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The Patriots’ Underdog Narrative Must Die

Tom Brady apparently entered these playoffs with a mission: convince the world that he’s Josh McCown

An image of the Underdog cartoon character with his head replaced by Tom Brady’s Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Everyone thinks we suck,” said the greatest quarterback of all time. Tom Brady recently told reporters that people don’t believe the Patriots will “win any games,” and wide receiver Julian Edelman released T-shirts urging the haters to “Bet Against Us.” That’s right: The Bill Belichick–era Pats, who have gone a combined 248-78 including the playoffs since 2001, have convinced themselves that they are currently underdogs.

And they are. Technically, the Patriots are three-point underdogs entering Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Chiefs. You know, because the Chiefs had a better regular-season record—Kansas City went 12-4 while New England went 11-5, its worst record since 2009. And because the Chiefs did it against a tougher schedule; per Pro-Football-Reference, the Chiefs played the 17th-toughest schedule in the league, while the Patriots played the 30th. And because the Chiefs have home-field advantage, which has proven to be more meaningful in the NFL playoffs than in the regular season or in any other sport’s postseason. This marks the first time the Patriots have been underdogs in 54 games, dating back to Week 1 of the 2016 season, when Jimmy Garoppolo started in place of the suspended Brady against a Cardinals team that had gone 13-3 the season before. (New England won that game, 23-21.)

Somehow, people are allowing this to happen. A USA Today headline published Thursday reads “Patriots are right to play up underdog role, no matter how much you hate it.” ESPN published a story entitled “Patriots embracing rare role as underdogs heading into AFC title game.”

But let’s be clear: While the Patriots might be underdogs on paper, they are certainly not underdogs in spirit. If we’re using betting lines as the decisive factor, it’s worth noting that more people are betting on the Patriots to win than to lose. (Why won’t anybody listen to Edelman?) The Chiefs—who last week won their first home playoff game since 1994—seem to think it’s funny that the Patriots are so committed to hyping the underdog angle. As tight end Travis Kelce eloquently put it: “I don’t think they suck.”

It’s true that from time to time in the past decade, people have written that the Patriots’ dynasty may be over, or almost over. That’s because no NFL team has ever been as good as the Patriots for as long as the Patriots, and history would say that’s a reasonable thing to suggest. Yet through some combination of dark magic, unusual usage of avocados and quinoa, and father-son makeout sessions, the Pats have staved off regression at every turn. They are the closest thing professional sports has to the Death Star.

Everybody wants to be an underdog because underdog stories are more interesting and lovable than those of perennial favorites. It’s no fun to make movies about repeat champions—or, for that matter, teams seeking their sixth championship in the past 20 years. Patriots fans know this because they have lived through some legitimately awesome underdog stories. In 2001, a backup quarterback picked in the sixth round of the draft stepped in for an injured star and lifted New England to its first-ever Super Bowl title. This happened in a city that prided itself on its sports failure and was home to a wildly popular baseball team that hadn’t won a championship since before the invention of the television.

Yet New England has outgrown its cute underdog status and become the greatest dynasty in football history, with the greatest QB in football history and the greatest head coach in football history. (That once-crappy baseball team has become pretty good, too.) Nobody would trade life as a perennial champ for life as a perennial outsider, but the Pats and their fans remember life as a surprise success well enough to know the narrative was better then. The last decade or so of Patriots fandom has been fueled by the belief that in spite of all their success, somebody—Roger Goodell? The, uh, haters?—is out to get them. Whoever’s out to get them is doing a truly terrible job.

The Patriots are not alone here. The past few years of sports have brought several perpetually perfect powerhouses. And the players on these teams have noticed a pesky trend. They win and win and win, and somewhere along the line, the world stops treating their wins with the adulation they feel each deserves. Eventually, their repetitive, lopsided triumphs become routine. Without anybody around to doubt them, players on these teams have taken to coming up with backstories to convince the world (and most importantly, themselves) that what they’re doing is improbable, rather than exactly what everybody on the planet expects.

I will never forget being in the Alabama locker room after the Crimson Tide’s 2018 college football national championship win, the program’s fifth in nine seasons. I heard running back Damien Harris shouting, “THEY SAID WE WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.” I wasn’t going to correct him after he’d just won a national championship, but, well, nobody said that. The Crimson Tide are the national title favorites every season, and made the College Football Playoff championship during all four years of Harris’s career. But when no one has anything bad to say about Alabama, Bama makes stuff up—literally, reporters noticed that Alabama started putting up completely fake quotes attributed to the “national media” to neg players into believing that somebody doesn’t believe in them.

Kevin Durant, an NBA MVP who joined a 73-win Golden State team in 2016 and proceeded to win back-to-back championships there, has a detailed backstory to convince anyone who will listen why the Warriors are not a superteam. LeBron James, the player whose multichampionship stint on the Miami Heat prompted the popularization of the term “superteam,” has also denied he was ever on a superteam. Nobody has a concrete definition of what a “superteam” is, but we know that every NBA superstar gets upset when we say they’re part of one.

I’ve had enough of it. I’ve had enough of front-runners claiming outsider status. America would be in better shape if it weren’t for the people who encounter the fewest inconveniences in life mistaking those inconveniences for struggle. When I hear the Patriots call themselves underdogs, I hear the screeching of men’s rights activists.

The Patriots and front-runners like them tend to confuse our desire for their failure with us actually believing that they might fail. The rest of the world has grown so tired of their unceasing dominance that we hope against hope for them to fall short. We tell ourselves this will be the game that they lose, not because we think it will happen, but because we desperately want it to. And then the Patriots hear us screaming “The Pats are gonna lose this year!” and believe that we doubt them, when in fact we’re just seeking assurance that one day we will survive their reign.

We are powerless in the face of the Patriots dynasty. We cannot stop them from winning on Sunday, or ever. Only the Chiefs can do that, and on that front: Godspeed, Patrick Mahomes II. But we do not have to grant the Patriots what they truly want—to not only win every game, but for the rest of us to treat each of their victories like it is special and unique, rather than another win in a seemingly endless string of them. I hope the Patriots lose Sunday, and that their dynasty comes to an abrupt and shocking halt. But the truth is that all Patriots haters believe the Patriots will win—even if the Patriots themselves would prefer that we didn’t.