As the Borg and I were saying over a game of Golden Tee down at the local bar late Saturday night, resistance, it would seem, is futile. Back in the middle of September, the New England Patriots celebrated getting the largest fine ever levied against a team dropped squarely on their noggins by decimating the San Diego Chargers. I recall pointing out on pages that looked very similar to this one that the only thing that the team hadn’t picked up in the offseason was a cause, and now it had one. Since then, the Patriots have played 14 games and won them all. They have won big (52-7 over the Washington Redskins) and they have won small (27-24 over the decomposing Baltimore Ravens). They have been lucky—such as on the winning drive against Baltimore, when New England was bailed out by, in order, an inadvertent timeout called from the Baltimore sideline, its own illegal-procedure penalty, and an interference call in the end zone—and they have been good. And they have, on occasion, been both, such as Saturday night, when New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin picked the worst possible time to become possessed by the spirit of Herm Edwards, which apparently stalks the Meadowlands to this day.
The Patriots have beaten bad teams, like Miami, and they have beaten good teams, like Dallas. They have beaten six teams that will join them in the NFL playoffs starting next weekend. In Tom Brady, they have the best quarterback who ever played the game. (Come February, when he gets that fourth Super Bowl, the discussion will be limited to him and Joe Montana, and Montana never put up a year like the one Brady has had.) In Bill Belichick, they have one of the five or six best coaches who ever coached the game. They are ludicrously better than 30 of the other teams in the league. We exempt here the Indianapolis Colts, than whom they are only considerably better. And, best of all, they make all the right people angry.
That list starts, as it must, with the surviving members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, who decided years ago to break the world record for being publicly grumpy old farts, a mark previously held jointly by the McLaughlin Group and any show Louis Rukeyser hosted alone. Bob Kuechenberg’s opinion has been almost universally unsought for more than three decades, and the last person who truly cared what Mercury Morris said about anything was a judge. Yet, all season, the Patriots found themselves heckled by the NFL equivalents of Statler and Waldorf from the old Muppet Show. Go down to the Metamucil section of South Beach, the lot of you, and shut up.
Continuing on, we had all the folks who clutched their pearls and sought the fainting couch when the NFL caught the Patriots cheating in Week 1. Can we all please agree on one thing? As much as we love it, and treasure it, and bet on it, the NFL is at its heart one of the most stunningly amoral enterprises this country has developed since the death of Jay Gould. It depends, primarily, on the destruction of the human body, no less than boxing does. It is a great, galumphing corporate beast, reckless with its players, and heedless in its civic effects, good and bad. For proof, look no further than the interview that Commissioner Roger Goodell gave before Saturday night’s game. The league had been knuckled by some suddenly lifelike Democratic congresscritters into making the game generally available on television, instead of restricting it to the NFL Network, as was originally planned. Keeping a completely straight face, and listening intently to hear a cock crow, Goodell said that the decision was all about “the fans,” and that it had nothing to do with the ongoing wrangle between the league and America’s cable-television providers. Goodell then handed us off to what amounted to a five-hour infomercial for the NFL Network. (Poor Bryant Gumbel was lucky he wasn’t wearing decals, like a stock car.) This is the ethical context in which Belichick and the Patriots got caught cheating. Forgive me if my outrage died some time before Thanksgiving.
(I have to admit that the asterisk that the New York Post slapped next to New England in the standings all year was pretty hilarious in and of itself, but the wit was only sharpened by the concept of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid’s ascension to the moral high ground, where it no doubt set up a bookie joint and a gentleman’s club.)
People simply are going to have to learn to deal, as the kids say. There are reasons far beyond cinematography why the Patriots put up a season that any thinking football fan ought to have been proud to witness. They are smarter than any team that’s tougher, and there aren’t many of those. There was a lot of woofing and yapping in the Giants game. (To say nothing of nose tackle Vince Wilfork’s dead-on Moe Howard imitation through the facemask of Giant running back Brandon Jacobs.) But when it came down to the essential measure of football toughness—the ability to make the best plays at the most crucial time—New England left the Giants in the dust. This is not the first time it happened this year. Against Indianapolis, in the season’s signature matchup, the Colts made mistakes in the final minutes that these Patriots simply do not make. They prepare harder and more thoroughly than other teams do. Consider the last gasp the Giants had, an onside kick after their final touchdown. Instead of laying back, the New England special teams attacked, breaking up the New York line before it could form. The ball was plucked out of the air by Mike Vrabel, a Pro Bowl linebacker who still plays special teams because he loves to do it. I do not know this, but I will guarantee you the Patriots practiced that play for the first time no later than the third day of training camp.
And the intellect extends upward into the front office. Any team in the NFL could have had Randy Moss last winter for a bag of magic beans. Only the Patriots stepped up and took what was then a considerable risk. Any team in the NFL could have seen the value of someone like Wes Welker, who caught 112 passes this season. Only the Patriots did. Now, as they go into the playoffs, they do so far removed from the plucky little underdogs who broke up the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl. They’re bullies now, it seems. And targets. Everyone’s against them. They’ve got the world right where they want it. Deal with it, world.