One For The Thumb

Two Sundays ago, after the New England Patriots’ 36-17 demolition of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, I got a text from a friend whose name shall remain anonymous.

I’m honestly not even that excited.”

This is what going to seven Super Bowls in 16 years can do to even the most rabid fan. At some point, you’d think championship games turn into fireworks; if you’ve seen one (or seven), you’ve seen them all. So I get it, or at least I can draw the logical conclusion on how someone might feel that way. Of course, I don’t feel that way at all. If anything, I’ve gone completely the other way. I’m just as fired up for this game as I’ve been for any other Patriots Super Bowl. Granted, part of that is because I’m a borderline psychopath when it comes to this stuff, but there’s another aspect too: We don’t know how much longer this ride is going to last.

When it comes to Boston sports, I like to think that I was born right in the sweet spot. I’m old enough that my earliest memories of these teams are from the mid-to-late 90s, when the Patriots were mostly decent, but always disappointing, the Celtics were beginning to make the shift from their dark days to a weird pseudo-contender built around Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, the Bruins had some talent but one of the worst owners in the NHL, and the Red Sox were, well, they were the Red Sox. In other words, I can remember that time when the teams weren’t great, meaning that I can still appreciate (to some extent) this insane stretch of 9 titles (and 14 title games/rounds) since 2002. And at the center of that run have been the Patriots, formerly Boston’s black sheep, now our crown jewel. The Pats are the ones who ended the city’s 16 year championship-less drought, and they have been far and away the most consistent team over the past 15 seasons. But with a 39 year old Tom Brady (the oldest QB in the NFL) and a 64 year old Bill Belichick (the second oldest head coach in the NFL) , that consistency which we have taken for granted for so long is much closer to being over than it is to beginning. And yet, the Patriots are in the strange position of both seeing the end of the tunnel and yet still being as good as ever.

Today, the Patriots are going for Lombardi #5. Here are the things bringing home one for the thumb would mean for this franchise:

  • Brady would cement his legacy as the most accomplished quarterback of all time, if not the greatest ever.
  • Belichick, having participated in nearly 20% of Super Bowls in some capacity and winning five, would have a quasi-real claim to having the championship trophy renamed to the “Bince Lombelichick Trophy”.
  • The Patriots would have the most Super Bowl appearances AND tie the 49ers for second most Super Bowl wins ever, which means that the franchise that went 275-312-9 (that’s a freaking .417 winning percentage) from 1960-1999 would suddenly be in the running for greatest franchise in the history of the sport, which is the equivalent of Fredo shooting Michael in the head right before his little fishing trip and declaring himself head of the Coreleone family.
  • The entire “Pats never won a title legitimately” crowd would have to finally come to grips with reality.
  • Roger Goodell would have to hand Bob Kraft the Bince Lombelichick trophy in the single most satisfying moment for a sports fanbase since…well since November 2nd.

That’s not even mentioning that under Belichick, the Patriots have played six Super Bowls that have been all been decided by either three or four points and have all more or less come down to the final possession, or that the Falcons have one of the best offenses in NFL history and had the second highest point differential in the league this season, or that the line opened at Pats -3 and hasn’t moved despite seemingly every expert picking New England. All signs are pointing to an incredibly entertaining and compelling contest, with more at stake for the Patriots than ever before. How anyone can be anything less than fired up for tonight is beyond me.

As for the actual game itself, I’m worried. As I said before, it feels like everyone is picking the Patriots, which is fine when they’re going up against the Browns or the Bills, not so much in the freaking Super Bowl. I know that the type of teams that usually take care of the Pats in the playoffs are the teams with a strong defense (especially pass rush) and a decent QB who makes just enough plays to win down the stretch (aka Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and 2015 Peyton Manning), but something about this Falcons team feels different. They’re a juggernaut on offense and while their defense hasn’t been great, they’re young and fast, and Dan Quinn’s ties to the Legion of Boom shouldn’t be ignored. It’s not impossible to imagine a universe where Quinn schemes up something to at least slow down Brady while his offense goes off against a solid but relatively untested Patriots defense. That matchup (Atlanta’s O vs. New England’s D) has generated the most buzz over the last two weeks, so I did some digging. The stereotypical knock on both these units is that, despite their leading the league in points scored and points allowed, the Pats’ defense hasn’t played a good offense and the Falcons’ offense padded its stats against a division (NFC South) known for its great offenses and sub-par defenses. Using Football Outsiders’ DVOA, I took the average rank of offenses the Patriots faced and defenses the Falcons faced (and then threw in the reverse for good measure):

Team Unit DVOA Rank Avg. DVOA Rank Faced
ATL Offense 1 14.1
NE Defense 16 20.8
ATL Defense 27 17.6
NE Offense 2 16.1

While Atlanta’s defense and New England’s offense played pretty comparable competition, Atlanta’s offense played a much tougher schedule than New England’s defense. In fact, the “best” offense that the Patriots played all season long was the Steelers’ (#8 in DVOA), and in both of those games Pittsburgh was missing either Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell. Meanwhile, the Falcons had to deal with eight games against top 10 defenses (CAR x2, SEAx2, DEN, SD, PHI, ARI), and still put up historic numbers. My worst fear is that the Falcons do their best 2006 Colts impression, where an explosive offense hung 32 second half points on a Patriots defense that finished second in the NFL in points allowed, while a small but athletic defense made just enough plays to hold Brady and Co. to 27 offensive points and get the win. A 34-30 Falcons victory is all too entirely within the realm of possibility.

In order to get myself in the proper mental state for today, yesterday I watched all of the 30 minute NFL Films Super Bowl videos that the Patriots were involved in. That binge actually summed up this franchise’s story really nicely. An underdog Pats team snuck into the title game and got crushed by a 15-win Bears juggernaut in SB XX, then ten years later faced another heavy favorite (Favre’s mid-90s Packers) and actually hung with them for the better part of three quarters. They overcame all odds to beat the Rams in SB XXXVI and became a dynasty with tight wins in SB XXXVIII and SB XXXIX, which lead to the heartbreak and near misses in SB XLII and SB XLVI. Then finally, two years ago, redemption with SB XLIX’s 4th quarter comeback and insane ending. The rise from laughingstock to scrappy underdog to football royalty has been poetic, and a win tonight (fingers crossed, knock on wood) would be the official coronation.

One last thing: Nothing and I mean nothing, would make me happier from a narrative standpoint than for the Pats to take care of business at 6:30 p.m., hoist the Lombelichick, come back next year and repeat, and have Brady retire on the podium as he receives his fifth Super Bowl MVP award. He would have bookended his career with two separate three-out-of-four dynasties, and would have one ring for every quarterback taken ahead of him in the 2000 NFL Draft. It’s a dream scenario, almost impossible to imagine. But it can’t happen without a win tonight, against a formidable opponent in the biggest game of the season. And who knows? This could be the last time we see Brady and Belichick on this stage ever again. If you ask me, that’s a moment worth savoring, no matter what the outcome.

So, are you excited yet?


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