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Judgment day has arrived

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here we are, 363 days later, the New England Patriots finally in position to answer the question that has hovered over the franchise for the past year.

Forget the regular season. This was always about the playoffs.

From the moment stunned Patriots players and coaches walked off the Gillette Stadium field Jan. 16, 2011 -- the hated New York Jets sending them home in a second straight one-and-done playoff appearance -- it framed what would ultimately define this season. Nothing they could have done over the past 16 games would have mattered. Not even another 16-0.

It was always about this: One playoff win.

The Patriots are hoping for three of those and a fourth Super Bowl championship, but this is where it starts, against the Denver Broncos on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 8 p.m. ET). Finally, it's a chance to wipe the X's and O's grease board clean, to produce the franchise's first playoff victory since the 2007 season.

Fans of the Buffalo Bills, who hold the NFL's longest streak with 12 straight playoff-less seasons, might view it as absurd. Ditto for followers of the Cleveland Browns (nine seasons without a berth) and Oakland Raiders (nine). But the standard is different here, which was reflected in Bill Belichick's instant analysis after last year's bitter playoff defeat following a 14-2 regular season.

"Certainly a lot of good things that happened for us this season, but unfortunately it gets overshadowed by the final result," he said. "We'll have to work hard to get back to this point."

They have. Now, given that background and facing a Broncos team they are heavily favored to beat, one could make the case that no team remaining in the AFC playoff field faces as much pressure as the Patriots. A third straight one-and-done, especially when considering all those games were at home, would lead to greater concerns.

"This season will be judged by what they do Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. ET," ESPN analyst and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi wrote last week. "This team is one opening playoff loss from some serious questions -- involving coaches and players."

Players might deflect the impact of the past two years, but a playoff scar still exists in several areas of the team's locker room, mainly with the core group that includes quarterback Tom Brady, receiver Wes Welker, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater, safety Patrick Chung and offensive linemen Matt Light and Logan Mankins.

How can it not? There are 31 players on the current roster who dressed for the divisional-round Jets loss and 16 who suited up in the blowout defeat against Baltimore in the wild-card round the year before. Since 2009, the Patriots are 23-1 in regular season games at Gillette Stadium. Home playoff games in that span? They're 0-2.

The players might not say it, but they know. The only way to heal that scar is to do what they couldn't the past two years -- win in the playoffs.

"I wouldn't say there is pressure, but there needs to be urgency," said Slater, who in the fourth year has emerged as one of the team's leaders. "It's not just because of the past but because we've put ourselves in a unique situation as the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage. I think we have that sense of urgency this week. We know what's at stake."

Players might not want to talk about the past, but it would be only natural for them to be thinking, "This can't happen again."

"What we needed to take from those games, we've taken from them, and we've moved on," Slater said. "You can't linger on the past failures, just like you can't linger on the past successes. Now it's time to look to this game and this game only."

In adopting that mindset, one sensed a collective confidence throughout the Patriots' locker room over the past two weeks, the players especially loose Thursday as preparations were nearing an end. There was talk of playing relaxed and of a team-wide resilience that had grown over the course of the 13-3 regular season. It was clear they respect the Broncos but also enter feeling good about their own chances.

Those who play for Belichick know what it's like to feel pressure, the coach baring down on them every day in one of the most demanding environments in the NFL. Part of Belichick's approach is tailored to situations such as these -- put them in pressure situations regularly and hope they respond when the heat rises in critical moments.

This is one of those moments.

In one respect, it's a credit to the Patriots that they find themselves in this position, the darkest cloud hovering above the possibility of a third straight early playoff exit. One might say that's not a bad problem to have when looking at what happened to the Indianapolis Colts (no Peyton, no chance), Jets (Super Bowl guarantee falls short) and Philadelphia Eagles (that's no Dream Team) this season. They're all watching from home.

It's a reminder that things change fast in the NFL, but the Patriots, arguably more than any other franchise over the past decade, have been a model for sustained excellence by remaining in the playoff hunt.

The sustained excellence isn't in question, though. It's winning when it counts, in the playoffs.

So here we are, 363 days later, the Patriots in position to provide the answer after back-to-back early exits.

Pressure? No doubt.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.