They call showcases such as Sunday’s shellacking at Gillette Stadium “hat and T-shirt games,” although that generally is a misnomer.
No self-respecting pro football enthusiast that I know has ever worn apparel touting a division title. Well, present company excluded. I’m a starving artist living on a fixed income. If it’s available on a rack for 49 cents on half-price day at Salvation Army Thrift Store and there aren’t any visible sweat stains, I’m not too proud to become its rightful owner.
We don’t celebrate AFC East titles as Patriots fans, do we? One reason is that New England starts out every September with the same 1-in-4 chance that Oakland and Jacksonville have of winning their divisions. Another is that we’ve bought the line that it’s a bad division, even though perhaps the Patriots make it so by beating up on the Bills, Dolphins and Jets five or six times each autumn.
And, of course, the biggest reason of all: We’re spoiled. Twelve division crowns in 14 seasons are both ridiculously unprecedented and mightily overshadowed by eight trips to the AFC championship game, five trophies named after Lamar Hunt and three with Vince Lombardi’s name engraved on them.
There’s some sort of divine right/manifest destiny theory at work here. If you don’t believe me, scroll back and digest the social media whining during a first half in which the Patriots, while admittedly sluggish, were winning Sunday from beginning to end.
In case you threw a blunt object and broke your screen prematurely, they won, 41-13.
Stop and smell the coffee brandy. Celebrate, folks. It’s OK. Smile for a second and exhibit the same swagger that overtakes Dallas Cowboys fans when their team does something transcendent like not finish 8-8.
This is a big deal. With only two exceptions since 2001, New England has been the preeminent power of its geographical pod, every year. Once was after Tom Brady suffered a catastrophic knee injury in Week 1 of 2008. The other could be chalked up to post-Super Bowl hangover in 2002 after the first of three championships.
Even those years, the Patriots fell shy of first place only by virtue of a tiebreaker. More often than not, as was the case again in 2014, it has been over by the first or second week of December.
The common denominators are quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. Nothing demonstrates the absurdity of their divisional dozen more deliciously than the fact that the second most prolific crew chief/driver relationship in NFL history, Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, yielded the Pittsburgh Steelers and their 1970s “dynasty” seven AFC Central (it was a thing back in the day, kids) championships.
Every rule in the book and every unwritten rule of human behavior and anatomy are stacked against this happening. Coaches usually burn out after six or seven years in one NFL city. Supervisors and employees typically tire of one another. Brady, 37, with a bum shoulder, a balky knee, a finicky ankle and a seemingly demanding spouse, shouldn’t be this motivated to kick everyone’s fanny into his mid-40s. “Forever,” he reiterated again this week when asked how long he plans to milk this.
Never mind the very nature of the NFL that prohibits such prolonged dominance. The economic system, unlike that which prevails in MLB and NBA, is explicitly designed to prevent the hoarding of stars. If you can name even half the running backs and wide receivers and one-third of the offensive linemen and defensive backs the Patriots have employed since 2001, God bless you.
The division structure itself also is designed to prevent such a monopoly. You are paired in three home-and-home series every year with teams that hate you and know your tendencies in their sleep. It breeds chippy, contentious play. Think Steelers-Ravens, Broncos-Chiefs and Cowboys-Eagles. No matter how bad the other three teams are in a given year, they are uniquely equipped to make you play like crap, as did the Dolphins for six of eight quarters this season.
It’s a copycat league in which the curiosity of the other cats is supposed to kill you, and eventually does. Even in the 14-year stretch from 1981 to 1994 in which the 49ers, Redskins and Giants combined to win 10 Super Bowls, each was just as likely to lose in the Wild Card Game or miss the playoffs entirely in a year when they weren’t on top.
We Patriots fans would have donated a kidney for an AFC East championship shirt back then, right?
Get your hands on the newest one, and don’t be afraid to wear it proudly.
Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.