Monday, January 21, 2008

History Takes Some Funny Bounces

Luckily for the National Football League, the Patriots DID win all those close games in December. Otherwise, we'd be set up for the least interesting two weeks of Super Bowl hype EVAH.

Imagine if the Ravens had had a teeny bit more luck, and the Pats were playing the Giants with a 15-1 or 14-2 (the regular season game between the two being rendered irrelevant to all concerned). We'd have a decided underdog versus a favorite whose record of resilient efficiency has ALREADY made them the team of this decade. Plus, no offense, it ain't exactly a team of quote machines, either. Tedi Bruschi is smart, can be funny, and is insightful, but what could he or any other Patriot say about the Super Bowl they haven't said already?

Unless, of course, the Patriots were undefeated entering the Super Bowl, as happens to be the case. Now, they, the NFL. and all football fans are in unknown territory. New England's entire decade of dominance, its historical stature, is on the line in a way it could never have been without that 18-0 record. This has become a table stakes Super Bowl, which engages me, anyway.

If the Patriots win, which I would assess at about an 85 percent probability, the rewards are obvious. New England would have established a clear case as the greatest team in pro football history by both the standards commonly used to evaluate that matter. If we are judging one season, then the different rules and far more difficult schedule faced by the 2007 Pats makes 19-0 more impressive than the 17-0 of the 1972 Dolphins. If we are judging by the more common standard of "same team over 5-10 year period," then 4 Super Bowl wins in 7 seasons plus the greatest one season ever argues strongly that the Pats are the best team anybody's ever seen, and shut up about the Decatur Staleys, great-grandpa.

If the Pats should lose on February 3, then history is up a stump. There is no relevant comparison to help it. We would be confronted with an admittedly great team slipping on the verge of its signature accomplishment in the most humiliating fashion possible. The nearest I can come to envisioning this possibility is to imagine the reaction if Lombardi's Packers had lost Super Bowl I.

Sane people would conclude that the past cannot be erased by the present. The Patriots' record from 2001-2005 doesn't go away if the Giants pull the upset. They're still one of the NFL's historic best, just with this weird blot on their resume. But any chance of being ranked as the top team of all the great teams would be gone. Seems a fair penalty.

Sane people do not dominate discussions about sports, which is why Glenn Ordway lives well. They are especially thin on the ground when the topic is a dominant team. Teams like the Pats acquire haters in the nature of things. Let them lose Super Bowl LXII, and the haters will put forward a narrative suggesting that the Pats' past is indeed negated by missing (except they'll say "blowing") the chance for a perfect season. It's wrong, stupid, and inevitable. If the upset comes, we can have a pool. Which commentator will be the first to say this proves the Pats cheated in their Super Bowl wins. Skip Bayless? Sean Salisbury? Michael Felger?

A love of football history is, along with attending Wesleyan University, the only thing I have in common with Bill Belichick. If the team involved in this situation wasn't his, I'd wangle a press credential from somewhere and go have a talk with him on the subject. As it is, however, the only persons who'll hear Belichick's opinions on the Patriots' historical jeopardy are the Patriots themselves.

I'm reasonably sure that when he mentions what's at stake against the Giants, Belichick will tell the team the haters will be the ones who write history if they lose.


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