INDIANAPOLIS -- The thrill has indisputably returned, the Patriots and their loyal followers now turning out for pep rallies again as if this were indeed Hooterville. New England will play in its fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons come Sunday, but even the typically humorless Bill Belichick is poking fun at himself as if shrouded in the euphoria.
And you know what? Belichick should be happy. We all should. Because for all that the Patriots have accomplished this season, their greatest achievement may have come in making this all so much fun again.
"I've never had too much hospitality here until I went for it on fourth-and-2," Belichick said yesterday after the Patriots arrived in town for Super Bowl XLVI. "Since then I've been greeted in a lot more friendly manner than I was in the past."
So it began yesterday in the American Heartland, where the Patriots and New York Giants will clash on Sunday in the center of the football world. Let's be honest here. Putting aside all point spreads and individual biases, the Giants have recently been playing better football than anyone. In their last five games, the Giants have effectively knocked the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers from contention, head coach Tom Coughlin and troops running the gauntlet to earn their way into the most celebrated event in sports.
The Patriots? They tipped over a succession of empty soup cans before defeating the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, and even then it took some extremely good fortune. How the Patriots and Giants got here are two very different stories, though the beauty of the Super Bowl is that none of it really matters.
Once you're here, you're here. And as Patriots history has taught us during the bookend years of 2001 and 2007, the Super Bowl is the most glaring example of any given Sunday, the phrase that has come to define the modern NFL.
Before anyone suggests this is all somehow a way to discredit the Patriots for being here, you are badly missing the point. When it comes to the Super Bowl, everyone is lucky. The one possible exception was the Patriots of 2007, a team so motivated and dripping with talent that we all expected them to be here. New England's utter dominance that season made the entire year one rather long and relatively joyless exercise, particularly following a Week 9 victory here in Indianapolis that made something abundantly clear.
The Patriots weren't playing for a championship that season.
They were playing for the right to be called the greatest team ever, perhaps in any sport.
But this year? This year has been different, the questions hanging over the heads of Belichick and Tom Brady from the very beginning. Had the Patriots defense become too passive? Could they win in the playoffs anymore?
Following a work stoppage resolved at the 11th hour, Belichick brought in a cast of veteran players that included Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Chad Ochocinco. And then, from the moment Chad Henne and the Miami Dolphins passed for 416 yards against the Patriots in the very first game of the season, many of us started to wonder whether these Patriots were really any different at all.
As it turned out, even as the questions about the defense persisted, the Patriots proved to be different in one area more than any other: competitively. They fell behind at Philadelphia and rallied back. They fell behind at Denver and came back. They fell behind against Miami and Buffalo at home, and they continued to push their way back.
When it was all over, the Pats had secured the top seed in the AFC that earned them a bye, the right to play the inferior Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs and the right to host the AFC Championship Game. Had the Patriots slipped even once during the final weeks of the season, there is every reason to believe they would not be here at all. Instead, Lee Evans dropped a touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a chip shot, and the Patriots now find themselves playing in the fifth Super Bowl of the Belichick era, the seventh in team history.
For anyone over the age of 30, that last number, in particular, was once unfathomable. In some ways, it still is. Anyone who grew up in New England during the `60s, `70s or `80s will tell you that the Patriots were not just a bad franchise during those years, but that they were a laughingstock. To see what they have become now is positively mind-numbing.
Nonetheless, for all of us, this week and this season brings with it an undeniable tingle. We know this team is not nearly as good as the last two Patriots clubs to get this far, and we know the Pats caught some breaks. We also know that championships are not entirely about talent. They are about hard work and character, about resiliency and luck, about being in the right place at the right time and about making the most of the opportunity.
These Patriots have done all of those things.
Maybe that is why now, despite a trip to the Super Bowl that could feel like another spin on some run-of-the-mill carnival ride, the Patriots are making this all feel like some type of fantastic, improbable journey.
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