January 28, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) There was a time when Chris Long didn't think this opportunity would ever come.

A time when words like ''playoffs'' and ''Super Bowl'' seemed like unattainable unicorns that the 31-year-old Patriots defensive lineman might never touch. Eight years in the NFL spent on underperforming teams, and having seasons potholed by injuries have that effect.

So when the veteran was asked this week whether the chance to earn a ring was on his mind when he signed with the Patriots this offseason, he didn't doesn't hesitate to answer.

''It's the whole reason I came here,'' he said. ''Everybody wants to win. That's the bottom line. When you're making a decision as an older player of where you want to be, you want to be in situations like this with opportunities like this. We've earned the opportunity...Whatever we do with it, that's up to us.''

Next week's Super Bowl matchup with Atlanta will also be a chance for him to match the Super Bowl ring won by his father, Hall of Famer Howie Long, who won a title with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1984.

The elder Long will have a unique vantage point to watch his son as an analyst for Fox, which has the broadcast rights for the game. But Chris said it shouldn't affect him.

''Not a ton. It just means he's there,'' he said. ''We'll see each other. But we're not big on the sentimental stuff.''

While Howie Long was an integral part of the Raiders' defense, Chris has embraced being a role player on a New England defense that's really void of any big names.

With 35 tackles, four sacks and fumble recovery, he is having his best year since 2013 when he recorded 40 tackles and 8 1/2 sacks.

He also helped steady a New England defense that started the season without linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.

Ninkovich returned in October, but it only slightly diminished Long's role.

The pair has since become fast friends. The buddy system, it turns out, can been invaluable in New England's demanding environment.

''He's older like me,'' Long said about the 32-year-old Ninkovich. ''He's played here a long time so he's helped me understand the intricacies of the scheme, the different things that you're going to be asked to do. ...It helps a lot.''

Ninkovich said they bonded easily.

''This league isn't easy year in and year out, just the grind of it and everything that you have to fight through,'' he said. ''So to see him come here and really just jump right into the system and the Patriot Way, and get to playoff game, and get to an AFC championship and now to a Super Bowl - I'm just very happy for him.''

It's also helped that Long's the healthiest he's been in three seasons.

Selected second overall in the 2008 draft, Long appeared in 16 games each of his first six seasons in the league.

That changed in 2014 when he missed all but six games following left ankle surgery. He returned in 2015, but a right knee injury caused him to miss a total of four games.

At age 30, it looked like Long's opportunities would be finite entering free agency. But a call from Bill Belichick just a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday changed everything.

The Patriots had just traded edge rusher Chandler Jones and were in the market for a capable replacement.

With teams possibly scared away because of Long injury issues, New England was able to sign him to a bargain one-year, $2.3 million deal.

But Long saw it as maybe his last chance to make a meaningful postseason run.

''For me, playing in an AFC championship was, on a scale from 1 to 10, a 12 for me. So I'm already in the extra numbers,'' he said. ''It's all far beyond anything that I've done before. So, I feel like I'll be all right.''

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Long's willingness to rotate between both linebacker and end has made him an asset.

''I think he has enjoyed the process and...has been a guy that's out there working really hard every day to get better and play hard for his teammates,'' Patricia said. ''And that's all you can really ask for.''

Long said he's planning to take in every morsel of football he has left this season.

''Any player that's been through ups and downs, and everybody in this league has- injuries, whatever,'' he said. ''Things can change quickly, and luckily I never gave up on it.''

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

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