No Denying the Patriots Their Due
AS A SPORTS culture we like to throw our arms around the pursuit of history. Record chases bind us to an athletic heritage that lives on in yellowed paper volumes (along with Google searches and, blessedly, the occasional YouTube video) and connects to greatness in a language that we can understand and speak at picnics. How about those Celtics? And such. Whatever the milestone, we usually want to see it, touch it, remember it, celebrate it.
Then there is the relentless march of the New England Patriots through the autumn of 2007, pursuing the sainted Miami Dolphins of 1972.
Football Nation bears witness to a dominance never seen before, yet for much of the autumn it was treated with hostile cynicism. SpyGate broke between the Patriots' first two wins, casting a shadow over coach Bill Belichick's administration. During three consecutive October victories New England rolled up 149 points against the Dallas Cowboys, Dolphins and Washington Redskins, and juvenile accusations of piling on—this is not high school football—obscured the Pats' breathtaking efficiency.
Understand, it is hardly unprecedented for a major sport to be ruled by antiheroes. The Oakland Raiders and the Oakland A's of the mid-1970s were populated by a gallery of miscreants and malcontents who Just Won, Baby. But that was a decade when rebellion was celebrated. A better approximation might be the late '80s Detroit Pistons, who won two NBA titles by administering nightly beat-downs to the rest of the league in the dead zone between the eras when Bird-Magic and Jordan were preeminent.
Yet pro football is America's Game, and the sanctity of the Dolphins' unbeaten season would seem to demand reverential treatment for any NFL team that approached it. The Patriots have been piling up wins since late summer, but only lately have they begun to tunnel their way into most people's hearts. There is a lesson here: Victory is one thing, but appreciation is something else. Joe Frazier hammered opponents; Muhammad Ali is beloved. The Pats at last are getting a grip on America's collective soul.
This is for the best. Long after Tom Brady has stopped throwing touchdown passes and Belichick has shelved his hoodie, NFL fans will talk about the fall of Oh-Seven, when New England won 'em all. It will be sweet history in the telling. This is like seeing the '27 Yankees in the flesh.
Close calls made the Patriots human. Late in the season the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens took leads deep into the fourth quarter, and on both occasions New England rallied to win. Where so many earlier victories looked so easy, these seemed hard-won, and there is nothing more American than triumphing in the face of adversity.
But on Sunday the Patriots made short work of Miami (not even a shadow of its former self), easily moving to 15--0 with only a road game against the New York Giants, on Dec. 29, in the way of a perfect regular season.
If the whole is unprecedented, the pieces are stunning. Brady has pushed himself to a level at which perhaps a handful of quarterbacks have played. Randy Moss has morphed into a team-first version of his younger self. The offensive line is a symphony of protection. The defense is an underrated embarrassment of playmaking riches—whether it is Mike Vrabel or Asante Samuel or Richard Seymour—so fixated on the final result that they don't care if they get the credit.