By Jeffrey Newholm
What video game is a boy’s dream? Fortnight? No! Madden Football, of course! John Madden helps fulfill millions of fake Super Bowl dreams today and won as a coach in reality. So when he advised the Patriots to play for overtime against the favored Rams in 2002, maybe Tom Brady should have listened. The kick return didn’t even reach to 20 and two short passes gained little. But several quick out routes brought the Pats to the Rams’ 30 and Vinatieri for the winning kick. A legend (or maybe menace) was born, leading to a grudge match 17 years in the making.
But the two franchises took very different paths to reach Atlanta. St. Louis quickly tanked after the heartbreak, in a manner perhaps similar to Carolina and Atlanta recently. The team missed the playoffs its last 12 years in Missouri before returning to LA. And as recently as 2009 their current coach led a team called the Florida Tuskers. Now the fiery Sean McVay leads Jared Goff and his fulfilling offense to the Big Game. Sure, the Rams are disliked at the moment due to a controversial (read: really really bad) no-call. But the team is almost abstract and hypothetical, with no brand identity as evidenced by a Coliseum filled with Cowboys fans. There’s not much to hate. Of course, we know the other story.
In the history of the NFL, there may never have been a team as hated as the Patriots. Twitter blows up every time an opponent succeeds, only for trolls to groan in agony when Brady seemingly inevitably rallies. What do 1%er Pats fans say in their defense? “They hate us ’cause they ain’t us!” Or maybe Americans are a bit too enamored of the underdog. Isn’t the whole point of pro sports to celebrate the best of the best? Then the pro’s best should be celebrated even more. True, a team loved for being hated brings laughs after oops (such as Brady’s drop or missing in Miami defense). But for the fifth time in eight years, Foxborough is Super. If only those yells could turn into smiles, February wouldn’t feel so cold.
Despite two great championships, there is unprecedented angst ahead of the NFL title. Not even lamely named “deflate-gate” (come on, let Nixon’s failure rest) stirred up this much unease. But maybe that’s better. Just like certain phone apps, addictions often bring more pain than pleasure. We all know the NFL’s many failures. We all boycott for a game or season. But every time America’s game brings all fans in again, even if not to a fourth-quarter knee.