ST. PAUL, Minn. – Two years, two Super Bowls.
What has been virtually unimaginable for Chris Hogan's former team, as well as many other clubs around the NFL, is pretty much routine for his current one.
The Buffalo Bills allowed Hogan to leave them as a restricted free agent after the 2015 season. The wide receiver signed with the Patriots, won a Super Bowl ring last year and has a chance to get a second Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
That's pretty much business as usual for a club that enters each year as the prohibitive favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Meanwhile, back in Western New York, Bills fans are still giddy over watching their team – the one for which Hogan played for four seasons – snap a 17-year playoff drought on Dec. 31. That the Bills proceeded to lose in the wild-card round at Jacksonville a week later couldn't take away from the sense of satisfaction many in their fan base felt, along with the optimism that there just might be better things to come.
With the Patriots, winning Super Bowls is the only thing. They don't merely hope for it. They expect it, as do their fans.
Hogan acknowledges that, after leaving the Bills, he never dreamed of playing in back-to-back Super Bowls. "I was just worrying about making football teams and doing whatever I could on the field when I got (to the Patriots) to be a part of this team," he said.
But now that Hogan has spent two seasons as one of Tom Brady's targets, he understands that there's a different mentality on his current team. Working hard isn't exactly a revolutionary concept with the rest of the league.
With the Patriots, however, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Everything before, during and after games is done with a higher degree of intensity – with a level of purpose that is not necessarily found in other places. The smallest details matter. Almost nothing is left to chance.
"For us, we set our expectations high," Hogan said. "Obviously, everybody else sets the expectations high for us, but that's because of how hard we play and how hard we work and how much we care about winning football games and what it really means to us. And that's kind of what we focus on."
Giving opportunities to players such as Hogan, who can be overlooked because they are more steady than spectacular, is a classic Patriot trait. Before signing with the Bills in 2012, he spent a year bouncing from the San Francisco 49ers to the New York Giants to the Miami Dolphins, each of whom released him before the start of the season.
Even with the Bills, Hogan was always seen as more of an overachieving fringe player than someone who could make a real difference. But that never discouraged him, even after the Bills placed a low enough restricted-free-agency tender on him to make it easy for the Patriots to put together a contract offer they knew the Bills wouldn't match.
"I believed in myself ever since I got in this league that I could play in these (Super Bowl) games and in the NFL on Sundays," Hogan said. "When I got (to the Patriots), I just knew it was going to take a lot of hard work to be out there and win football games. That's something that I've been doing, but it definitely hammered it home when I got (to the Patriots)."
A large part of the Patriots' success stems from their ability to overcome the losses of key players.
In 2016, they had to adjust to not having the game's most dominant tight end, Rob Gronkowski, after back issues forced him to have season-ending surgery. In 2017, one of the NFL's best receivers, Julian Edelman, was lost for the year to a knee injury.
In each case, Hogan had a hand in helping to pick up the slack. While making 14 starts in '16, he caught a career-high 38 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns. He also was the hero of the AFC Championship Game victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with nine catches – two for touchdowns. Although he only played in nine games and made seven starts in '17, Hogan had 34 receptions for 439 yards and a career-best five TDs. Of his three postseason catches, one was for a score in the Patriots' divisional-round pounding of the Tennessee Titans.
"We've got a lot of guys in that locker room that work really hard at their craft and care a lot about this team, so if we're asked to take on a bigger role, whatever that is, we're going to do that to the best of our ability," Hogan said. "Like we always say, the next-man-up kind of mentality, so if a guy goes down, there's a lot of guys in the locker room that are willing to step up and take on different roles on the team."
One of the keys to overcoming Edelman's absence has been Danny Amendola, who came up big in the Patriots' AFC Championship Game victory against the Jaguars. That was particularly crucial after Gronkowski left the game in the first half with a concussion. He remains in concussion protocol, but is on target to return to action in Super Bowl LII.
"When I first got here, Danny, myself, Jules, all those guys, we had similar pasts, we had to work really hard to get to where we wanted to be in our careers," Hogan said. "Danny's the type of guy you can always look to, kind of trust to make plays in big situations. And Danny's obviously been doing that for a long time and has come up really big this year."