FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Packed to capacity in the lower level on one side of Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Patriots fans watched replays from the AFC championship victory that put New England in the Super Bowl.
A few minutes later, those roughly 25,000 fans sent the players off in style.
Before a spirited crowd that filled approximately one-third of Gillette Stadium, the Patriots officially began their short journey to Indianapolis by attending a free send-off rally, addressing the fans and returning the appreciation that's been bestowed upon them.
"This never gets old, huh?" running back Kevin Faulk asked the raucous crowd. "The one question I was asked during the offseason was, 'Why are you coming back, Kevin?'
"This is it, right here."
Following the 13-minute program on a stage constructed at the 50-yard line, the players skirted the lower level of seats on their way out of the stadium, high-fiving fans and filming the celebration along the way before boarding busses bound for the airport.
New England will play the New York Giants next Sunday — a little more than four years after the Giants spoiled the Patriots' perfect season with a stunning 17-14 Super Bowl victory.
"We wish we could take all of you guys to Indy with us," said Tom Brady, who will tie the record for quarterbacks with his fifth Super Bowl start. "Hopefully we'll have a lot more people at our party next weekend."
After re-watching Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's botched 32-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds that gave New England a 23-20 win over the Ravens last Sunday, the fans erupted as players filed into the stadium to their traditional entrance music.
A parade of Patriots, including coach Bill Belichick, then made their way to the podium to thank fans for their support.
"You guys are the reason why we're in the spot we're in, because we had home-field advantage throughout the end, and we were able to take advantage and now we're in the Super Bowl," said receiver Wes Welker. "That's what it's all about.
"I promise you all, all of these guys, with the way we're going to play this next Sunday, we're going to give it everything we've got out there and you're going to be proud to support the New England Patriots."
Linebacker Jerod Mayo touched on the difficult year endured by team owner Robert Kraft, whose wife, Myra, passed away July 20 after a battle with cancer. The team dedicated this season to her, wearing oval patches with the initials "MHK" on their uniforms right above their hearts.
Kraft, the final speaker, took the stage to chants of "MHK."
"At the beginning of the season, (Kraft's son and team president) Jonathan and I met with the team and told them that they would wear an MHK patch over their hearts," Kraft said. "And they really dedicated this season to her and all the volunteers in America who make this country great."
Liam Corbett, a fan clad in a blue Rob Gronkowski jersey, recalled attending his first Patriots Super Bowl send-off rally with his father in 2004, when New England beat the Carolina Panthers for the second of its three championships.
Now, with his father unable to attend due to an injury, he made the 50-mile trek from New Bedford with his wife, sister and two children, marveling at how the celebration morphed from roughly a couple hundred fans eight years ago to more than 20,000 on Sunday.
"It gives you more of a connection," he said. "You're able to be here with the team and they're able to see you off and all that, because not everybody can get to Indianapolis. It's pretty cool."
Corbett's wife, Nicole, was focused on creating memories for her almost 2-year-old son, Maximus, and 5-year-old daughter, Aurora, who was sporting a Brady jersey.
"Someone asked why we were coming down ... he goes, 'I could sit on my couch.' I said, 'Yeah, but I can't afford to go to the stadium for a regular game so I'm going.' We love this," she said. "It's exciting. I just like the energy, getting pumped up for the game, especially the kids, it makes great memories.
"It really gives you a lot of history and connection to the team as you get older. (Liam) did this with his dad when he was little and now we get to do it with our kids."