Four years ago I explained Why I Was Glad To See The Patriots Lose Super Bowl 42, tracing much of my NFL fandom up to that point along the way. The article was the culmination of my path from being a fan of a particular team to becoming a fan of the game. There’s a great deal packed into a pretty expansive article, but the gist of it is this:
While I was a Dallas Cowboys fan from childhood, my NFL fandom really began in middle school, when I started to play football myself. Like all twelve year olds at the time, I was awed by rags-to-riches Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.” Accordingly, when the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, it irked me.
It seemed obvious to any kid at the time that the Rams were one of the best teams to ever take the field. Between the notorious Tuck Rule snowbowl against Oakland, and the Rams not playing like themselves for most of the Super Bowl, New England seemed undeserving somehow. It felt like these flukes allowed a pack of unwitting beneficiaries to deny a historically great team their vindication, and it began my distaste for the Pats.
The ensuing years gave me plenty more to hate: the antics of guys like Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Rodney Harrison, seeing sour Bill Belichick thumbing his nose at the front office and running up the score, and of course, Spygate. New England’s march to near-perfection made me more disdainful and concerned with every win. By the time the Patriots reached the Super Bowl, their awful, perfect season seemed inevitable.
Then, against all expectations, the Giants pulled out an improbable victory, complete with the unlikeliest catch from the unlikeliest receiver, and a few big hits on pretty boy Brady to boot. Just like the Rams they’d faced all those years before, the Patriots had been denied their place in history by an underdog who got hot at the right time. The fact that Eli Manning was once mentored by Kurt Warner only added to the pleasant symmetry, and seemed to close the book on my transition from football neophyte to NFL addict.
I had trouble putting into words how the Patriots’ loss felt when I wrote that article, but it’s clearer to me now in hindsight. It was a sense that disaster had been averted. That unyielding wave of relief in the face of a terrible, likely consequence.
It’s hard to explain now the palpable sense of disgust then at that thought of New England achieving a perfect season. It was a looming misfortune that cast a shadow over the whole league. Before the first kick off of Super Bowl XLII, I had already resigned myself to the inevitability of it. I had practically already started mourning, and it gave me time to contemplate the horrible results.
In sum, it would have been a stain on professional football for the rest of the sport’s existence. To have a team, that based on a spotless record, would have had to be acclaimed as one of, if not the, best of all time that was full of cheats, primadonnas, troublemakers, and above all else, individuals who showed a lack of respect for the game, would have been a tragedy. I can’t say that it would have ruined professional football, but it would have been a scar on the face of the NFL that would take a very long time to heal.
Instead, NFL fans experienced the blissful absence of expected pain. The slow ease of denied misfortune. The quiet joy of a catastrophe evaded. That’s what I experienced that night when the dragon of the New England Patriots had finally been slain.
That’s not what I felt this past Sunday, when the Giants beat the Patriots again in Super Bowl XLVI.
Sure, I found myself in a similar predicament as last time. The Pats are still the bad guys in the NFL as far as I’m concerned. I was still glad to see Tom Brady sacked, Bill Belichick denied, and the Patriots sent home empty-handed, but it just didn’t have the same oomph.
These weren’t the same powerful lions who roared their way to being a minute away from perfection. Their years since that big Super Bowl loss had brought them back down to Earth. In the season following that big let down, Tom Brady was injured in the first game and out for the year. Despite missing the playoffs, backup Matt Cassel steered the team to eleven wins. It showed there was something about the system in New England above and beyond any individual player and took some of the luster off of Tom Brady.
The Pats made plenty of hay in the regular season in the two years after that, but early exits against the Ravens and the Jets took away some of their villain factor. What makes a villain troubling is the chance that they might succeed, and these New England teams did not look like the unstoppable juggernauts of 2007. Instead, they seemed like just all the other teams crowding the top third of the standings – a talented group that had good days and bad days.
The same held true for this season’s Patriots. Despite amassing an impressive 13-3 record, New England did not beat a single team with a winning record during the regular season. In fact, the first and only time the Patriots beat a team above .500 was in the AFC Championship game, and it took a fluky hooked chipshot to achieve that. Not to mention the fact that their defense ranked in the bottom of the league, giving up big points almost every game. In short, they looked very mortal.
It’s harder to hate what is a wisp above mediocrity. Or rather, it’s hard to hate with the same intensity. Sure, I rooted to see Brady and Belichick fall on their polar opposite faces, but it wasn’t the same. It’s more fun to watch Batman defeat the Joker than it is to see him prevail over Captain Hula-Hoop. There’s just less at stake.
But that mediocrity was probably my starkest concern about the Patriots going into this Super Bowl. It was frustrating to think that such a middling team could win the championship and somehow it would count just as much as the other three in history’s rear view mirror.
Yes, four rings would put Brady in some pretty elite company. Sure, it would pad Belichick’s resume a little more. But at the end of the day, the Brady-Belichick Pats were already going down as champions in NFL lore. One more Lombardi Trophy would be just another log on an already crackling fire. I’d dislike it, no question, but much of the damage had already been done.
Part of the lack of oomph has to do with the match up. In 2008, it was much easier to root for the New York Giants. As much as it made me wince as a Dallas Cowboys fan to cheer on the Little Boys Blue, New England absolutely had to be stopped. The G-men were clearly the lesser of two evils.
The 2011 Giants were not so clear cut. They limped to a meager 9-7 finish before the post-season, a bastion of mediocrity themselves. The Cowboys had not one but two chances to knock them out, failing miserably each time and leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. I’d grown tired of seeing Justin Tuck’s sandwich commercials. I’d grown tired of Brandon Jacob’s jawing. I certainly did not want to see New York and Eli Manning have two Super Bowl wins in four seasons to lord over the rest of league. Sure, the consequences of the Patriots winning would be worse, but the Giants winning would not be such a bed of roses either.
There was, however, one big benefit to New England falling short once again. Even if this year’s Pats were less fearsome, even if the team they lost to is a less-than-palatable alternative, and even if the consequences of a New England victory were not nearly as troubling as those of 2007, this loss will forever give the Brady-Belichick Patriots a “yes, but” in the NFL greatness discussion.
The conversation is likely to go something like, “Sure, they won three Super Bowls in four years, and that’s certainly impressive, but other teams have done that. They had the potential to win five, and to complete a perfect season. No one has ever done that in the modern era, and they lost it in the final few minutes in each big game. Yes they were great, but they had the potential to be even greater and couldn’t close the deal.”
I’ll take that. I’ll take that every day of the week.
Bill Simmons talked about all the championships Boston has amassed in recent years and admitted something notable. He conceded that some championship victories cannot match the emotion and euphoria of others. The Patriots’ Super Bowl win against the Rams that was so terrible to me was a decades-long build to a sense of absolute joy and triumph for him. He expressed serious doubt that any subsequent Patriots victory will be able to match it.
Maybe it works in the opposite direction as well. I’m never going to see New England so significantly and so crushingly rebuffed as when they had the chance of achieving perfection and football immortality ripped away from them. I’m never going to see the evils of the pro game so personified, at such strength, and so soundly defeated ever again. I’m never going to see the bad guys so bad, and so close to doing irreparable harm to a game I love, fail at the last minute.
Yes, the 2007-2008 Patriots’ march to perfection was maddening, but its end was exhilarating. It seems overstated now, but at the time it felt like the soul of the league hung in the balance. When New York and New England met in the Super Bowl again, they put on a game that was nearly as exciting as the last, but could not hope to replicate the same stakes that made their last championship match up such a big deal.
So I was still glad to see the Patriots lose. I’ll be glad to see them lose time and time again. But upon watching them slink back to the locker room on Sunday, I did not feel that same wave of relief. I only felt the sharp realization that it wasn’t the same, and that watching a weakened villain fall was a poor substitute for seeing my own favorite team succeed.
Unfortunately, just because the bad guys lose doesn’t always mean you win.