Win or lose this evening, the Patriots will have once again provided their fans with a season of superb football entertainment. No one has a right to ask for more.
They were 12-4. I thought they’d go 13-3, the three L’s being at Baltimore, at home to either Houston or San Francisco in those perilous December back-to-backs, and to Team X on one of those days when reason and superior ability are mysteriously prevented from taking their proper course.
I got the Baltimore and SF/Houston parts right. Seattle qualifies as the third L. Arizona? Oy! That’s why we play these games on the field rather than on paper, although I must point out that, at the time, the Cardinals were featuring a sensational defense. Had the Patriots played Arizona in December, the spread might very well have been New England by 30.
But the fact is, the Golden Era of New England Patriots football is still in progress, with no end in view. This was the 11th year with 10 wins or more since the Patriots went 5-11 in Bill Belichick’s first season (2000). The overall regular-season record in those last 12 years is 146-46. The Patriots have played in five Super Bowls, winning three and losing two in the final minute or less. This Ravens game will represent their seventh appearance in an AFL title game since the turn of the century.
In the two years since 2000 that the Patriots did not make the playoffs, their records were 9-7 and 11-5. It can be argued that the 2008 season, when Matt Cassel and not Tom Brady was the starting quarterback, was Belichick’s finest coaching hour. Playing without their future Hall of Fame quarterback, the Patriots missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with a record that generally gets anyone into the postseason.
No Patriots fan has a right to complain about anything with regard to the product on the field. If they lose tonight, it would still be a successful season, and to anyone who would moan that “it’s been eight years since the last Super Bowl win,” I would suggest a sobering relocation to a certain large Ohio city perched on the shores of Lake Erie. The last major sports championship of any type by a team representing Cleveland was 49 years ago. And I’m willing to wager that as much as you or your cousin Ernie may think you love football, the average Cleveland fan loves it more.
Most of the current Patriots players were not around for any of the three Super Bowl victories, so we can safely say they are all excited about the prospect of winning one. Now what about the quarterback? Does Tom Brady need to win another Super Bowl in order to burnish his reputation? Not really.
A fourth Super Bowl title would tie him with Terry Bradshaw and his idol Joe Montana for the most among NFL quarterbacks. But no serious football person would dare compare Bradshaw favorably in a discussion concerning Brady. We can put that one to rest right now. No, the chief competition for Best of the Best in terms of Super Bowl accomplishment is Montana, but even if Brady wakes up on the morning of Feb. 4 with a fourth ring, he still would rank behind Montana, who (A) was 4-0 in Super Bowls and (B) had 11 TD passes and no, as in zero, interceptions in those games.
Montana or no Montana, however, Brady still doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. He has won three times, and twice has handed over a late-game lead to a defense that could not get the New York Giants off the field. Brady wasn’t great in either of those games, but he was good enough. But overall, he really could be 5-0 already. Either way, his place in history is secure.
No, there is only one person directly involved in all of this who needs a victory in Super Bowl XLVII to, shall we say, reinforce his reputation — and that is the HC of the NEP.
Oh, yes, Bill Belichick really, really needs to win a post-Spygate Super Bowl.
You heard me. I have uttered the dreaded “S-word.” It’s the one no one around here wishes to acknowledge, but it’s the one word people in the rest of the country most associate with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
The Patriots should be as popular a team nationally as any club in any sport. They captured the imagination of American sports fans by running out en masse for the intros of Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans 11 years ago. Brady aside, they have never been a star-driven team. In the beginning, their clear T-E-A-M, team, team, team concept inspired high school and college teams in all sports, not just football.
OK, the sheer act of winning three times in four years did breed a bit of predictable contempt, but there is no doubt the national attitude toward the Patriots changed with the revelation that the crafty head coach of the Patriots, the acknowledged Smartest Kid In The Class, had been caught in a major case of Envelope-Pushing, and, in fact, had repeated the offense even after being warned by the commissioner not to do so.
I have no idea how much real advantage, if any, was gained by whatever it is he did. But his disingenuous “I didn’t know it was wrong” response strained credulity, insulting the intelligence of the American sports fans who don’t happen to reside in New England.
Solely because of Bill Belichick’s actions, his team was branded as cheaters, and its accomplishments, in the eyes of many, were therefore bogus. It’s as true today as it was when the story broke in September of 2007.
The HC of the NEP brought it all on himself, and now he must pay the historical consequences.
I know he is every bit as great a coach as the experts say he is. He will waltz into the Hall of Fame. But in the world’s most unforgiving court, that of public opinion, neither he nor his team will be regarded as completely praiseworthy, or even legitimate, until they can put on their championship rings with Spygate in the far, distant rearview mirror.
Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.