I'm not sure how I didn't notice when the refs held up the first play of the third quarter in the AFC Championship game. It didn't occur to me that it was anything other than what ex-ref Mike Carey conjectured on CBS, which was that a kicking ball had been accidentally substituted for a game ball—this despite the fact that the whistle was blown only after a separate delay. With the exception of the beloved Bill Hader SNL character "Lane Kiffin," I had never even heard of a coach illicitly deflating scrimmage balls in a nefarious bid to defy wind, water, and the Indianapolis Colts defensive line.
But I didn't hesitate the next morning, as the ridiculous and wonderful particulars of the story began to take shape. "They did it," was my immediate thought. "They somehow did whatever they are being accused of, all of it." And then the corollary: "Belichick is directly responsible."
This was not an uncommon reaction to the news that the New England Patriots were being investigated for malfeasance in violent weather. The Patriots are universally despised, for reasons that are easy to understand. The quarterback is a fair-haired Bay Area forest sprite who is resented even by his fans, who will openly hate him when he retires to enjoy four decades of handsome nudity on a Brazilian beach. Their coach spends his offseason drying cat hides and reviewing spy tape in a shack off Route 1 in Saugus, behind the IHOP. The owner is a moldering plutocrat who, in between having his rings stripped by Vladimir Putin, spent Julian Edelman's roster bonus manufacturing a Vince Vaughn audition tape for
h̶i̶s̶ ̶d̶a̶u̶g̶h̶t̶e̶r̶ his girlfriend. Only by dint of the continued existence of the city of Philadelphia does New England not have the worst fan-base in football, and then only because the busing issue finally died down. Yes, the Patriots are despised, and rightly so. Just not by me.
I love them. I hate them, too, as I must. I am ashamed, more than anything, at how much I love watching the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are not in my bloodline of respectable cloth-coat Jets and Giants fans; they're more a mold spore I dwelt near for too long. Mine is the Legionnaire's Disease of fandoms. To even broach the topic of my tangled skein of fandom in casual conversation, I need to first proffer a lengthy set of qualifications, something like what you'd legally be required to run through before letting someone skydive.
Which is to say: of course I know that the Patriots will stomp the balls off any rule that stands between them and a first down. I know this as surely as you do. I make this clear in any conversation, first. "The Patriot Way" is a transparent feint, a prevarication which ennobles the Orc-ish army of fans storming forth from Foxborough and enables a frightening singleness of purpose and self-regard in the face of overwhelming evidence towards the contrary.
The organization's pretensions to a higher level of play would be a bad joke even if the team hadn't recently trained a certain tight end in going three for three on murder attempts. Since the Patriots look clean-cut, and are not overtly dirty on-field in the fashion of leering heels like Ndamukong Suh or Bill Romanowski, it is perhaps easier to miss their true spiritual ancestors. They are the 70s Raiders, shaven and cleaned up for a court date.
The Patriots and Raiders organizations are twinned in a way that the hail-fellow Masshole aesthetic of the former and the Mad Max affectations of the other can't conceal. It was, after all, poor Darryl Stingley, a Patriot, who was paralyzed by a hideous and completely clean hit by infamous Raider safety Jack "The Assassin" Tatum. It was the Patriots whom, in 1976, Kenny "The Snake" Stabler and dirty George Atkinson advanced to a Super Bowl title on, thanks to a highly questionable "karate chop" call. It was Patriots GM Pat Sullivan whom Raiders linebacker Matt Millen brained in a 1986 AFC playoff brawl. The Patriots have been apt pupils of these dark arts. When the Patriots were Tuck Rule-d to victory in the 2001 AFC Championship game, the team on the losing end was the Raiders.
The appeal of the Patriots is not, and never has been, the one commonly attributed to it by its many detractors: of a winning dynasty immune to criticism or the common decency exhibited by every other sad franchise with a losing record and a Ryan brother on the sideline. All of that is true, of course, but it is also true of the Yankees or (until recently) the Lakers, for whom no similar mystique exists. It misses the true attraction of New England's of play: their undiluted ruthlessness in not merely dispatching their opponents, but in exerting their dominance in such a fashion as to make their opponents seem small, silly, stupid even for trying.
I know. I can remember the gift—on one of many wintry Sundays, half-dead already on Sam's Winter Lager, on the barstool farthest from the white light of the window—of knowing that no matter what dank station I'd fallen to, that Brady was at his most dangerous position on fourth down at the fading end of a losing game. He was going to come up with something brilliant—maybe I and all the other losers weren't going to, but Brady was, and it was going to hurt those faceless foes, so smug and sure of victory.
There are powers of transference here, as whatever is unbearable in life—and this list is long in New England in winter—is briefly vanquished. Ice bowl teams don't best punch bowl franchises merely because of weather. New England's dead-ender fans must cling to the heat these teams give off, stuck as they are in a snowdrift all season long. A chowder-drenched bread bowl, stale popcorn, acid reflux, the backwash of your seventh beer—these are what's left if they lose. These are the sad, quiet stakes.
The true joy of being a Patriots fan is in seeing lesser, impure strains of love punished, words backed by deed. To love the Patriots is to be, in some sense, a Stalinist. You will not be forgiven for the sin of thinking you can win against the Patriots; instead, you will be invited to a purge. And if you hate the Patriots, so much the better. The joyless win at the end of all this is the darkest kick there can possibly be in a sport which, at the end of the day, remains a war game. It is, all of it, probably indefensible.
Bill Belichick is a crazy person and a cheat, and eminently does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. His press conference blaming the mysterious forces of air pressure conjured the disaffected air of half-heartedly testifying as to why he shouldn't be executed. His disquisitions on stuffed animals are disturbing and should frighten children.
But let's not pretend he represents a deviation from some truer game, no matter how much the league and the rival coaches loathe him. The Patriots are the truest iteration of football, the good and the bad. As Belichick marshals his superior forces, as he sharpens the tools of skulduggery, he strips the game of its soft niceties and Roger Goodell's branded fiction, and also of the idea that this sport, out of which so many are harmed in so many ways, is anything but fundamentally violent. That's why people watch.
As a wise man said, unable to help admiring another dark style of play, long ago: "it was young, it was harsh and savage; it had no human respect, it felt its solitude; it improvised depth and form all at once." It's only right to hate the Patriots as vicious cheaters. But ask yourself—what sport are you watching? And what would you rather watch than this?