ATLANTA — Another Super Bowl . . . nine in 18 years . . . the Patriot Way is the only way . . . again.
This must be what it feels like to have more money than you can count. You have a garage full of Bentleys, multiple vacation homes around the world, and lose track of where you placed your Rolex watch.
So. Much. Winning.
The Patriots have been to so many of these mega-games that it becomes a little hard to remember specifics. The sites, the big plays, and the ancillary events start to blur. The Patriots have played Atlanta in Houston, and now they are playing Los Angeles in Atlanta. They have played Super Bowls against the New York Giants in two different cities. They played the Rams when the Rams were in St. Louis, and Sunday they are playing the Rams, who now hail from Los Angeles.
“It’s hard to believe this is the ninth time doing this,’’ acknowledged Tom Brady.
Sure is. And in that spirit, it’s a challenge to remember where certain things happened. Let’s see . . . Donovan McNabb throwing up in the huddle — was that Houston or Jacksonville? (Jacksonville). Was U2 at halftime in New Orleans or Glendale? (New Orleans). Did Pete Carroll panic in Indianapolis or Glendale? (Glendale).
No other NFL fan group has this issue. Folks in Philadelphia know exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Eagles beat the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. In Philly, that event will never be confused with any other game because it is the only Super Bowl win in franchise history.
We don’t know if the Patriots are going to win Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but trust me when I tell you that Super Bowl week in Atlanta has been a seven-day homage to Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots. Total coronation. Lifetime achievement stuff.
It is as if the Patriots are the only team here. And it’s been that way all week. It’s a little like when the Harlem Globetrotters come to town. The Trotters are the show. Nobody cares who they’ll be playing. Such is the plight of the talented, but largely ignored Rams this week. It is as if they’ve been sent over from central casting to play the role of anonymous losers in some mega-budget James Cameron “Patriots Dynasty” motion picture.
Are there any actual Rams fans? We haven’t seen many in Atlanta this week. TV ratings from AFC/NFC Championship weekend revealed that more LA homes watched the Patriots than watched the Rams on Jan. 20. Sunday night’s crowd will be a Patriots crowd, Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be Gillette South.
The Patriots are only 2½-point favorites, but it feels like everybody’s picking New England. And all the money is being bet on the Patriots. This does not guarantee victory, of course, but given their experience in the big games (the Patriots have 37 players with Super Bowl experience, the Rams have four) and the momentum from wins over the Chargers and Chiefs, it’s hard to fathom the Patriots losing.
Belichick’s preparation and Brady’s execution in those wins have erased the negative narrative that dogged the franchise over the last 12 months. Nobody talks about hard feelings between Bob Kraft and Belichick anymore. Brady’s nefarious trainer, Alex Guerrero, has not been a topic, and I don’t think I’ve heard the name Malcolm Butler all week. The Patriots have bathed themselves in artificial indignation, and the phony notion that “everyone thinks we suck” (which Brady said after beating the Chargers) has played well in the locker room and in Patriot Nation.
With their well-documented scandals in the rearview mirror, the “scrappy underdog” Patriots are selling team-above-self as they try to join the Steelers as the only six-time Super Bowl winners in NFL history. They are reminding America of what they were like when all this started 17 years ago — when they ran onto the Superdome field as a group after the 14-point favorite St. Louis Rams were introduced individually.
“When you sign up for football, you put the team first,’’ Belichick said Thursday. “There are about 160 plays left in our season. We need for all of those plays to be our best plays, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.’’
It has been an atypical season for the Patriots. They did not dominate. They went 3-5 on the road during the regular season. They suffered a stunning, hideous loss on the final play in Miami. The coach and quarterback made uncharacteristic mistakes. The wounded Patriots fueled millions of jealous fans from around the nation who can’t wait for Brady and Belichick to be finished.
And then the playoffs started, and so did the Patriots’ winning ways.
“Any time you can go on the road in the playoffs and win, it tells you something about the mental toughness of the team,’’ Brady said in his final news conference before the game.
That’s it, right there. The Patriots’ thrilling comeback win in cold, hostile Kansas City gave this team the identity it searched for throughout an atypical rocky season.
So, we’re on to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. And this time, there’s no quest for perfection. No Revenge Tour. No need to wear Roger Goodell clown shirts.
The 2018-19 Patriots are simply a secure, confident team, playing its best football at the moment it matters most.
One of these years it really will be the last Super Bowl for Belichick and Brady. If this is the one, it could be remembered as the bookend to the dynasty born 17 years ago on the same date against the same franchise.
With the same coach and quarterback.