This year, we have had a completely featureless Super Bowl and now a completely featureless Champions League final. The stark scorelines were New England 13 LA Rams 3, and Liverpool 2 Tottenham nil.
First it was about the Cowboys, then it was about Aaron Rodgers, and, for a while there, it seemed certain to be about the Atlanta Falcons.
But finally, at the last possible moment (and perhaps even past that), the saloon door of inevitability hit us all in the face, and we remembered that the NFL is still about the Patriots first and everyone else second – as it has been for the past 16 years.
New England are the modern NFL’s old empire, an unparalleled force of consistent dominance. Except ‘force’ has never really felt like the right word to describe the Patriots, at least outside of 2007, when excellence and football sadism found a happy marriage.
The Patriots aren’t about the quick, lightning strike knockout – they’re Floyd Mayweather, always dictating the style of the match-up, playing it on their terms, and only throwing punches that they know are likely to land.
They never get sucked in by emotion, approaching every situation with cold rationality; something that makes them both unsympathetic and inspirational. At 28-3 in the Super Bowl there was no crisis, no crippling sense of embarrassment. There was only: ‘this is how many possessions we have left, and here’s what we have to do with them’.
This identity, at first glance robotic, at second glance incredibly and impressively human, might be Bill Belichick’s mantra but it’s Tom Brady who makes it reality. Brady has said that the Super Bowl wasn’t one of his greatest performances and the reason he gave was simple: for more than half the game he didn’t play that well.
With two minutes left in the third quarter the Patriots had scored just three points, in part because of Brady’s errors. He missed several throws that could have gone for big gains (admittedly, his receivers didn’t help him out on several others) and the interception Robert Alford returned for a touchdown was catastrophic from the moment it left Brady’s hands, the type of throw that Eli Manning makes on his worst day (Eli, by the way, of course still being the only quarterback to topple Brady in a Super Bowl).
But what made the Super Bowl Brady’s greatest masterpiece, if not his most pristine, is that those mistakes propelled him instead of crushing him. Brady has the shortest memory in the sport, as well as perhaps the best and most cunning, and the form he took in the second half bore no signs of the earlier failures. The missed throws didn’t bruise him, and the battering he took only made him stand taller in the pocket.
It was a similar performance to his last Super Bowl turn, brushing aside the two interceptions against Seattle and putting on the God-as-football-surgeon costume in the fourth quarter that fits him so well. To conclude those two games, where the Patriots were down 10 and 25 points, Brady had seven drives where a failure to score would likely mean a Super Bowl loss. The result of those drives: six touchdowns and a field goal.
Those seven drives, ultimately, will be his legacy. The early Super Bowl performances were brilliant, but not quite as heroic, exciting or iconic. They had no Malcolm Butler interception, or the catches by Jermaine Kearse, Julio Jones and Julian Edelman, plays that will embed those games forever in NFL history, sitting comfortably alongside the David Tyree catch.
That grab, which Tyree is still pressing against the top of his helmet, is symbolic of Brady’s greatest failure: ‘18-1′. Some can interpret that lost Super Bowl, or the other championship loss to the Giants, or Brady missing Rob Gronkowski on the two-point conversion in Denver last year, as stains on his legacy. In a way, of course, they are, but really, all they point to is Brady being human, and not the higher power he often seems to be.
All the great ones have their failings. What makes Brady the greatest is how quickly he’s able to forget them.