Forget Deflategate, forget the cold war between Roger Goodell and Tom Brady, Goodell and Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Goodell and Patriots fans scattered from Bangor to Baja. The Patriots have something far greater at stake as they prepare for Super Bowl LI and the Atlanta Falcons in just 11 days.
The greatest dynasty in the history of sports.
Hyperbole? Maybe yes, maybe no, though the dissenting opinions will undoubtedly come from those who regard the Patriots as “cheaters,” which may be true. You have Spygate and Deflategate on your side. And yet, after the punishments, the Patriots have continued to win at an astonishingly high rate, leaving historic, accomplished franchises like the Pittsburgh Steelers face down in the mud.
Fact: since 2001, when Belichick and Brady joined forces in an NFL game, New England has won 196 times in the regular season. (The next-closest franchise is the Indianapolis Colts with 166.) In the playoffs, New England has 24 victories, nine more (and counting?) than the next-closest team (the Steelers). Add it all up, and New England has averaged just under 14 wins per season — 13.75 to be exact — during an era in which the salary cap was supposed to promote parity.
But this isn’t about the salary cap, or the regular season, or playoff wins. Those are merely the spackle that ultimately smooths the surface. This is about Super Bowls.
This is New England’s seventh under Belichick and Brady. Seventh. Since the start of the millennium, no more than three seasons have passed without the Patriots appearing in arguably the greatest game in all of sports. New England has now appeared in an NFL-best nine Super Bowls — again, seven in the last 16 years — and a Patriots title this season would give Belichick and Brady an unprecedented fifth championship for a single coach and/or quarterback.
Sports dynasties are obviously difficult to compare, but let’s get real here: does anyone honestly believe the New York Yankees of the 1950s or the Boston Celtics of the 1960s really compare? Leagues were smaller. Postseasons were shorter. Life was simpler. No one even fathomed the idea of a salary cap. And before someone even mentions men’s basketball at UCLA or women’s basketball at Connecticut… please. Stop. First, that’s college. Second, basketball is an infinitely easier game to dominate because one player can have greater impact than in any other sport.
Ask Bill Russell about that. Or Michael Jordan. Or LeBron James.
But football? Well, that’s a different thing altogether, because it requires true infrastructure that can withstand injury, infiltration, insurrection. We’re truly talking about a system here. In the 16 years during which Belichick and Brady have been paired, New England has undergone hundreds of personnel changes. They have missed the playoffs twice — in 2002, when they went 9-7 in Brady’s first full year after winning their first title (they responded by winning the next two championships) and in 2008, when Brady blew out his knee in the first quarter of the first game (they still finished 11-5).
This season, as we all know, Brady was suspended for four games, during which the Patriots went 3-1. They went 14-2 during the regular season and currently sit at 16-2 overall.
And now they are within one win of their fifth Super Bowl championship in the last 16 years, a feat rivaled only by the San Francisco 49ers during the years of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Admittedly, Belichick is hard to like, at least publicly, thanks to a generally dismissive attitude and the accompanying tactlessness. Brady is unlikable for the all the opposite reasons — a little too pretty, a little too polished and a little too perfect. He’s the ultimate face of a franchise, right down to the supermodel wife. But as we all know, success isn’t a popularity contest.
In NFL history, the greatest of the greats are distinguished by one thing and one thing only: titles, particularly in the Super Bowl era. Among coaches, Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Belichick are currently the only ones with four. As for quarterbacks, Brady, Montana and Terry Bradshaw (four each) are similarly clustered together. Now Belichick and Brady are knocking on the door of five, an achievement that would give them their very own room in Canton, apart from everyone else, no matter the shouts and protestations that come from any disgruntled mob outside.
Dynasty? Empire? Dictatorship?
Call it what you want.
But there’s never really been anything like it in all of sports.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.