The New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and all that comes with them are the best thing the NFL has going for it right now. The best. And the worst, which also feeds into them being the best thing for a league and its fans.
The best, on two accounts. To satisfy a couple of core cravings, football at once needs the Patriots to be great, and needs them to lose. With its ratings, concussion, disciplinings, anthem protests and other smudges on the shield, the NFL didn’t need a Jacksonville-Atlanta Super Bowl (insert conspiracy theory here). The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference, and the rising foe of the NFL is indifference.
The one obvious role that the Patriots fill is that of the Dark Side of the Force, the team that the general population likes to hate. High-concept drama demands an antagonist, a villain, a worthy adversary, a Darth Vader for an Obi-Wan — or in this case a team that arguably draws a segment of viewership comprised of folks who’ve pegged the Patriots as cheaters and harbor the fervent hope of seeing them lose and brought low.
Think old New York Yankees dynasty, without juiced (or under-inflated) baseballs. Think Oakland Raiders/Black Hole, just with a better wardrobe, nothing with spiked shoulders, and no Jack Tatum. And the more arrogant, the better: “America’s Team” Dallas Cowboys. Alabama and Nick Saban. Duke and Mike Krzyzewski.
A bunch of USA college kids winning Olympic hockey gold in ’80 over Finland was great, terrific. But it needed the defeat of the Mighty Rooskies to accord it “Miracle” status for all time.
Maybe it’s all about us as Americans. We’re a nation of underdogs (the Redcoats were 6-to-1 favorites in the Revolution, which was an upset rivaling Appalachian State over Michigan). We root for and relate to underdogs. And you can’t have a longshot underdog unless there’s a villainous heavy on the other side. Without Goliath, David is just a bratty kid good with a slingshot. The Patriots are the greatest Goliath in NFL history from the sustained angle of longevity and conquests.
Ideal for counter-rooting purposes, New England fuels the antagonism with tales of cheating. That runs against our American cultural grain. We’re OK if you whip us on the up’n’up, but cheating makes you icky. And admit it: You did feel a little bit pleased at the story of supposed antipathy among Belichick, Brady and Bob Kraft, didn’t you?
Wanted: One Snow White
But what makes the Patriots intriguing is that they also fill a void rooted in NFL parity, an NFL with plenty of dwarfs but in desperate need of a Snow White.
There lives in the sports soul a desire to know that there is greatness, not just one team or player. Put another way, there is a need for excellence, some context for what we are witnessing, some standard. The Patriots are that, just as the Green Bay Packers were in the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys through the early 1990s. You might not have liked them, but they provided a standard against which your team and others could be measured.
Flashes of "very good" aren’t good enough. The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos fielded historically good defenses in their winning Super Bowls. But only one each. Outside of the ’85 Bears, one year does not earn a spot in any “greatest” discussion.
Players so often talk about wanting to go against the best. They do want to win, but it does mean more when it’s against established greatness. Intercepting Tom Brady means more than intercepting Mike Glennon.
It just does.