They’ve traded excitement and suspense for mundane certainty, their quarterback is the most enviable man on the planet, and their coach is less likeable than Donald Trump – someone of whom both coach and quarterback seem a little too fond.
Throw in the allegations of cheating, and the New England Patriots have no peer in American sport when it comes to inspiring hatred.
They’re mainly unlikable because they make excellence so bland and incessant. Every year they do the same thing (how many could clearly define the specific differences between the 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16 Pats?). The offence is immaculate, but rarely explosive, and the defence makes just enough plays.
The one time in the past decade that the Patriots had an iconic team – the 2007 offensive drop-the-world squad – they were tainted by Spygate, running up the score, and ‘18-1′.
Success is the surest avenue towards envy and antipathy, and the Patriots, assisted by their fatigue-inducing brilliance, Bill Belichick’s frostiness and condescension, and a bevvy of controversies and pseudo-controversies, have become the biggest villains in the NFL. Their heel turn is a shame too, because once you take off the prescription lenses of contempt, clear eyes see the beauty that the Pats put out on the field every week.
The 36-17 beat-down of the Steelers was quintessential New England. The Patriots, as they so often do, looked like the kid who walks into the exam knowing that there’s no question that he hasn’t studied for, in the process making Pittsburgh look like they’d downed 12 vodka cranberries in the carpark before the game.
A match that seemed destined for greatness was rendered uninteresting by the start of the second half – another common theme in Patriot games, and perhaps a reason why they’re so easy to despise.
New England’s casual brilliance was filled with bite-sized bliss. On the first touchdown drive, Tom Brady twice found Chris Hogan (who?) for game-changing gains through minor works of art. On the first play, he audibled at the line to split the receivers out wide, and then – as if the audible and the throw were a singular, perfect, unending moment – he found an open Hogan deep left for 26 yards to enter Steelers territory.
Then on third down, Brady calmly danced around the pocket, listening to Mozart while everyone else listened to the worst of Nickelback, before finding Hogan open in the end zone, caressing the ball to him with a deftness that winked at inevitability.
They were two plays that epitomised who Brady has become, and what has made him so transcendent – he’s an air traffic controller and a scientist with a knife, someone who processes complex information with alien serenity, and then delivers the blow, at the same time somehow both slowly and swiftly. While Aaron Rodgers is a football demon, Tom Brady has only ever been God.
He remains the sun which the Patriots orbit around. Everything remarkable that happened against the Steelers – Hogan’s star turn, Legarrette Blount’s Marshawn Lynch costume looking more like skin, the swallowing up of Antonio Brown into a black hole of red, white and blue – emanated from Brady. His presence allows everyone on the offence to thrive and gives his defence supreme confidence and rare strategic liberties.
By the end of it all, Pittsburgh were a broken team. Without Le’Veon Bell they had no chance, and the way the game played out, they were a list of times tables for a Patriots team that had mastered calculus. The indifference with which Eric Rowe caught Ben Roethlisberger’s fourth quarter interception and nonchalantly returned it 37 yards spoke volumes. There’s no need to celebrate, or even animate, when you’re a 23-year-old who’s just beaten a nine-year-old in an arm wrestle.
The Falcons will be a real test, maybe the biggest offensive test that Belichick has encountered since his first Super Bowl, against The Greatest Show on Turf. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are leading the sequel to that show, and the public, obsessed with sequels, will surely be behind them.
New England start favourites, though, and rightfully so. They’re not as explosive or as overtly dominant as the Falcons – they’re just the best.
The defence is flawed, but somehow empowered, almost like Alex Ferguson’s United teams that always scored in the final five minutes – they just seem to make plays, like the goal-line stand that broke Pittsburgh’s spirit late in the second quarter.
And the offence, while lacking the Julio Jones ‘oh my God did a real life man just do that’ element sans Rob Gronkowski, is unstoppable in its own way.
The stage is set for two breathtaking forces. And if the Patriots prevail, which they probably will – because ‘life’ – save your breath, savour their brilliance, and don’t yell or look back in anger, even if you think that their brains might have gone to their head.