We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
I’ve never been happier after a loss. It was a Saturday night at the Meadowlands, Week 17, a couple of days before the Times Square ball dropped to herald the beginning of 2008. It was long-underwear cold, though not serial-killer-mask freezing; there were so many familiar New York Giants fan faces to bump into at the parking lot tailgate that it felt a lot like a night at the Stephen Talkhouse in early August. There were also a lot of New England Patriots fans in the house, all there hoping to see their guys cap off a perfect regular season.
New England had its three Super Bowl rings in the previous six seasons, and its stone-faced coach with his signature anti-style, and its dimple-chinned quarterback with his alluring backstory. He had gone from near-nobody at Michigan, to backup to Drew Bledsoe, to three-time Super Bowl champion: Tommy fahkin’ Brady, a man so sought after that he left a woman best known for portraying near perfection on Sex and the City for the world’s most famous supermodel. The Patriots in late 2007 more closely resembled rock stars on tour than mere football players. They traveled the country with a cool swagger, they were larger than life, they made grown men hug and cry.
And they always played the hits: That night in the Meadowlands, for example, Brady found a free-as-a-bird Randy Moss with a 65-yard completion that set all-time single-season records for both passing and receiving, and the Pats’ 38-35 win cemented the unprecedented 16-0 record and left their fans clamoring for a playoff encore. The New York Giants were essentially hype men in this performance, a mere opening act.
“Never had a meaningless game carried more meaning,” the NFL Films’ Scott Graham would later assess, in hindsight, about Week 17. Leading up to that game, the big questions on WFAN had been: Should the chronically injured Plaxico Burress even play? Should Eli take a few token snaps and then sit? Like the Patriots, the Giants had not only clinched a playoff berth, but were locked into their seed: the Giants at no. 5, in a wild-card slot, and the Patriots at whatever number seed is, like, exponentially better than better than best. The game could easily have been a dud, a blowout, a night in which the tailgate had more texture and drama than what followed. Instead it was an out-and-out banger, one that would ultimately elevate the legacies of both teams.
No one in the building that night would have predicted that a month later the Big Blue would be the ones embodying a certain musical proverb: Every rose has its thorn. Every superhero needs an archenemy, every heel needs a face, every Achilles has a bum tendon. And so it goes that both of these statements are factual: (1) The New England Patriots are the greatest and most dominant football team of all time; (2) They have been beaten in the Super Bowl, twice, by the New York Giants.
The New England Patriots have won an entire talk-to-the-hand’s worth of gaudy, glittering Super Bowl rings; there are so many of those things out in the wild that they’ve wound up in Vegas-bound private jets (on the delicate fingers of Ben Affleck’s ex-nanny) and in Russia (in the thieving clutches of Vladimir Putin). And the team has amassed these jewels in a mind-boggling 16-year stretch; the birth years of players who have been on Patriots championship rosters range from 1965 to 1994. The Pats have been involved in the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history, benefited from one of the worst all-time decisions in any sport, defined Donovan McNabb’s did-he-or-didn’t-he legacy, and won playoff games in sunshine and driving snow. And they have also, when it counted, shown that they simply cannot defeat the maddening Eli Manning.
Say what you will about the fluky unfairness of luck, and talk all you want about how David Tyree never played another game for the Giants after making the greatest catch in team history. Whine all day long about how, in the words of Cris Collinsworth, Wes Welker typically makes that missed catch from Super Bowl XLVI—the one that caused Gisele to issue a blame-y postgame rant for the ages—“100 times out of 100.” Bring up Asante Samuel; I dare you! Try to change the subject with phrases like “five rings” or “Malcolm Butler” or “Ben McAdoo’s 2016 haircut” or “Steiner Sports.” None of it matters, and none of it ever will. The New York Giants came from behind to beat the seemingly unbeatable for the championship—and then they did so again four years later.
For Giants fans this is a source of endless pride, lifelong memories and—even better and more delicious than both—lasting hilarity. And I’ll always believe that it started that cold night in late December, when seemingly every Giants fan in attendance, myself included, was embracing and high-fiving friends and strangers and utterly nerding out on the evening’s set list. Did you see that pass to Plaxico on the second play of the game? we asked one another as if we were dissecting a memorable guitar riff. Can you believe Eli Manning led that three-and-a-half-minute drive near the end of the game?
It’s a testament to just how badass and fearsome the New England Patriots were that I had one of the greatest nights of my life simply by virtue of the Giants not getting their collective ass beat in Week 17. And yet, two Giants-Patriots Super Bowls later, perceptions had changed to the point that some rando online pawn shop thought it would be hilarious to leave 900 pounds of Butterfingers in Boston’s Copley Square as a publicity stunt based on Welker’s missed catch.
The Patriots will always be in an almost entirely unwinnable position with respect to New York. The worse Manning plays going forward, the more amusing his two wins against New England and two Super Bowl MVP trophies become. Ditto the better the Patriots do: New England could win 10 more Super Bowls in the next 10 years, Brady pushing 50 and still clowning fools thanks to a proprietary diet that can also be yours for the low low price of $279.99 (I’m adjusting just a bit for inflation) and still, unless one of those wins is against Manning (an extremely unlikely turn of events, make no mistake!) they can and will forever be chirped.
But I have a confession that I will make just this once. The Patriots’ two Super Bowl losses make their body of work all the more impressive, all the more deserving of we-are-not-worthy respect. Rather than wallow, they went on to wallop. Like any superhero worth his or her Spandex, the Patriots refused to let their defeats by an irritating if effective villain ruin their legacy and destroy their world.
After the team’s second loss to the Giants, a Boston columnist unleashed a missive that called Brady, variously, a prince turning into a frog, and Jim Kelly, and boneheaded; and reminded readers that the fearsome Patriots had now gone seven years without a title. This sort of overreaction is standard operating procedure in the sports media world, but three seasons after that, with New England not having won a championship for a decade, came the much more widespread conventional wisdom that maybe Brady, and by extension the Patriots dynasty, were legitimately done. Instead, all they did that season was get themselves back in the Super Bowl. The Pats wrapped the season in which Brady was supposedly finished by beating the Seattle Seahawks. Two years later they humiliated Atlanta.
In the Seattle game’s closing minute, when the Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse made an absurd 33-yard bobbling sideline catch to set up what ought to have been the winning play, Collinsworth again made a comment that was the stuff of nightmares for New England fans: “How many more plays are the Patriots going to have like this?” he said in his trademark incredulous tone. “David Tyree, Mario Manningham, and now Kearse!” As it turned out, the game would ultimately hinge on a different memorable play.
And when the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl ring was released earlier this year following their 34-28 win against the Falcons, it included the engraved words “Greatest Comeback Ever” and featured 283 diamonds—a gorgeously trollish reference to the fact that New England had, at one point late in the third quarter, trailed Atlanta 28-3 before going on a 31-point run. You can’t argue with that kind of numerology. Unless, of course, you’re a New York Giants fan forever blinded by those two shiny Super Bowl gems, and you will cling to the numbers 18-1, no matter how obnoxiously, no matter what happens, for the rest of your, and the rest of my, life.