The Patriots playing in the Super Bowl feels preordained. We’re spoiled enough that it’s viewed more as an expectation than an accomplishment. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are practicing their crafts, the final destination feels destined to be the final Sunday of the NFL season.
But this time it’s different.
There was more uncertainty, more intrigue, and as the Nobody Believed In Us New England Patriots have been all too happy to point out for motivational and marketing purposes, more doubt. The insufferable underdog act is hard for all but the most devout Patriotologists to take seriously. But this is the most unheralded Patriots Super Bowl team of the Brady-Belichick era since the first one in 2001.
That ’01 team was Cinderella. This team is more like Sleeping Beauty, awoken just in time to fulfill their promise. So before we dig in, dissect, and debate the matchup with the Los Angeles Rams — there’ll be plenty of time for that — let’s acknowledge what the Patriots achieved in reaching the Super Bowl in a year when they were no sure thing.
Instead of a juggernaut, these Patriots were a jigsaw puzzle. They didn’t put the pieces in place until the last two games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs, exhibitions of excellence against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots are both the team that’s supposed to be here and the team that wasn’t supposed to make it. That’s what makes this third straight Super Bowl appearance and the ninth of the gilded Brady-Belichick era fascinating and worth celebrating.
An atypical Patriots Super Bowl team is a more typical Super Bowl team. This is how the rest of the NFL lives, folks — hoping, wondering, praying that their team will somehow summon its best football for the games that matter the most.
Timing is everything in life and in the NFL. Often times, it’s not who is the most talented team. It’s who is playing the best at the end that gets to play for the Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots are playing their best football at the perfect time, riding mojo and momentum and erasing missteps and doubts.
The procrastinating Patriots of 2018 are like the college student who pays marginal attention during the semester and then furiously crams the final weeks to pull out an A. They suffered losses in Miami and Pittsburgh that showcased conduct unbecoming of a Belichick team. They won their final two games of the season against perennial division punching bags Buffalo and the New York Jets and got their mandated bye as the No. 2 seed. Then they delivered vintage Patriots performances in the playoffs.
“I think we’ve done a better job of that the last four times we’ve taken the football field,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, “understanding that we need to play with a sense of urgency and no more ‘my bads’ or ‘I’ll get it next time.’ We’ve got to start executing now, and I think we’ve done that the last four games.”
The Patriots are one of those teams that wasn’t at its best all year long but has played its best football when it matters most. We’ve seen this before, from the other side, with teams getting on a roll at the right time.
Just remember the pair of New York Giants teams that beat the Patriots in Super Bowls. I know you would rather forget those teams that swiped a couple of Lombardi Trophies that should reside in the reception area at One Patriot Place. The Giants went 10-6 in 2007, then ended the Patriots’ pursuit of a perfect season in the Super Bowl. They went 9-7 in 2011 and outlasted the Patriots in that Super Bowl.
Remarkably, for the Patriots, it’s more surprising when they don’t reach the Super Bowl than when they do. However, the Patriots’ Belichickian consistency of play each season is more the exception than the rule for reaching Super Bowls.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts were 2-3 in their final five games to finish 12-4, but safety Bob Sanders returned from a knee injury and energized the defense as they won the Super Bowl. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens lost three of their final four games before catching fire in the playoffs, beating Peyton Manning and Brady on their home fields, on their way to a Super Bowl title.
The team the Patriots beat for their fifth Super Bowl title, the Atlanta Falcons, was 7-5 in 2016 before they won their last four games of the year and two playoff contests to reach the Super Bowl, in which the birds blew a 28-3 advantage.
The team that launched a Boston sports revolution, the 2001 Patriots, was one of those right-play, right-time teams. They were 5-5 and then didn’t lose another game the rest of the way, upsetting “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, then of St. Louis, in the Super Bowl. This season would qualify as the Patriots’ most unlikely championship team since that one. Not because of a similar talent gap — the Patriots actually are 2½-point favorites in this Super Bowl — but because of the turbulent nature of their season.
On reputation and brand name, playing in the Super Bowl was a fait accompli for the Belichick FC, but that’s not how it felt during a season of uncharacteristic inconsistency and a near-constant search for identity.
The Patriots lost three games by double digits. They had two two-game losing streaks. They didn’t peak in December. They suffered unfathomable situational meltdowns at the end of each half in Miami, the latter of which was a hook-and-lateral hellscape from which they failed to escape with a certain victory.
They then lost in Pittsburgh to a Steelers team that traditionally they’ve owned, scoring just 10 points and going 0 for 3 in red zone touchdown conversions as their 41-year-old quarterback spun out of throws like a ballet dancer.
The Patriots finished 3-5 on the road in the regular season, their worst road record since 2009, when they went 2-6.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, out of the 104 previous teams to reach the Super Bowl, only two of them had losing records on the road in the regular season: the 2008 Cardinals and the 2010 Packers, both teams that fall into the category of turning it on at the right time. The Cardinals were 9-7. The Packers, who dealt with an injury to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, were 10-6 and won the Super Bowl.
The Patriots have flipped the switch and flipped the script. This was not the usual Patriot Way to the Super Bowl.
Of course, Belichick-Brady teams have built their rule atop the rubble of smashed expectations, predictions, and past norms. Bucking the odds is how this remarkable run of success started. It’s how it has been extended to a ninth Big Game. It’s as much a part of the Patriot Way as pithy aphorisms like Ignore the Noise.