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Patriots get to settle the score once and for all

Roger Goodell (left) is channeling the “Godfather” role of Moe Greene (played by actor Alex Rocco, right).Associated Press photos

HOUSTON — Tonight the Patriots settle all family business.

This certainly is New England’s game plan as the Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium.

Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Bob Kraft have been to six previous Super Bowls, but have never carried this much history or emotion into the ultimate game — not even when they tried to complete a perfect season against the New York Giants in February 2008.

Kraft, the Patriot patriarch, underscored the magnitude of this season’s quest after the Patriots won the AFC Championship two weeks ago when he told the Gillette Stadium throng, “For a number of reasons, all of you in the stadium understand how big this win was.’’


A number of reasons.

One reason is history. Brady and Belichick each have won four Super Bowls together. No quarterback has won five. No coach has won five. A victory over the Falcons would effectively retire the argument about greatest quarterback and coach of all time. Brady will no longer be dogged by the ghosts of Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, who also won four. Winning a fifth Lombardi Trophy would make Belichick the 21st century Vince Lombardi.

Another reason this one is bigger is the indisputable fact that Father Time is knocking on the Gillette Stadium door. Kraft (75), Belichick (64), and Brady (39) rank with the oldest folks in their respective positions in the NFL, and they know there’s no guarantee they will get back here again. Brady has been taking photos to preserve the moments this week, and he acknowledged he’s playing with extra emotion because this will be the first time his mother has watched him play since she was diagnosed with an undisclosed illness a year and a half ago.

All that said, we all know that what makes this Super Bowl different from all the rest is Deflategate. The Patriots want to show America that Roger Goodell (Moe Greene in our imaginary “Godfather” narrative) did not hurt them when he suspended Brady for four games. They want to remind the 31 other NFL franchises that they do not need to cheat to win. They win because they are smarter and better than everybody else. It’s never been about taping coaches’ signals, air pressure in footballs, warm drinks on the sideline, or sifting through trash cans for enemy playbooks. They win because they Do Their Job.


Belichick and Brady won’t talk about it, but Tom Sr. recently ripped Goodell, saying the commissioner “doesn’t belong on any stage that Tom Brady is on’’ and Kraft continues to say he only accepted the Deflategate penalties because he was deceived by Goodell. Most citizens of Patriot Nation are jacked at the prospect of Goodell on the victory platform with Brady and Belichick, handing the Lombardi Trophy to Kraft as confetti falls on their heads.

Memo to folks back home in New England: If you have no interest in this American sports holiday television show, Sunday night will be a fine time to go to the grocery store or get gas for your car. It’ll be a regional snow day, Super Bowl shelter in place. The streets and stores will be empty. Downtown Boston will look like the surface of the moon.

Meanwhile, back in Houston, the game shapes up as a de facto Patriots home game. The Patriots have a legion of haters across the land, but a Super Bowl crowd consists of corporate types (”event people”) who don’t really care about the outcome, plus a core of road-tripping loyalists willing to travel and pay the price to witness history. Trust me when I tell you the Patriots have cornered this market. It’s been hard to find any Atlanta fans in Houston this week, while New Englanders have flocked to Texas by the thousands.


“It hit me at the pep rally [in Foxborough on Monday],’’ Brady said. “When I saw those fans out there, you realize this is different and this is just special . . . You can’t take these things for granted.’’

“It’s special to be here, there’s no question about that,’’ added Belichick. “In terms of numbers and other games and all of that [history], we’ll get to that at some other point . . . That’s a thing for you to write about. I’m just trying to get ready to coach the game and our players are getting ready to play it. We want to go out there and compete on Sunday night. All the rest of it is what it is.’’

The Patriots were established as 3-point favorites two weeks ago and the betting line has not moved dramatically. On paper, this is a matchup of the league’s best offense (Falcons, 33.8 points per game) vs. the best defense (New England allowed 15.6 ppg).


The Falcons are led by former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, who was named NFL MVP Saturday night. The Falcons shredded the Seahawks and the Packers in their two home playoff games and have two worthy running backs (Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman) to complement all-world wideout Julio Jones and a plethora of other star receivers.

The Patriots defense was not really tested in the second half of a soft regular season, but it stepped up in the AFC Championship game, stuffing the Pittsburgh Steelers and their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Ryan will be the best QB the Patriots have faced since Russell Wilson lit up New England’s secondary in a 31-24 Seahawk victory at Gillette Nov. 13.

Atlanta’s defense, however, might not be up to the challenge. The Patriots are playing their best football when it matters most and Atlanta is young and green on the defensive side. New England has not trailed in its last seven games. Brady is peaking (28 touchdown passes, two interceptions this season) at an age when Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino already were retired.

And like his owner, his coach, and his fans, the quarterback of the Patriots is on a mission. The Falcons and Football America will learn that it’s a mistake to take sides against the Patriots family.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@Dan_Shaughnessy.