s the added implication of, you know, where are we going to be playing, this, that and the third. So it all matters. These games matter.”
Long said he doesn’t check the standings or work out playoff scenarios in his head each week. One effect of having so much to play for in Weeks 17 and 18 is that it creates a distraction.
“Honestly — I’m not just saying this because it’s a thing to say — I’m so caught up in just being in the hunt that, and just having meaningful games right now, that I’m not looking ahead,” Long said. “You know. The reality has set in that, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in the playoffs,’ but the way we finish is going to have a lot to do with the circumstance, too.
“Just playing these two games it’s, you know, I’ve never gotten used to every week playing in games that everybody’s watching and everybody cares about. That’s not something I’ve been a part of before so it’s really cool.”
Long isn’t the only Patriot who’s a playoff rookie — aside from the actual rookies, wide receiver Chris Hogan, linebackers Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, and Kyle Van Noy, and cornerback Eric Rowe also got their first hats and T-shirts in Denver.
None of those players have had careers as lengthy or productive as Long’s, though, and none of them stood to take the pay cut Long did in coming to New England. The accomplished edge-rusher had been playing on a four-year, $48.2 million deal signed in 2012 before the Rams cut him in the offseason to save salary-cap space, but is playing on a one-year, $2.375 million contract for the Patriots.
The money wasn’t the reason Long came to New England. Winning was.
“This is the everything for me, as far as why I decided to be here, was to be a part of winning,” Long said. “And be a part of meaningful football, above all else, above individual roles, above individual this, that and the third, I mean, for me, it’s all about being out there each Sunday with a lot of people watching what we’re doing.
“That’s a great feeling and having that, it’ll be no different, Christmas Eve, playing a tough division opponent, you know. It’s just, every week, it’s a new challenge but that’s what’s fun about it here.”