NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Lawyer Milloy doesn't wear the AFC championship ring he won five years ago. It's a haunting reminder that his team lost the Super Bowl.
Now he's led the New England Patriots defense back to the NFL championship game and has a chance to earn a more valuable ring, a chance he thought would come more often.
"I wore it to the clubs to show it off to the girls," Milloy said, "but then I thought I'd be back every year. Then it hit me that the ring just doesn't count. But when I was walking off the field I didn't realize what I lost."
Milloy was just a rookie when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers, 35-21 in 1997. On Sunday, he'll be a three-time Pro Bowler when they try to upset the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams imaginative offense designed by head coach Mike Martz won't be easy to stop. It features many formations, shifts and personnel groups and plenty of speed and talent.
"The only thing that could possibly be worse is if Martz was in Canada where he had 12 guys and could run them toward the line of scrimmage before the snap," New England coach Bill Belichick said.
Milloy is the cornerstone of a hard-hitting defense, a strong safety with intelligence, aggressiveness and a deep hatred of failure.
He's carried that through his six pro seasons, the last two without a playoff berth. He led the Patriots this season with 113 tackles and had two interceptions. He also has receivers bracing for his crunching hits when they cross the middle.
"He makes great adjustments on the field, but he brings a real physical presence for our defensive football team," Belichick said. "I think that carries over into the offense and special teams, too.
"Lawyer has given us great leadership since the first day of practice started this year."
Last week, Milloy was outspoken before the AFC title game against Pittsburgh, claiming his team was being underrated and bristling at the label that the Patriots were a team of destiny. He feels they earned their success through skill and hard work.
They beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 24-17, giving Milloy another shot at a Super Bowl ring. He thinks the Patriots have a better chance Sunday than they've been given.
"We have so many schemes and blitzes and fronts that I think it puts a lot of pressure on teams to figure out how we're going to attack," he said. "We feel that we match up against the Rams as well as any team in the league."
Milloy and his defensive partners must deal with Kurt Warner's pinpoint passing, Marshall Faulk's running/receiving skills and the Rams' speedy wide receivers.
"It's definitely going to come down to one-on-one matchups," Milloy said. "We have four cornerbacks who started at some point in their career."
One of them is Otis Smith, who played in the 1997 Super Bowl.
"Lawyer was tough as a rookie, but Lawyer has matured a lot," Smith said. "He has a winning heart."
Henry Ellard saw that in 1998, when he played five games at wide receiver for the Patriots. Now he's an offensive assistant with the Rams.
"He's a guy that I thought was very businesslike in what he does. Even though he's playing safety, he hits like a linebacker," Ellard said. "He's smart enough to pass things on as they make switches."
That will be a major challenge Sunday against a team with a creative, often confusing offense. If Milloy and his teammates overcome it, the ring he really wants will be his.
"This is not a pleasure trip but a business trip. I don't think you're really satisfied when you have a couple of losing seasons or you watch the playoffs at your house," he said.
That's where he keeps his 1997 ring, in a showcase where he can look at it and remember what he missed.
"It's the runnerup ring," Milloy said. "I don't wear it."
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