It was a straight shot down route 101, a 40 minute drive from San Mateo to the crown jewel of Santa Clara- Levi’s Stadium. From where it all began, to where it comes to a head. It was a statement, to crash and conquer the NFL’s greatest spectacle, this year more than any other and commissioner Roger Goodell’s moment to shine. It was a storybook ending to a season of vengeance, but ultimately- as with all fairy tales outside the Disney variety- it was too good to be true.
Waking up the morning of February 7th, Tom Brady was where he expected- back home in the California hills, where his childhood was spent cheering for the dynastic 49ers of the 80’s, slinging passes for the Padres of Serra High School. And like near every sunday of autumn and winter, Brady suited up. Heading for a stadium playing host to the week’s biggest game as when the Patriots come to town, chances are it’s under the brightest light, following the moves and preparations of #12 more than any other. And make no mistake, Brady had to prepare, to make an entrance ultimately garnering both cheers and boos. But unlike February sunday’s of past… his entrance was all that would be remembered, his suit never traded in for pads and a Patriots emblem emblazoned across the chest.
He was honored, and he was disappointed. For if not for the NFL’s ceremonial celebration of past Super Bowl MVP’s, Brady would likely have skipped watching the game, much less have attended it as a spectator. Knowing full well the chances to compete under the Santa Clara sun were there for the taking, yet the Patriots stumbling to a 3-5 record in their final 8 contests. “You’ve got to play really well to win these games,” said Brady after yet another playoff loss in Denver, and the Patriots were playing no where near their best when the calendar hit 2016, and certainly not in Denver during the AFC championship. A game which saw Brady hit the turf twenty times (most since 2006 by an NFL QB) and leading to two interceptions, one of which within the Pats own 10-yard line and resulting in a Peyton Manning touchdown pass; something thought near impossible this year.
Yet, like the Patriots possibility of back-to-back titles, the expectation rarely translates to reality. For despite New England’s 4 championship seasons since 2001, a majority of the Pats’ years of dominance have been dubbed “failures” by both fans and players alike. The expectation is a championship, the goal always to bring another Lombardi to 1 Patriot Place. To fall short of that, even when it’s in your 5th straight AFC championship, is what defines your campaign. Not the 10-0 start or the bevy of impressive offensive stat-lines, but the final game and if you won it.
What most would consider unreasonable, possibly even spoiled aspirations are common-place in Foxboro, and in particular for Tom Brady, “I want to win it every year,” said the already 4-time champion quarterback, “I’d love to finish in the last game of the year and win it. It’s a pretty tough thing to do. Hopefully I have more opportunities for that.”
Opportunities that in 2015 were squandered. For despite Denver’s defensive tear during the postseason, and Peyton playing his best game of the year in the AFC championship, the Pats still crawled back, a trip to the Super Bowl coming down to one play.
Think about it- that’s how good New England (and Brady in particular) were in 2015, for even when playing their most pathetic whilst their opponents played to championship caliber- the game still came down to a failed 2-point conversion.
In a Super Bowl where Carolina was dominated much like New England, Cam Newton and co. lost by two touchdowns on a “neutral” site, where as the Pats- playing in the belly of the beast at Mile High- were kept in it by Brady and a stout second-half defense, losing by less than a field goal.
Which is exactly what makes this season so infuriating- the clear superiority of the Patriots when playing their best. Hell, in a majority of contests their average is still sufficient, it almost was again in the AFC championship.
But this was a championship, and the Patriots (being defending champions) looked more a team defending such a title than actively attacking another. Their target was larger than ever in late-January, Denver’s edge-rush bearing down the scope on a helpless Tom Brady. Robbing the quarterback of his final, utter claim to the GOAT moniker as he ushered Peyton Manning quietly into the night. Waltzing back home to NorCal, set to accept the 50th Lombardi from a Goodell gritting his teeth.
Instead it was yet another Manning, and yet another dominant front 7 harassing Brady on one end, making some proverbial variation of a helmet catch on the other. Infuriating the faithful with questions of how it would’ve been different had Belichick played the starters week 17, elected to receive in overtime vs. the Jets, or simply opted to kick it deep up two touchdowns vs. Philadelphia.
Perhaps that’s the plight of the Patriots, that the difference between haunting failure and historic success is often one play; a missed extra point or a muffed punt, a helmet catch or tip-toed grab. And with such tortured memories of “what-could’ve-been” all of New England carries a greater appreciation for the titles actually won. A recognition that, as Brady puts it, “the road to the next one is paved by season’s like this one.” A road which began in the California hill country, paved by a 199th pick and a chip on #12’s shoulder, by seasons falling to one injury too many, to one play just short. Yet all these trials culminating at the top of a future mountain, the kind where confetti falls in lieu of snow, and forested trees are traded for field turf. Where the Lone Star of the night comes not from the host state’s flag but Tom Brady’s play on the field, in a stadium he’s won in before and plans to again, fulfilling an aspiration as grandiose as Texas itself.
For come February 5th of 2017, Houston- and the football fan majority who detest New England’s success- may just have another problem.