Saturday, January 21, 2012

Revis-No, Make That Delusionist History

Deion Branch is has had a long and solid career as a step-above-competent NFL wide receiver. He's a swell fellow to boot. But as a propagandist, Branch is a dismal flop. He hasn't learned the important rule that to be convincing, falsehoods must contain an element of truth, about as much as the vermouth in a proper Martini.

Branch's comment this past week that the Patriots "have been underdogs all year" was straight bathtub gin, pure moonshine in both senses of the word. We all know athletes enjoy the feeling of being scorned and persecuted by a hostile world almost as much as Newt Gingrich does, but really, there's a limit. A member of the most successful pro football team of the 21st century saying they're underdogs is about a light year past said limit.

Let's recap the facts of public, especially sports commentariat, opinion about the Pats this season for Branch and that odd subset of fans (all teams have one) that gets off on feeling put upon. In the preseason, the Patriots were team most favored to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, narrowly leading the Steelers and, let's not let anyone forget the commentariat has its problems too, the Jets and Chargers. There was no one, not even Rex Ryan, who didn't pick New England to at least make the playoffs.

Last but not least, for tomorrow's game against the Ravens, the one Branch was talking about, Las Vegas, which works strictly on math, not emotion, has made the Pats seven point favorites. That's an awful lot of points for a disrespected underdog to be giving its presumably better regarded foe.

It is true that when the Pats' defense had its problems this season, many commentators and fans said those problems might cause the team to be less successful than they'd previously thought. It's extremely unlikely New England players only heard that criticism from the outside world. I'm willing to bet that opinion was a prominent feature of Bill Belichick's remarks in the locker room throughout November and December.

That's a far cry from dismissing the Pats' Super Bowl chances altogether, which nobody did except on those days when radio talk shows felt the calls weren't coming in fast enough. One wishes players and the public would learn to discriminate between honest opinion and obvious emotion manipulation.

Branch, of course, was trying to manipulate himself, and almost surely failing. He's too sharp not to know the Patriots were overdogs all season long, just as they've been for the past decade. They are among the overest overdogs in the history of the National Football League. But for reasons of policy, they refuse to admit the obvious.

Some of the greatest teams in sports history, like the Larry Bird Celtics if one wants a local example, reveled in their identity as overdogs and made that image work for them to help them win. Remember Derek Jeter telling Aaron Boone to trust the ghosts? That's overdogism doing its thing.

The Pats will never acknowledge being favorites. Belichick won't permit it. Deep down, the Pats' coach believes, and I'm not saying he's wrong, that pro football is such a difficult endeavor that it's fundamentally surprising when any team wins a game, let alone his own.

But not even Belichick was willing to shatter reality the way Branch did. Indeed, I believe that as much as is constitutionally able, the coach took the opposite tack.
On Friday, after accurately noting that the Ravens are a tough opponent, Belichick expressed satisfaction with the Pats' practices and readiness for the game.

That's as close as close as Bill Belichick can or will ever get to saying "We got this."


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