The New England Patriots just played another Super Bowl for the ages. But this time, as they did twice against the New York Giants, the Pats came up just short.
All eight Patriots Super Bowls in this century — five victories, three losses — have been tense, hard-fought affairs. The games have all been close. Until Sunday's 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the 21st century Patriots had never won a Super Bowl by more than six points, and never lost by more than four.
The Eagles deserve enormous credit. They earned this victory. Most teams would have wilted after losing starting quarterback Carson Wentz, the face and future of the franchise, for the season due to knee injury. They didn't. Instead, the Eagles embraced their role as an underdog. Despite being the NFC's top seed, the Eagles' opponent was favored by Vegas in each of their three playoff games. The Eagles proved them all wrong.
Backup Nick Foles, historically streaky when thrust into the starting role, showed that he could make big plays with his arm on the biggest stage. Foles was a deserving Super Bowl MVP after throwing for three touchdowns and catching another — the first quarterback in Super Bowl history to catch a TD. The Eagles' running backs, including New England castoff LeGarrette Blount, receivers, and tight end Zach Ertz were also all clutch.
In the wake of the Eagles' win, the snap conventional wisdom seems to be that father time is finally catching up to the Patriots. Nothing lasts forever. But following a season in which the press has tried to drive a wedge between Patriots owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady, usually making Brady the villain in everything from his alleged role in the Jimmy Garoppolo trade to his charitable work to how he kisses his son, what we saw in the Super Bowl tells a very different story from the widely peddled narrative of the Patriots' imminent demise.
Brady and Belichick's Patriots aren't done. They still have more winning to do.
Brady, at age 40, threw for 505 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. No quarterback has ever thrown for this many yards in a Super Bowl. No team has ever scored 33 points in a Super Bowl and lost. For nearly the entire game, Brady played well enough to win. With the help of a stout offensive line, he kept the Eagles' vaunted pass rush at bay — until, well, one key play where he didn't.
Brady battled through injuries to key teammates, botched special teams plays, a porous defense, first-rate Eagles play-calling, and inscrutable rules about what constitutes a catch, with the close calls going against New England for the first time this season. He did everything you could ask a quarterback to do to give his team a chance to win. He is still indisputably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. And he isn't done.
Belichick deserves all the praise he gets, and he has certainly helped make Brady better. But when you see a defense that has been suspect on third down all season long (like the unit in the second Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants) and the unexplained benching of Malcolm Butler, hero of the Super Bowl win against the Seattle Seahawks, you remember how much Brady has made Belichick's hard-nosed GM philosophy viable.
Understandably, most of the country is happy to see a different team win the Super Bowl. Brady has taken the Patriots to the conference championship in 12 of the 16 years he has started (he was a backup in 2000 and injured in 2008). Critics liken the Patriots to an "evil empire." After last night's Super Bowl loss, they're eager to bury the Patriots.
I get it. I do. But I'd also ask Patriots haters to remember that there was once a different side to New England fans' beloved Foxborough franchise.
My father was a longtime Patriots season ticket holder. He went to the games through thick and thin. I remember sitting in the old stadium, which had few frills, in cold weather that made your rear end freeze on the metal bleachers — usually only to come away with a loss. Our beloved Patriots seemed to bear no relation to the city's storied Red Sox, Bill Russell and Larry Bird's Celtics, or even Bobby Orr's Bruins.
When there was a fight about whether taxpayer funds would be used to build a new stadium, there was a risk the Patriots might move from Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut. If they had moved, my dad said he would have to reluctantly give up his season tickets — but he would still follow them to their new home for some games.
"They're my team," he explained simply.
After persevering through the Patriots' humiliation at the hands of the 1985 Chicago Bears and decades of mediocrity, my father witnessed some great Patriots seasons. These Brady-Belichick years have been a joy for long-suffering Pats fans like us.
My father is late in his life, and struggling through illness. As we watched the game together in his hospital room last night, I desperately wanted the Patriots to win so one of my father's last earthly memories could be of his favorite team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. But the Pats — our Pats — came up short.
My father didn't seem upset by the outcome. Because unlike later bandwagon fans, he has never felt entitled to a win. He was just happy to see his team, our team, play a competitive game.
Despite the eagerness seen in some quarters for a New England diaspora, conspiring with the inexorable march of time to bring about the end to the football dynasty, I have every confidence the Patriots will be back.
In Bill we trust. In Tom we trust.
And for some other things in life, you just have to trust in an even higher authority.