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Why the NFL Needs the New England Patriots

Hate Brady? Loathe Belichick? Can’t stand seeing them in the Super Bowl? The sport will be worse off whenever their dynasty comes to an end.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick AP Images/Ringer illustration

You will miss the Patriots when they are gone. If you have hated the past 18 years of New England football from a place of pure fandom, that is understandable. But if you can’t appreciate the team, that is your problem. The Patriots are many things — secretive, smug, rule-bendy — but they are not boring. And if you think New England’s ceaseless winning is boring, you’ve missed the whole point. Whenever the Patriots become just another team, vulnerable to the year-to-year peaks and valleys that affect all other 31 teams, you — yes, you — will not be having as much fun.

In Sunday’s AFC championship game, the Patriots beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game that would’ve been an epic for anyone else but New England.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick erased their fourth double-digit fourth-quarter deficit in the playoffs Sunday, and no one thinks it’s particularly special. This is not normal: No other quarterback has done this more than once, and no other franchise has done it more than twice. Football nerds get everything they want from the Patriots, and this year’s version of the team ticks all of the boxes for the casual fan: They are good enough to always be in big games, imperfect enough to keep them close, and they understand situational football so well that they still usually end up winning. If you watch a New England game and feel nothing, it means you have died. Rob Gronkowski was out for the entire second half of Sunday’s contest, and Brady had 12 stitches on his hand. When Brady made a comparison to Tiger Woods, saying he wouldn’t channel Woods by saying, “That was my C game,” after a major win, he was doing the exact thing he said he wouldn’t do. If any other team overcame all of this and still won, there would be six books and a documentary already in the works, but in New England it was just another Sunday.

When a team wins all the time, its success inevitably gets enveloped by white noise. By the end of the Yankees’ run in the 1990s, things got dull. Real Madrid’s Champions League victories in three of the past four years have all blended together. I’ll admit to not being particularly interested in the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, either. Winning can be boring, but do not let that envelop how remarkable the Patriots’ success has been. Brady has made the Super Bowl in half of the seasons he’s been a starting quarterback.

The Patriots are great for football. The case has been made that their dominance is either dull or bad or both, but if you feel this way, the problem you have is with the sport of football. This team is a Marioesque character, running through dozens of levels with increasingly ridiculous scenarios and constantly changing opponents, and yet they win more than they lose. The bare-knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan became America’s first real sports star in the 1880s by traveling the country and trying to knock out anyone who wanted a shot, and he did so, night after night, against different opponents, different styles. This is the Patriots, taking on all comers.

New England has built the perfect modern football team — it’s stayed consistent by changing every year, chasing down every trend and owning it. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was signed in the offseason with $40 million in guarantees and who batted down the fourth-quarter pass that sealed Sunday’s game, is on the team because Belichick recognized that the salary cap was rising to the point that they could add talented, costly players with only minor consequences to the bottom line. At the same time, safety Patrick Chung, whom Belichick calls one of the best players in the league, is on a three-year, $8 million deal because no team finds value like the Patriots. They run an offense that is as diverse as you can get in the league, and Brady, who has run systems with influence from nearly every other scheme in the history of football at this point, can make any throw. On a macro level, this team is different from many of New England’s famous teams from the previous decade: The first iteration of the Patriots dynasty relied on defense. This year, they are 29th in yards allowed (though fifth in points allowed) and instead have perfected the art of situational football.

In a phenomenal Twitter thread, football analytics guru Warren Sharp pointed out the near-unbelievable predictability of the Jaguars offense in the fourth quarter: Every first-down snap was a run from shotgun, and every second down was a downfield pass. Jacksonville had six snaps in the fourth quarter with a running clock and the lead, but at no point did it drain the play clock to five seconds. (Remind you of anything, Falcons fans?) This is Patriots football: Let the other teams make mistakes, and know how to make plays at the end of the game. Aside from the arrogance and the cheating scandals (the nationwide hatred, mind you, started long before Spygate), the apparent but just-out-of-reach mortality of the Patriots is what most frustrated opposing fans. They look like they should be losing all the time. “It’s not the despair … it’s the hope I can’t stand,” John Cleese says in Clockwise. And this is the way the NFL views the Patriots. Everyone gets close; few finish the job.

Last week Belichick was peppered with questions about “experience,” since the Pats had a lot and the Jags had nearly none. He said that experience does not matter — a sharp rebuke of a lazy media narrative, and a critique that is almost certainly true. Belichick, who has won more than anyone, knows that you cannot rely on anything except what is in front of you. The “Patriot Way” is not about anything except understanding the future and dominating it.

The Patriots’ constant appearance in big games also solves a lot of the NFL’s current shortcomings. Ratings are down, but not significantly so when the Patriots are involved. Look at this chart of championship-game ratings and the link between the lowest-rated matchups: games like Cardinals-Eagles, Panthers-Seahawks, and, yes, Sunday’s Eagles-Vikings game. The vast majority come when there isn’t a dominant quarterback in play. The other pressing issue — the aesthetic troubles of a league where quarterbacks rely on throws short of the sticks — is solved by Brady being tied for the league lead in deep passes. Yeah, the Patriots are good for football.

Do me a favor: If you hear anyone talking about Belichick and Brady’s legacy being on the line in any way in the next two weeks, ignore them — and maybe never talk to them ever again. The Patriots are not about legacy; this is about entertainment. At this point, Brady’s eighth Super Bowl is running up the score on John Elway, who went to five and won only two, and he has doubled the number of times Joe Montana appeared in the game. But Brady did not need to gain an extra edge over Elway or Montana, nor does he need anything in the game against the Eagles. He already is the GOAT.

Perhaps because we’re running out of things to say, the conversation surrounding the Patriots and their dominance is remarkably stupid. In light of the team being called for only one penalty Sunday — the lowest total in a playoff game since … the 2011 Patriots — mainstream outlets floated theories that there is a pro-NFL conspiracy to help the Patriots. Leaving aside that New England fans fretted about the selection of Clete Blakeman to head Sunday’s game because he’s been bad for them in the past, there’s a bigger problem with the theory: It is inane to think that NFL executives, who’ve spent a combined 50,000 years trying to suspend Brady for deflating footballs, have now flipped to be viciously pro-Patriots.

Here’s a better theory: As discussed in this story and in others, Belichick associates believe secretive Patriots aid Ernie Adams helps study the tendencies of referees and figure out what officiating crews are more likely to call certain penalties. Perhaps the Patriots get superstar calls, perhaps the oft-discussed idea of home-field advantage really being about referees reveals itself often for the Patriots because they always play at home. Or maybe they are just smarter than everyone else. We have plenty of evidence to suggest they usually are.

Since Belichick and Brady are always there (they have been to eight Super Bowls, more than any other franchise), it hides how often this team retools and innovates. They’ll have to do it again this offseason when coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia likely depart for head-coaching gigs, and stars like Malcolm Butler may leave, too. And they’ve already weathered the departures of key contributors like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, and Rob Ninkovich over the past two years.

“Different forces have brought down the league’s dynasties through the years, including age and the defection of talented assistants. New England must cope with both.” The New York Times wrote that … in 2005. The 40-year-old Brady said he wants to play until he’s 45. There’s no precedent for a player trying to start at quarterback at that age, so there’s no way to know what to expect. The Patriots dynasty will end at some point, and all 32 teams will return to being vaguely even. When that happens, you’ll wish you had Belichick and Brady back.