The 2001 NFL season is one I remember most vividly. I had a feeling throughout the season that not only were we in New England getting the opportunity to witness the emergence of an unknown phenom-to-be in Tom Brady, but I also felt like we were able to understand and value an evolution the game was undergoing that valued toughness, intelligence, and team-first play unlike ever before. Time and again I witnessed the Patriots not only best the point spread, but we also saw them win game after game in the regular season and playoffs in which former players, coaches, and supposed experts picked them to lose outright. In these earliest decades of the Internet in which we live, it shocked me every week that somehow the “secret” that was building momentum in Foxboro wasn’t picked up on by anyone outside of New England. By the time they got ready to kick off the Super Bowl agains the Rams, many of us just knew the Pats could win or even would win, while the experts had them as a 2-touchdown underdog.
As I sit here writing this, it’s 3 hours and 12 minutes from the kick off of Super Bowl LI, and it’s starting to feel like deja vu all over again. Sure, the Pats are favored to win by the spread (3 points), and fivethirtyeight.com suggests they have a 61% chance of beating the Falcons. But that’s all? 3 points versus a 5-loss team with only 4 players with Super Bowl experience? Matt Ryan–not Tom Brady–wins both the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year? Atlanta has 3 All Pro players, while the Pats have 1? (only Matt Slater was selected, for Special Teams) Kyle Shanahan–and not Matt Patricia, Dante Scarnecchia, or Josh McDaniels–wins assistant coach of the year? The 5 win Falcons? The freaking 5- win Falcons. 16 years into the Belichick-Brady era, the finest run in any professional sport since Auerbach and Russell, and everybody outside of New England is still underestimating this team. Just this season, the Patriots are 13-3 against the spread. By now, wouldn’t you think they’d be over-rated? That is, even at 14-2, I would think the oddsmakers and everyone else would have been burned so many times over the years that they would “over-favor” the Pats at every turn. But they haven’t, and even though I haven’t bet on these games and gotten rich, it still gives me tremendous joy and satisfaction to watch hard work, toughness, and competitive intelligence pay off and lead to victories. And it will again tonight as well. Patriots 34, Atlanta 16. Maybe one day they all will learn.