And Now, for the Anger

1202238583And on the second day, anger set in.

Anger that the coach couldn’t have come up with a better gameplan. Anger that the Greatest Offense Ever didn’t play like it. Anger that this team, which forced us to defend their honor when they, frankly, couldn’t have cared less, didn’t close the deal against the other Manning brother.

But most of all, anger because the Patriots bet their entire 7-year run on a perfect season, and they screwed it up.

Last week, I caught a replay of the 2002 Super Bowl. The Patriots outplayed, outsmarted, and out-hit the St. Louis Rams, and the entire crowd was behind them. When Bob Kraft took the stage and said, “We’re all Patriots,” it didn’t even sound corny or trite. Everyone outside of St. Louis wanted to see them win.

Six years later, everyone wanted to see them fail. You can spin that any way you want. You can say it’s because people always want to see Goliath fall. You can call it jealousy. But you can’t deny it.

Let’s be clear about this: Spygate was only a ripple in the ocean. If the rest of the league wants to pretend that they don’t take every shortcut that’s available, that’s up to them. It’s not that they did it: it’s that they got caught. They got caught against the one guy who knew everything there was to know, and who would turn them in as fast as he could.

But that’s still not the real problem. The issue is this: The Pats didn’t have to do it. Not because they had assembled a brilliant team that didn’t need any extra help, but because, win or lose, the Patriots could do no wrong in this town. They could even blow an 18-point lead against the Colts in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. Everything was forgivable.

But this year the Patriots made a deliberate choice. There would be no medals for trying, to steal a line from Bill Parcells. It was kill or be killed, and they beat the hell out of everyone. Running up the score? Please. If someone wanted to try and stop them, they could suck it up and try. These are grown men. Professionals. How badly they get beaten is ultimately on them. But when you play a zero-sum game, you have to live with the consequences.

This was about putting an exclamation point on everything they had accomplished. Tom Brady doesn’t have Manning’s stats? He does now. Brady and the Pats offense torched every meaningful passing and scoring record in sight, but, toward the end, it felt like they were playing for the record book, and that’s where it went wrong.

Remember that stretch late in the year when Brady would fixate on Randy Moss? A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who covers the team put it like this: “Brady doesn’t even know who he’s throwing to. He just throws it to the spot and whoever is there is supposed to make the catch.” In their unrelenting pursuit of immortality they somehow got away from what made them great in the first place.

They finally got back to that on their last TD drive, but it was too late.

This is their legacy, not ours. They decided it would be worth burning every bridge, and exhausting every ounce of good will they had built up outside of New England to try and achieve the one thing they had not yet achieved. But they screwed it up, and now they have to live with it.