James Harrison, a Steeler afterthought, is latest veteran to bask in the Patriot Way

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Harrison boys, James (10) and Henry (8), wedged themselves into their dad’s locker at Gillette Stadium about an hour after the AFC championship game on Sunday evening. They slugged energy drinks, donned stiff-brimmed AFC champions hats and chatted up New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. They examined their dad’s gear, holding up Under Armour cleats the size of their forearms and soaked in the scene around him.

When Harrison’s locker neighbor, Johnson Bademosi, leaned in and asked where they were going, the enthusiastic response came immediately: “SUPER BOWL!”

Harrison, 39, clearly and deliberately relished the moment after the Patriots completed their 24-20 comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

New England Patriots linebacker James Harrison (92) pushes Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns (88) out of bounds during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP)

He put on his championship shirt before taking a shower to take a professional picture with his boys and the AFC championship trophy. He later did an interview with both of them on his lap, a trio of halogen grins lighting up the locker room.

In less than a month after being removed from the mothballs in Pittsburgh, Harrison has emerged as the fulcrum of this Patriots defense. He showed that again Sunday, setting the edge on the run defense and making a pair of critical fourth-quarter pass rushes to help the Patriots complete their improbable comeback.

“It feels good,” he said. “Like I said before, this is all part of God’s plan.”

Whether it’s spiritual, cosmic or karmic, the manner in which the Patriots have cobbled together victories have taken on an almost predictable script. If filling in the Mad Libs of the quintessential Patriots comeback, there were plenty of easy answers to fill in on Sunday.

There was drama to overcome:

Overarching concern? Tom Brady’s injury.

Traumatic injury to overcome? Rob Gronkowski’s concussion.

Huge lead by an opponent? The Jaguars led by 10 in the fourth quarter.

There were cunning plot twists:

Opponent blunder inviting them back in game? Delay of game penalty that negated a first-down throw and helped allow the Patriots to score at the end of the first half.

Obscure hero? Phillip Dorsett catching a high-degree-of-difficulty 31-yard catch to key a touchdown drive.

Maligned player with a big moment? Patriots defensive back Stephon Gilmore’s circus deflection to essentially seal the game.

Harrison’s role in the Patriots script is as well-worn as your favorite Do Your Job hoodie. He came in as veteran player overlooked in his old job who came here to embrace his role and thrive. The Patriots have become a depot for veterans seeking championships, as players like Darrelle Revis, Chris Long, Brandon Browner and Martellus Bennett have swung through in recent seasons and been able to claim a Super Bowl. Others have stopped here for productive late-career pit stops when others wondered how much they had in the tank – Junior Seau, Randy Moss and LeGarrette Blount.

Few have adopted the Patriot Way of unselfishness and role-playing as quickly as Harrison. One week after giving some engaging comments following the Tennessee Titans game where he claimed he’d be watching the Cartoon Network instead of his former team’s playoff game, he even managed to set a record for Patriots cliches in one interview on Sunday night. “It is what it is,” he said when asked a question about the mentality of coming from behind. “If you don’t go out there and play and do your job, then you’re going to lose the game.” That’s the Bill Belichick rhetoric of a 10-year Patriots veteran.

Harrison did his job Sunday. With just over two minutes remaining, he rushed in from the edge and helped force a Blake Bortles fumble when he and linebacker Kyle Van Noy sandwiched the Jacksonville quarterback. That turned second-and-10 into third-and-19 and set the stage for Gilmore breaking up the Bortles pass two plays later.

“I just got an opportunity to get in there and rush the passer,” he said, the bland comments contrasting the giddy scene around him. “Like I said, I was blessed to get through.”

The Patriots’ cycle of winning has perpetuated itself, as New England winning every year has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s led to more veterans coming here and making plays.

“Belichick and the front office know what they’re doing when it comes to things like this, getting guys like this who know how to play football,” said Ricky Jean Francois, another veteran who was cut this season and has become a consistent contributor.

He summed up Harrison’s role this way: “To come on this team and have the impact he’s had, that’s priceless,” Jean Francois said. “That’s priceless. The way he’s stepped in and did his thing, he didn’t miss a beat. He did what James Harrison can do, come in and be an impact player.”

Harrison posing for pictures of this moment of his career twilight offered the perfect image to encapsulate this remarkable New England run. In playing in their seventh straight AFC title game and clinching their third Super Bowl in four years, the Patriots reaffirmed their recruiting message to future veterans looking for a Super Bowl ring. The formula is here, the blanks just need to be filled in. Ask James Harrison and his sons, they have the pictures to prove it.

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