In a 2015-16 New England Patriots’ news cycle that was dominated by embarrassing (for everyone involved except the Patriots) lunacy, let’s start the next one with some real talk.

The Patriots aren’t heading west to Tom Brady’s neck of the woods to defend their Super Bowl title, to make the franchise’s ninth Super Bowl appearance and seventh in the past 15 years. 

Denver beat New England, 20-18, in an AFC Championship game that came down to a two-point conversion in the closing seconds but was settled by a dozen major details before that. Bad interceptions. Non-existent pass protection. Blown coverages. Eschewed field goals. I could go on, but I have to punch out the clock before I am allowed to commence drinking.

A win would have earned Brady a chance at his fifth championship ring, further cementing his most ardent supporter’s case in an ever-present debate that can’t be won and really doesn’t matter. Instead, it will be Manning’s fourth start, and a bid for his second win. In neither case was this clash of these titans any more of a referendum on either’s “legacy” than the first 16.

We rattle off the Patriots’ numbers in those comparisons as if they’re divinely ordained and supremely ordinary, when in fact the National Football League odds of achieving them in this age are equivalent to winning Powerball. They are gridiron Monopoly money. They are a statistical absurdity in a game and a system that are designed to keep one team’s, one player’s, one coach’s continuous time in the spotlight shorter than the ubiquity of a viral cat video.

People waste a wealth of time being apologists for Brady, for Bill Belichick, for Robert Kraft, for the legitimacy of their own fandom, when the wise, justifiable thing would be to murmur “scoreboard” and walk away. Imagine Belichick groaning “next question” or “we’re on to OTAs” at a press conference, attempt to channel him, and you’re on the right track.

Those who aren’t invested in the Patriots try to bait the team’s fan base with foolishness because it’s all they have. Your coach cheats. Your quarterback endorses girly boots. Your fans are bandwagon jumpers. Peyton, this. Eli, that.

It’s all sour-grapes fun and frolic that could be (and traditionally was) concocted about every successful sports franchise in history. The truth is that the Patriots have never been accused, forget convicted, of any “crime” that every other franchise in the NFL hasn’t attempted to some degree. If you want to say they’ve been subject to more selective outrage and ardent, targeted investigation because of their success than any winning franchise before them, OK, I can live with that.

The instigators who love to hate the Patriots, who compare them to past teams that couldn’t hold a candle, who celebrate the two Super Bowl hiccups and few playoff defeats, have failed even to distantly enjoy a 15-year run that will never be duplicated. Even if you weren’t an admirer of Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Derek Jeter’s New York Yankees, their extended excellence is something that should have been admirable to you as a sports fan.

There was a time, encompassing most of my life, at least, when we tipped our cap to an adversary. We served up at least the minimum degree of sincere respect, even to an opponent we didn’t like, because we were smart enough to recognize that the primary reason we didn’t like him is that he or his team defeated ours too often. The game was bigger, our psychological well-being stronger, than the vibrancy of our colors.

It is enough to make me wonder if the days of simply being a sports fan, and being able to appreciate achievement that doesn’t fall in lockstep with our feelings, are behind us. That would be a dreadful shame, but all behavioral indications tell me that it’s true.

Let’s face it: New England fans treat Manning with the same disrespect. It’s fun to make sport of his forehead. It’s a joy to dredge up his middling postseason record. It’s a gas to pen mildly-amusing-at-best parody lyrics to fit his commercial jingle. It’s elementary to rely on two minutes from the cheesiest sports documentary of all-time as gospel. Apparently it’s more pleasant to pluck all this low-hanging fruit than to admit that the guy was really great for a really long time.

This attitude trickles down to everything else involved with game day. We are so accustomed to walking around half-cocked, excessively eager to rejoice or retort, that we interpret almost every spoken word about our favorite team as a personal attack. Don’t believe me? OK, go ahead: Name a national broadcaster whom Patriots’ fans don’t hate. Crickets.

We have reached the same point in the political realm, which is why the two-party system stopped working right around the time when most current NFL players were born. We would rather manipulate statistics or sound bites and make light of the opponent’s personal shortcomings than admit that maybe, just maybe, one of his or her ideas might wield some merit.

Again, it comes down to my colors, my logo, being bigger than the truth, or the end result. The world doesn’t move forward that way. Sports doesn’t evolve that way.

You and I are blessed to live in a time when the athletes are bigger, faster, stronger and more explosive than ever. Yet, at every level, the games, the lead-up to them and the fallout from them have never been less fun.

We are to blame. And if we are not enjoying this era of excellence by the Patriots, by Brady, by Manning, either with passionate, unassailable glee or dispassionate, unqualified respect, we are fools.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @oaksie72 and like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.


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