"Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned but heaven hath no sweetness like a sports fan vindicated." - Samcat

Monday, February 07, 2005

Fortune Favors the Best

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(photo from Boston.com)

“One was nice, two’s a lot nicer. But I need number three!” – Tom Brady at the Super Bowl XXXVIII rally

And so it is.

After the Patriots narrowly defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX last night to win their third title in four years, there are a few things that I never want to hear again. They are:

*References to the Patriots “depleted” or “patchwork” secondary.
*Anyone questioning whether or not this team is a dynasty.
*That the Eagles “beat themselves.”
*Questions regarding Tom Brady’s skills and all around ability to kiss ass.
*A question mark at the end of the sentence, “Is Belichick as good as Lombardi?”
*Anyone saying “The Patriots receivers are overrated.”
*Doubts about Tedy Bruschi
*Disrespect to Rodney Harrison.
*Anyone labeling Corey Dillon a “malcontent.”
*Terrell Owens making it all about him.
*Claims that the Pats are “distracted.”
*Questions about Mike Vrabel’s hands.
*Michael Irvin claiming that the current Patriots are not as good as his Cowboys.

I suppose I should just get used to the fact that the Patriots win Super Bowls by three points. No more. No less. And as such, I should respectfully request that they give Adam Vinatieri all the free pizza he wants and allow him to ride in the lead Duck Boat in the parade.

Super Bowl XXXVI was sent to its conclusion with a heart-stopping 48-yard field goal off Vinatieri’s right foot. Super Bowl XXXVIII? Pretty much the same thing. And even though last night’s game didn’t come down to a last-second kick – and thank god because I really don’t think my heart could have taken it – the Pats still won by three points, courtesy of guess who? It’s fitting that the defense was on the field for the completion of the game considering that this current stretch of dominance is all about the defense. Even more fitting that it was Rodney Harrison, preacher of (largely imagined) disrespect who made the game-ending interception and sent the Eagles and their fans home unfulfilled. Had I been in charge of it, Harrison might have been the MVP. Two interceptions, a sack, a bunch of tackles and countless hard-hitting defensive plays and Harrison has cemented his status as a game-breaking playmaker. On second thought, perhaps people should keep disrespecting him.

I listened to WEEI on the drive back to Weymouth today from my parents’ house in New Hampshire. The most often repeated sentiment was something along the lines of “I never felt this game was in doubt.” And I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at the radio and thinking, “Really?” Because I was holding onto a half-inflated football the entire time and it was only by some major strength of will that I kept from hurling it towards the big screen on more than one occasion. The thing is, when the Pats kicked off to the Eagles to start the game and forced a quick three and out, I said to myself, “Okay, this is what we need. Let’s get things rolling.” I pictured Brady’s beautiful 60-yard strike to Deion Branch after a turnover in the Pittsburgh game and thought, “Stake through the hearts, come on, let’s go. Punch ‘em in the mouth.” And I expected it to happen. And then it didn’t. A three and out of our own and I did a nervous shuffle in my seat and sucked on my Sam Adams a bit too enthusiastically.

I was right there with them, cheering them on and watching Asante Samuel intercept McNabb in the red zone. And I stood up and cheered and high-fived my Mom. And then I saw the flash of yellow. Flag. Penalty. Play overturned. And I sat down, crossed my arms over my chest and said, “Hmph,” all the while thinking to myself, “The Patriots don’t get stupid penalties. Especially not ones that could negate game-changing plays.” When Rodney Harrison intercepted McNabb’s next pass in what was essentially, for the Patriots defense, a do-over, I clapped and said, “Okay, little hiccup, no problem,” and expected things to get rolling from there. I thought the Pats would march downfield and score first, either seven or three points, because that’s what they do. And then Brady lost the fumble. And I didn’t know what to think.

And then the unthinkable happened, the Eagles scored first. The Patriots were trailing in a game. A playoff game. I sat down, buckled up, pushed my beer away and dug in, now not at all sure what I was going to see.

Watching this Patriots team is a lot like reading one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. There are many ways for it to end. Usually, they choose the same kind of means to an end – opening score, game breaking play, solid and efficient but not flashy play by the QB and an eventual win – but sometimes, like last night, they chose a different path.

I, for one, am not used to the Pats being down. They score first. It’s what they do. That’s a streak that didn’t get quite as much play as their historic 21-game winning streak or Brady or Belichick’s individual streaks but the Patriots scoring first is about as ironclad as you can get in the world of often random pro sports. And last night it didn’t happen. Perhaps I should have realized they were just choosing a less conventional method. Bill Simmons had this to say about the early hole:

“They spotted Philly a seven-point lead, wiped the blood off their collective lip, tasted it, smiled, then marched down the field for the tying score.”

While I love, LOVE, that mental image of a bunch of dirty, sweating, grunting football players licking their lips and going in for the kill, I was more nervous than Bill.

I turned to my friend Erik, lone Eagles fan in a houseful of Pats partiers, (though he wore a Switzerland neutral Red Sox hat), and said, “You know, if I were a fan of any of the other 30 teams that aren’t playing, I’d want a close game. But now? Not so much. Does that make me a bad fan?” He smiled – why wouldn’t he? His team was up by seven. – patted me on the arm and said, “No, you are, without question, the biggest football fan I’ve ever met.” Until Brady turned back into himself and marched down the field like I know he’s capable of doing to tie the game on a short strike to David Givens, it was small consolation.

Truth be told, for the remainder of the second half, I was praying for the seconds to tick away faster to bring on halftime. Not because I was itching to see Paul McCartney, because, really, is there anything sadder than an aging, formerly hip rock star?, but because I knew the Patriots themselves were not happy with the way they played in the first half. They couldn’t be. And I knew they’d take the extra long halftime to figure things out and make them right. At least, I hoped they would.

So when the second half opened and the Pats received the kick off and Brady did his Brady thing and drove the team down the field for another seven points, I loosened up a bit, tossing the football from hand to hand rather than squeezing it for stress relief. “Okay,” I thought, “Maybe this is when the blowout starts. Everyone’s been predicting one so maybe this is when it begins.” And then the Pats scored again – thank you again, Adam! – and we were up by ten points. And time was ticking away. Erik leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this one in the bag,” to which I replied, “I don’t know. Six minutes is still a lot of time. And D-Nabb is a good quarterback.” He looked at me, I looked at him, portents of doom visible on both our faces and we smiled. “Philly fan,” he said. “Red Sox fan,” I replied. And we both shrugged.

There were many times when I exhaled deeply, thinking that the game was over: after Adam’s kick, after Fauria cleanly fielded the onside kick, after we forced a three-and-out on the next possession. After Rodney’s game-sealing interception. But there were equally as many times when a sharp intake of breath could be heard over in my corner of the room: the quick strike touchdown pass from McNabb to Greg Lewis to pull the Eagles within three, when the teams lined up for the onside kick even though I knew they would, a few of T.O.’s longer first downs, the Eagles defense forcing the Pats to punt after a three and out as time ran under a minute. Call me stressed, call me faithless, I think it was just nerves.

In the end, after the screaming and the jumping up and down and the hugging everyone in sight, as my Dad and I began discussing who the MVP should be – we both said Harrison though neither of us would have been upset had it gone to either Brady, Branch or Bruschi – he cut himself off mid sentence and said, “What a game. I really hope you’re appreciating this. This team gives us everything we ask for and more. Sometimes, all we can take.” I nodded, a sign that I do appreciate this. That I know how fortunate I am to be 24-years-old and have working and recent knowledge of four Boston sports championships. We turned back to the TV. Bradshaw handed Branch the keys to the Caddy and we all smiled. Good for him, no more deserving guy out there.

And that’s the thing about the Patriots; there are way too many playmakers and game changers to single anyone out. Usually, in that case, provided the quarterback hasn’t physically handed the ball to the opposition or otherwise embarrassed the franchise and the fan base, the MVP goes to him. I’m not saying Brady doesn’t deserve it. In Super Bowl XXXVI, he sure as hell did. And last year, you could make a strong case for him as well. Personally, I would have given it to Mike Vrabel whose touchdown reception tied the game late in the fourth quarter and whose key strip sack of Jake Delhomme earlier in the game was crucial to keeping the Panthers out of the end zone but defensive players aren’t flashy and the networks don’t like to give them MVPs. So, in lieu of Harrison or Bruschi, I expected Brady to walk away with it again. But I was thrilled when it was given to Deion Branch. And no one was happier for him than his teammate, Brady. “I am proud to be a part of this family,” said Branch. Exactly, Deion, exactly.

On the other side of the ball, I have to give credit where credit is due to the Philadelphia Eagles. And especially Terrell Owens. It pains me to do it because despite his obvious talent and heart, I can only take so much of his mouth but the fact remains that if the Eagles had won this game – and they damn near did – Owens’ performance would go down as the Curt Schilling moment of the Eagles Super Bowl run. Gutsy, yes, impressive, definitely. Owens still managed to make it all about him in the post-game press conference when he claimed that “No one thought he would play.” And yes, he’s right. And yes, he did play, and play well. But, T.O. sometimes you just have to let the performance speak for itself. I know, I know, “Hello, kettle? You’re black.” I have heard it from many sides that people wish that Curt Schilling would have shut the hell up after his Game 6 ALCS and Game 2 World Series starts. And I understand. But I respectfully disagree because I love him. And Philly fans feel that way about T.O. Okay, uncle. Agree to disagree? Because no matter what I think about him as a person, that was a hell of a performance, and it showed heart. I tip my hat to him.

There are endless what ifs? to discuss and analyze and perhaps I will over the next few days. What if McNabb hadn’t appeared so nervous? What if he’d tried to run more, something the Pats hadn’t faced since dealing with Steve McNair last year? What if he’d tried to exploit the secondary more? What if he’d run a better two-minute drill? But I suppose these questions are for Philly fans to think about. I guess, when it comes to sports, I’m just used to being on the other side. On the radio today, Gerry Callahan said, “What does it feel like to lose? I don’t remember.” God help me if I get like that. I am of the mind that you cannot fully appreciate your victories in a vacuum. You need soul-crushing defeat to make them sweeter. (Read Mer’s excellent entry for more on that topic). That is why this year’s ALCS was so perfect, it was vindication. And that is why it will be so much sweeter for Eagles fans when they finally win the whole damn thing – and they will, something tells me soon.

People have made comments that the fan base around here is getting used to this, getting apathetic. I hope with all my heart that is not the case. They argue that no matter how great last night was, it couldn’t compare to the Red Sox win. I understand that. And part of me thinks that if the Sox had lost in crushing fashion, again, we would have NEEDED a Patriots victory to lift us up…again. As the cliché goes, championships are like children, you love them all. The New England Puritan aspect of my personality feels like I haven’t suffered enough to have been granted such an embarrassment of riches. But perhaps that’s why I embrace each one and savor it for all it’s worth. Before he went to bed last night, my dad asked me if I planned on going to the parade. “Of course,” I said, never a doubt in my mind. He smiled, “Good,” he said, “Good. This is special.” And he’s right.