THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

At top of their game - like it or not

A perfect regular season has made the Patriots the most admired - and hated - team in America

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 11, 2008

The NFL's official cinematographers already have shot well over a half-million feet of 16-millimeter film on this football team this season. "More than any team ever," reckons NFL Films president Steve Sabol. "And you thought 'Lord of the Rings' was expensive?"

Every play of all 16 games has been captured from four or five angles, and coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have been miked for sound - and posterity. As the P-as-in-perfect Patriots continue their historic march with tomorrow night's playoff opener in Foxborough against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they've become America's Team, both for better and worse.

"I call them America's Fascination," says Sabol, whose company bestowed the original America's Team label upon the Dallas Cowboys in 1979. "The Patriots are too good to have to use somebody else's nickname. They deserve their own."

The Brady Bunch, lopsided favorites to win their fourth Super Bowl in seven years next month, have become even more popular and more controversial than the Cowboys were in their heyday. Patriots games were the most-watched programs on TV this season. Sales of their merchandise are up sharply and Brady's Q rating, measuring likability for marketing purposes, is on the rise.

"The Pats at last are getting a grip on America's collective soul," Sports Illustrated concluded in its year-end issue, whose cover ("Perfect Season's Greetings") featured Belichick as a game-faced Santa Claus.

Part of the national fascination clearly stems from the team's ongoing pursuit of an unblemished 19-0 record, with its whopping victory margins and great escapes along the way. Yet the Patriots' historic run also has created a coast-to-coast legion of detractors who call them the "Hate-riots" and root fervently against them, as they once did Dallas.

"With the Cowboys, you either loved them or you hated them," says Fox football analyst Troy Aikman, who quarterbacked Dallas to three Super Bowl victories in 12 years. "It's probably along those lines with the Patriots now."

The team's steady success, while admirable, has become annoying to most fans outside New England. The I-Hate-The-New-England-Patriots blog offers a "Basic Hater Tee" for $15.95.

"America is always pulling for David to beat Goliath," says former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now a CBS analyst. "That's what makes this such a great country. Everyone loves to be able to beat the odds."

When Goliath breaks the rules, as the Patriots did by filming the Jets' signals during their season opener in New Jersey, the giant becomes particularly unpopular.

Belichick, fined $500,000 in the wake of Spygate, was dubbed "Belicheat." Rival fans sported Styrofoam "Cheater-cams" on their heads and the New York Post affixed a "caught cheating" asterisk to New England in the standings. An ESPN poll found that the Patriots were one of the most despised teams in sports.

Their players, though, have taken their newfound villainy in stride. "We love being the gladiators," cornerback Ellis Hobbs declared after he and his teammates subdued the Giants to cap the NFL's first perfect regular season since 1972. "Because when it's over and we've won everything, then they've got to throw roses at us."

At the Meadowlands, the Patriots had coffee and hot dogs thrown at them. "When you're America's Team, what that means is that there's a large part of the people that are rooting for you, but there's also going to be a large part of the people that are rooting against you," says NBC analyst John Madden, who coached the Oakland Raiders when much of the country considered them eye-patched bandits. "I think what makes for America's Team is not everyone loves them."

Everyone loved the Patriots six years ago when they shocked the country by beating the favored Rams on the final play to win their first Super Bowl behind Brady, the unheralded kid-next-door understudy who'd nearly gone undrafted out of college.

"That first year, when they beat us in Pittsburgh, I remember thinking, 'This is not a good sign that we're playing the Patriots in the year of 9/11,' " says Cowher. "They became a team of destiny."

Now, with rings on three fingers, the Patriots have become a team of dynasty, joining the Yankees, the Auerbach-era Celtics, the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers, and Notre Dame football as teams fans love to hate. The animosity, though, is also a backhanded compliment. Nobody hates losers. "In 1989 when we were 1-15, nobody was calling us America's Team," Aikman recalls.

Spygate aside, nobody denies New England has set a rare standard for consistency, discipline, poise, and resilience. "I don't think that everybody loves the Patriots," says Madden, "but what they've done and what they're doing you sure as hell have to respect."

As they've stacked one victory atop another, weekend after weekend, the Patriots have become must-watch TV. The four highest-rated programs on any network during the fall viewing season, ahead of "Dancing With the Stars" and "CSI," were the Patriots' games against the Giants, Colts, Steelers, and Cowboys.

"The NFL usually is one of our highest-rated programs," says Scott Fisher, vice president of sports and affiliate research for CBS. "But for the ratings to be this high is unusual."

Patriots merchandise sales, which ranked eighth among NFL teams in October, leaped to fourth last month behind the Cowboys, Steelers, and Colts, according to SportsOneSource Group, a Charlotte-based marketing research firm that tracks major sporting goods retailers.

If New England hadn't been winning so steadily, its numbers likely would be even higher. "If I bought a Brady jersey three years ago, do I need a new one this year?" says Matt Powell, a SportsOneSource senior retail analyst.

Brady, the cover-boy face of the franchise, now ranks fourth among sports fans in likability behind Tiger Woods, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, and Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

"It's been a steady growth for him," says Henry Schafer, executive vice president for Marketing Evaluations Inc., which invented the Q score. "If Tom was more active in the advertising world, I think those gains would be even greater."

If the Patriots finish flawlessly, Brady likely will get all the endorsements he can handle. And as long as his teammates keep winning, NFL Films will keep the cameras whirring.

"The film is going to run like water," says Sabol. "If they win the Super Bowl, this team will be remembered and celebrated as long as the game of football is played."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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