DENVER — Game day.
You’ve had trouble eating and sleeping. You’ve listened to dozens of hours of “Gresh and Zo” and “Felger and Mazz” and “All Access” and Patriots tailgate shows. You’ve found yourself wondering how Fred Smerlas stays so tanned. You’ve watched 22 film and reread David Halberstam’s “The Education of a Coach.’’ Just to burn off a little energy before Sunday’s coin flip (the Patriots will defer) you might go into the backyard, kick a couple of punts, and clock your hangtime.
Why does this game somehow feel bigger than the Super Bowl? Is it a figment of our imagination? Is it merely a consequence of modern 24-7 commentary and the irrational notion that whatever is happening in the moment is somehow bigger and better than events that transpired in the past?
No and no. This really is bigger. And it might turn out to be better. Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos really is a bigger deal than all the other “pre” Super Bowl games.
This is the eighth time Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have advanced to the conference championship game, the third time in the last three seasons, but none of those games had the buildup of this one. Pass Go and collect $200 if you can remember anything about the Patriots beating the San Diego Chargers for the AFC Championship on Jan. 20, 2008.
The biggest non-Super Bowl of this Patriots reign would be the first AFC Championship win in Pittsburgh in January of 2002 (the Patriots were hefty underdogs) and the 38-34 AFC Championship loss to the Colts in January of 2007. The Pittsburgh game was huge because it was so unexpected and was the final step before New England won its first Super Bowl. The game at Indy had big buildup because it was Prime Time in the careers of Brady and Peyton Manning.
But it was never like this.
Can Super Bowl XLVIII possibly be bigger than Brady Manning XV?
It’s not unusual for penultimate events to overwhelm the actual crowning moments. Especially for New England fans.
The 21st century Red Sox are a good example. The 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees was far more memorable than the World Series sweep against the Cardinals. It was the same deal three years later when the Sox came back from a 3-1 deficit against Cleveland, then swept the Colorado Rockies in another anticlimactic World Series. Even last year, when the storybook Sox completed the worst-to-first routine, the top moment of the playoffs was David Ortiz’s Game 2 grand slam against the Tigers — in the series before the World Series.
The Brady-Manning story line has inflated this game to epic dimensions before the first tackle is made. And with each passing hour the Patriots’ greatness grows in stature.
Denver was the trendy team at the start of this season with Manning and his pinball offense routinely scoring in the 40s and 50s. Denver set scoring records and was held under 30 only three times in the regular season. New England, meanwhile, was a shell of its old self, depleted by departures, an arrest, and a raft of injuries.
But all that has changed as we approach kickoff in the biggest non-Super Bowl of the last half-century.
Las Vegas bookmakers set the Broncos as favorites immediately after the divisional-round games were played, but the past week has seen a gradual (and decided) shift toward the Patriots. It’s been a national celebration of Belichick and Brady’s greatness while Manning and the Broncos are postured as choke artists, waiting to lose the football game and their manhood at Mile High Sunday afternoon.
Seriously. In these final hours and minutes before the game, EVERYONE seems to be picking the Patriots. I can’t even find anyone in Denver who likes the Broncos anymore.
You know how this story is supposed to end. Despite a 4-4 road record, a drain of talent, and playing in the powder puff AFC East, New England is peaking at the right time and the Patriots have the ground game and can control the ball and Denver is depleted and Belichick will steal poor John Fox’s lunch money and Peyton will spit the bit (again) and Bob and Jonathan Kraft will hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Reality or myth? Are the Patriots a Super Bowl team or are they a lucky team artificially inflated by a soft schedule and opponents blinded by the light of Tom and Bill?
We don’t know. We won’t know for a few more hours.
That’s what makes this so great. That’s why we can’t wait.