Shameless Patriots fanboy that I am, I have a Pats postgame routine that I follow. When they win a game, particularly when they win big the way they did Monday night in Miami, I stick around afterward and watch as much of the wrap-up and analysis as I possibly can. From the first on-the-field reactions to the press conferences to what the empty suits behind the desk think to the Jerry Springer-like final words while the janitor is in the background sweeping up after all the reporters, I just can't get enough. On the other hand, after a Pats loss I tend to lock myself in the bathroom, sit in the bathtub fully clothed and cry, but that's a story for another day.
So in the immediate aftermath of this week’s pancaking of the Dolphins, I caught Tom Brady being interviewed by ex-Boston TV babe turned ESPN reporter Wendy Nix. It was only 30 seconds or so, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Brady was giving us a look into the heart and mind of the 2011 Pats.
(Before I go any further, one quick aside: How is it that James Dolan never hired Wendy to cover the Knicks? I have to think that if there was a reporter with her talent out there named Wendy Selltix, Wyc Grousbeck would have her on the payroll in a nanosecond. But I digress.)
I mean, there was nothing surprising about the interview. Nix asked the questions you'd expect her to ask: You just set a team record with 517 passing yards. You set a Monday Night Football record as well. You had the fourth-highest total in history. Tell us how you feel... Nor did Brady throw us any curves. He chose his words carefully as he always does. There was no Tebowesque thanking his Lord & Savior or insane Bart Scottish rant about how Miami “can't stop a nose bleed.” It was all about how the Dolphins are a good team and this was a good start and coming down there to win is ... good. The words he used were as fiery and controversial as a Mitt Romney stump speech.
It wasn't what he said. Or really even how he said it. What counted was the undertone. His body language. The look in his eye. Now usually when Brady speaks I like to think what he's really saying is “Jerry Thornton and I are going to have a sleepover and build a fort out of bedsheets.” But this time was different. This time what he was non-verbally but unmistakably saying was “Yeah, I threw the ball all over Fergie and Marc Anthony's stadium. We came down here and humiliated a division opponent on National TV. But what does it matter? The only thing that counts is winning the Super Bowl.”
He's too polite to have literally said it to Nix, but the impression I came away with was that his entire answer could've been summed up with two words: “Who cares?”
Look, plenty of teams talk the “Winning is the only thing we care about” talk. Hell, the Pats of the Belichick Dynasty have built an entire language around it. But this year, above all other years, I believe it's literally true.
Even with a championship-driven team like the 21st century Patriots, there have been other successes they measured themselves by. Records and streaks and matters of pride that mattered to them as a team. In 2003 they had a home no-touchdown streak that ended with a garbage time score late in the fifth game. There was the NFL-record consecutive win streak. The revenge game against the Bills, avenging a 31-0 loss with a 31-0 win. There was the 2003-04 consecutive wins streak. Individual marks like extending Vinny Testaverde's seasons-with-a-TD pass record or Doug Flutie's dropkick. And of course the 2007 season, which was lousy with record achievements, team and individual. Brady's 50 touchdowns, Randy Moss' 23 touchdown catches, and the unprecendented 16-0 season (all of which were accomplished on the same pass, which I will argue was the most significant regular season play in NFL history). Last season saw them lead the league in offense and Brady set an all-time record for most consecutive attempts without an incompletion and become the NFL's first unanimous MVP.
All of which counts for nothing. Less than nothing, since all those accomplishments are basically used as evidence for the prosecution in the great “How Good are the Patriots?” argument of our time. They've become “Yeah buts.” Those '03-'04 records? Yeah but all that counts is they won the Super Bowl. Veteran backup quarterbacks doing cool things? Yeah but what did they win? All those marks they set in '07? Yeah but they were so concerned with 19-0 and breaking individual records they blew the championship. The fact that they were 1:30 and a miracle catch away from being the undisputable Greatest Team Ever isn't something to be proud of. It is, to steal a line from Mayor Menino, an Alcatraz around their necks.
And the same goes for last year. They were the NFL's best team by far. They trampled teams. Lead the league in scoring by a wide margin. Had the highest turnover differential by a mile. Brady had the fifth-highest passer rating in history. They locked up home field and were the heavy favorites. All of which means that losing to the Jets -- at home -- in the playoffs, is just extra-strength humiliating. And this whole offseason has felt like the part in “Carrie” where she keeps hearing her moms voice saying “They're gonna laaaugh at yoooouuuu...”
And I'm convinced that that's how the whole Patriots team see it. How can they not? They're not “victims” of their own success. They're products of it. Nothing they can do at this point can possibly matter short of winning another Super Bowl. Nothing. Whatever accomplishments you can achieve in the regular season, the ones other teams get to celebrate, brag on and feel good about, are meaningless to the Pats because they've done them all before and still come up short when it counted.
“Tom, you just set a passing record!” Been there. “You led the league in scoring!” Done that. “You blew out your hated rival!” What else is new? “You locked up a bye week!” Old news. “Clinched home field advantage!” Who cares? “Went undefeated!” Check, please.
It's rare that any team finds themselves in this position. With this kind of motivation. Where anything less than a championship is tantamount to total failure. And if recent history counts, this is a good thing. Humiliation is a hell of a motivator. Consider for example last year's Bruins. Or the 2004 Red Sox. Both were coming off historically embarrassing playoff losses the year before. And the only way either was going to wash the stink off those humiliations off themselves was to beat the teams that tortured them and win it all. Mission accomplished.
That's the situation the Pats are in as we speak. They could win every game from now to the end of the season 56-0 and all that will matter is how they do in January and February. And honestly, I think this is a good thing. No other team in the NFL has a level of motivation to match the Patriots. Who NEEDS a championship as much as they do. The league is full of crappy teams just looking for respect, mediocre teams looking to improve, and good teams that have won it recently and so 2011 isn't life of death the way it is here. Hell, the Jets throw themselves Canyon of Heroes parades for losing in the AFC Championship Game, why should this year be any different?
No, the Patriots are unique in needing postseason success to shut up the naysayer, the doubters, the haters and the SpyGate conspiracy theorist nutjobs. And between now and then, any blowout wins they have or records they set are nothing but big buts.
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