That I am going to support the Patriots was never really in question. The Giants have eliminated the Packers from the playoffs twice in the past four years, and there is no forgiving that. I know the Patriots are favored, that the Giants are not only my adoptive home team, but also the scrappy underdogs. (If you can characterize a team that won a Super Bowl in the last five years as “scrappy.”) I know Bill Belichick had an affair with a married woman and that a video of them totally doing it possibly exists. But I cannot cheer for a team that is indirectly responsible for The Saddest Cock-Shots Known to Man. It’s a stretch, but: If Favre had gone to the Super Bowl in 2008, he might have retired for good, which means he might never have gone to the Jets or texted Jenn Sterger or made Crocs even grosser than they already were, and Eric Mangini wouldn’t have named his son “Zach Brett,” which decision I’m guessing he now regrets. So my task, over the bye week, was clear: I had to figure out a way to love the Patriots.
Thankfully, I had some help. First there was Tom Brady’s performance during the Ravens game: He was pretty terrible. Two interceptions, no touchdown passes, and an overall QB rating of 57.5, his second-worst ever. And if there’s anything designed to make me love a quarterback, it’s his following up an unspectacular win on the strength of a sub-par performance with some public self-loathing. Tom Brady declaring “I sucked” on the sidelines immediately post-game was like an early Valentine’s Day present from a guy who looks like a QB1 should look: tall, broad-shouldered, with the chin of a young Kirk Douglas.
He also, adorably, apologized to Patriots owner Robert Kraft for his performance. (Kraft, a Patriots fan since the days when the team was, to quote the New York Times, “a comical traveling sideshow,” seems to be one of the less-evil NFL owners, and the “MHK” patches the Patriots have been wearing are in honor of Kraft’s wife, Myra, who died of cancer just days before the lockout ended this summer. If you need an excuse to love the talented and humble Vince Wilfork even more, this article, about his bond with Kraft after Myra’s death, ought to do the trick.)
Then there was David Roth’s article on the Patriots’ dominance over the last decade. Roth made a point I know I’ve made in the past: that the Patriots, talented though they may be, play a grim kind of football. “At the end of an especially cruel and frightened decade,” he wrote, “the Patriots seemed to embody all the joyless, thwarted smallness of our culture—snarling from victory to victory, accumulating and accumulating and somehow getting both smaller and heavier in the process, growing more paranoid, gnawed and jealous for the seeming effortlessness of those successes,” and I wanted to agree with him. But there was something off about the piece. It assumes that football players, in addition to owing their fans impressive athletic performances, must also bare their hearts; if they don’t—if they refuse to answer sports writers’ inane questions with heartfelt platitudes—they are probably evil, and should be shunned. Favre’s charm is so linked to his transparent vulnerability, but I’m not sure that should be requirement to being considered likable in the NFL. Sure, it’s endearing—but must a football player also be endearing? Can’t he just be talented, creative, and refrain from sexually assaulting women?
I wasn’t the only person trying to convince herself that the Patriots’s Super Bowl trip wasn’t another sign of the impending apocalypse. Charles P. Pierce on Grantland praised Belichick for being willing to “gleefully exploit every misplaced comma in the NFL rulebook, which the NFL richly deserves”—I couldn’t deny there was something sort of fun and silly about Brady’s punt on third down against the Broncos. Certainly it wasn’t joyless. Then, on Deadspin, Mobutu Sese Seko came down in favor of Belichick’s belief that “The actual outcome of play is enough to settle almost any debate, and those that can’t—arguments about clutchness, leadership, or poise—are hopelessly subjective,” in an article that labeled him (probably mock-seriously) “lovable” and “impish.”
All of this made me more receptive when a friend argued that Brady and Belichick are actually nerds, obsessed with and delighted by the sport they play. The problem is that they’re largely unable to communicate that to anyone except when on the field, or in detailed breakdowns of upcoming opponents’s game tape in the “Belestrator” segment on local TV in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I’m not sure you’re allowed to look as good as Tom Brady does and still qualify as a nerd, but I see my friend’s point. Anyone who can take Julian Edelman, a tiny (5’10”) college quarterback from Kent State, draft him as a wide receiver and then turn him into both a punt returner and a defensive back—without ever taking him off offense—is either a mad genius, or the football equivalent of an egghead. Maybe the Patriots really are Al Gore in the 2000 election—uncharismatic; boring; right—to Eli Manning’s George W. Bush: dynastic runt, still trading on that twang in order to earn underdog cred he doesn’t deserve, hoping we’ll all forget he was a first round draft pick for the Chargers and refused to play for them. Brady, meanwhile, was drafted in the sixth and might have been a backup his entire career if Drew Bledsoe hadn’t suffered a sheared blood vessel in the second game of the 2001 season, but he looks really good in a tux and is married to Gisele, so we forget this.
I’ll never love the Patriots. Belichick may be an awkward dork, but that doesn’t explain his refusal to meet Eric Mangini’s eye when he shakes his hand post-game. Brady is no longer that pudgy wannabe from the NFL combine; he’s married to a supermodel who sends embarrassing emails in which she calls him “Tommy.” I’m also not rooting for them just to be safe—they’re on a 10-game winning streak, but, as even Brady admitted in his post-game presser, not all of those wins have been particularly pretty. And none of them have been against the Giants. Maybe worse, as of Wednesday, Rob Gronkowski, who has been crucial to their offense all season, was still not practicing. The Patriots may well not win, and if they don’t, I’ll be angry, not heartbroken. But for three hours on Sunday, I’ll be focusing on this pretty, pretty face and hoping Aaron Rodgers comes back next season humbled and clean-shaven; that scraggly beard looks awfully silly behind a face-mask.