Bumpy path to third straight Super Bowl not exactly a slog by ‘underdogs’

The following appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 48-page special section on Sunday previewing Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. 

Soon the New England Patriots will be in town for the Super Bowl. You are not going to like what they have to say. The NFL’s most insufferable franchise has become more so because they are pretending to be spunky upstarts.

See Bill Belichick and his scrappy squad of loveable losers play for their sixth Super Bowl title!

That silly story began immediately after the Patriots beat the Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs, when Tom Brady told CBS: “Everybody thinks we suck.” Wide receiver Julian Edelman used the fake sentiment as a chance to hock “Bet Against Us” T-shirts at his website. He then refused to answer questions about those shirts because that’s a total Patriots thing to do.

Brady preposterously declared that no one believed the Patriots could win the AFC Championship game at Kansas City. After the Patriots won in overtime, Brady said his team was “down but not out” and had “the odds stacked against us.”

I thought Brady was talking about the game because it was true that things looked bad for the Pats. They trailed by four points with two minutes left. But Brady really was talking about New England’s season. It’s not true that the Pats were ever down in any meaningful sense.

The Patriots were 9-5 after Week 15 with no playoff berth assured. They still had games against the Bills and Jets, two of the AFC East patsies they fatten up on every year. New England won those games, earning the No. 2 seed, and then dominated the Chargers in the divisional round.

To hear Brady tell it, the Pats just barely survived the season before making a miraculous run to the Super Bowl. He says these things with a smirk that suggests he’s self-aware about the ridiculous thing he’s saying. But there’s also a hint of amiable cluelessness, an effect increased by knowledge of Brady’s well-documented kookiness, so sometimes you wonder if he’s serious.

Take Brady’s response after the Chiefs game when he was asked if he really does believe the Pats are underdogs, or if he’s just using that as motivation.

“Yeah,” Brady said, and there was the smile/smirk again.

That’s probably what it’s going to be like with the Patriots for the next week. They won 11 of 13 games after starting the season 1-2. They are playing in their third consecutive Super Bowl, the ninth overall for Brady. But, in Patriots world, they overcame great adversity to make it to Atlanta.

Thing is, it’s not even an effective troll because there are much better reasons to dislike the Patriots. It’s also a dumb angle for motivation because the Patriots can’t possibly buy their own bull. This week there will be more than enough sycophantic media types around to play along with the ruse, so get ready.

Maybe Pats fans are the real target audience for this foolishness. They are a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity. This is common among supporters of teams that win a lot and aren’t interesting or likeable while doing it (see Tuscaloosa). Edelman had the right idea by trying to cash in on that neuroses.

Of course, any locals who point out that the Patriots are annoying will be accused of being bitter about 28-3. I have no rooting interest in the Falcons so that doesn’t apply to me. For those who do back the Falcons, I’m sure they had plenty of reasons to dislike the Patriots even before their team squandered that Super Bowl lead.

Besides, that game wasn’t really about the Patriots. The Falcons could have blown it against any number of teams. It just so happened that the NFL’s Evil Empire benefited from the Falcons being the Falcons.

Actually, let me back up: I am bitter about that game because it was a missed opportunity to take the Pats down a peg after “Deflategate.” Brady was suspended for the first four games of that season, so the revenge angle was beaten to death all the way to the Super Bowl.

Granted, it was satisfying to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with hat in hand to present the Patriots the trophy because he’s just as obnoxious as the Pats, but also incompetent. Still, I think it would have been better if the enduring image of New England’s 2016 campaign of self-victimhood was Brady falling on his face after that pick-six.

Instead, the Pats won another Super Bowl. They went back again last year and lost to the Eagles. They are back in the big game again because they are a dynasty that seemingly will never end until Brady decides he’d rather be a New Age guru than play football.

Only then will the Patriots really be underdogs.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.