I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills, first and foremost. I will always root for them; and someday, in the words of the late, great Bills fan Tim Russert, “They will win the damn Super Bowl”.
In the meantime, though, I’ve had to find some other team to pull for in the playoffs, once Buffalo is out. I gravitated, grudgingly at first, towards the New England Patriots. Over time, I’ve come to have a strong affection for them as a result.
Most Bills fans will say this is treason. They have beaten us like a drum ever since Belichick got there. We have suffered humiliating blowouts and agonizing last-second losses at their hands. How can I root for them, even a little?
The fact is, the Patriots are the team we all would want our team to be. They are the premier organization in the sport. Hate them if you want, but if Belichick and Brady came to your favorite team, would you be anything other than thrilled?
I think this tends to happen with dynasties. My Mom’s favorite team is the Steelers, but she still fondly remembers the Green Bay Packer teams that were dominant in her youth. You get used to seeing these dynastic teams so much that they become pleasantly familiar. I associate good football with the Patriot brand.
It started out that I would pull for the Patriots in the playoffs, and over the years it developed that I pretty much root for them all the time except when they play the Bills, or when a Patriots victory would result in the Bills missing the playoffs, since the Bills almost always need help to make the playoffs by early November.
The other reason I like New England is I felt bad for them when they lost to the Giants. I’ve never liked the Giants. (Possibly due to lingering animosity from their narrow Super Bowl win over the Bills that gets replayed every year.) I wanted the Patriots to go 19-0, and it was sad when they were denied on the freakish and bizarre “helmet catch” play.
I hoped they would win the second time around against New York, but wasn’t surprised when they didn’t. That Patriots team had such a bad defense that they had no business being in the Super Bowl. Even the Bills beat them that year. (Trivia: the Bills have beaten the Patriots exactly three times since I started following football: Once in 2003, once in 2011, and once in 2014. In each year, the Patriots have gone on to reach the Super Bowl.)
All this is background to the story of the 2014 season, which was the most memorable football season I have ever had in my years of following the game.
On September 29, 2014, I started a new job. Many of my friends had advised me against taking it, but my gut instinct was that it was the right thing to do. But after my first day on the job, I started wondering if I had made a big mistake. It had not been a good day.
That night, I watched as the Patriots got utterly demolished on “Monday Night Football” by the Kansas City Chiefs. The score was 41-14; a score that is particularly painful for me since it is also the score by which my Ohio State Buckeyes lost to the Florida Gators in the BCS Championship in 2007.
The Patriots looked awful. They didn’t look at all like themselves. In the wake of that game, people started wondering whether it was the end of the Patriots’ dynasty; myself included. What made it even worse was that I had picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl that year in my annual pre-season picks. It looked like I’d gotten it badly wrong.
Between my bad first day and that game, it felt to me like the end of an era, and the dawn of a strange new reality.
The Wednesday following that game, Bill Belichick answered every question about the Patriots’ apparent demise with a simple phrase:
We’re on to Cincinnati
He said it again and again, and made it clear they weren’t distracted, and they weren’t wallowing in self-pity or doubt. They were on to the next challenge: the Cincinnati Bengals.
That, I realized, was the attitude I needed to have. Don’t worry about the past; focus on what you need to do going forward. In that moment, I felt a weird sort of bond with the Patriots. The good times didn’t have to be over, for me or for them.
The Patriots beat the Bengals, 43-17.
They would beat a lot of teams that year. They lost only two more games the rest of the season. And I got better at my job, too. Things started to improve for me and for the Patriots.
Oh, and by the way, I mentioned my Buckeyes? Well, after a disastrous loss to Virginia Tech early in the year, they found themselves in the first ever College Football Playoff. They had a third-string Quarterback, but they also had plenty of resilience.
The Buckeyes would stun Alabama en route to an unlikely Championship that January; and I started to think that this truly was a magical football season. My Bills were out of the playoffs, but my adopted pro team had righted the ship and was now the #1 seed in the AFC. Maybe my Super Bowl prediction would play out after all.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first team they would face in the playoffs? The Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens are my least-favorite team in the entire league. Maybe it’s because my Steelers fan Mom hates them. Maybe it’s because in my home state of Ohio, everyone hates them because they effectively “stole” the beloved Browns. Maybe it’s because I think their uniforms are stupid. Maybe it’s Ray Rice and Ray Lewis. Whatever the reason, I can’t stand them and root against them no matter what.
I had a bad feeling about that game. The Ravens had momentum and matched up well against the Patriots. They had beaten them in the AFC Championship two years earlier. In my playoff predictions, I toyed with picking the Ravens. But no, I thought: I picked New England before the season started–I couldn’t abandon them now. I swallowed hard, and picked the Patriots.
The Ravens went up 14-0 early. I started mentally wondering who I would back if the Patriots were eliminated.
But New England battled back, as they so often do, and tied the game at 14. My prediction might hold up after all. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then Brady threw an interception; Flacco threw a touchdown, and the Ravens were ahead 21-14 at halftime.
Things got worse from there. The Ravens marched down the field and scored again, making it 28-14. The Patriots looked spent. Surely they could not mount another 14 point comeback? My hopes for the season lay in shambles.
But they made it 28-21 with a Brady-to-Gronkowski TD, and then they kept the Ravens from scoring and got the ball back. I still didn’t feel optimistic, but at least they were giving them a fight.
You have to understand that ever since I read they drafted the former college quarterback Julian Edelman in 2009, I wanted them to run a trick play where he threw a pass. I actually said they should in this post prior to the 2012 Super Bowl. They didn’t. I had pretty much given up hope of them ever doing it.
I had read an article in SI that week about how the Patriots often run a wide-receiver screen play to Edelman. As Brady zipped a pass backwards to him, I consciously thought: Well, here’s that screen play SI predicted–looks like the Ravens read it, though…
And then Edelman pulled back his arm, and I pumped my fist in the air and did my best Lane Kiffin impression. I didn’t even need to see the rest; I knew that play would be a touchdown before he let the ball go.
After that play, I realized these Patriots were different. These Patriots had that magic, intangible quality that makes a champion.
The Patriots won the game, 35-31. My prediction was alive.
There isn’t much need to recount the 45-7 drubbing they gave the Colts in the AFC Championship for the right to face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. All I remember about that game was the ceremony afterward, when Belichick stepped up to accept the trophy, and I thought: Wouldn’t it be perfect if he said–
We’re on to Seattle
And then he did.
Now, in addition to predicting New England would win the Super Bowl, I also predicted that to do so, they would beat Seattle. And now, here it was: New England vs. Seattle. Just as I had predicted back in August.
And on paper, I felt like Seattle was the more complete team. They had a stronger defense. They had a running quarterback. They had demolished Denver in the Super Bowl the year before.
If I hadn’t watched the Patriots so closely that season, I probably would have picked the Seahawks. But after all we’d been through, after they had done everything I’d expected, I wasn’t going to give up on the Pats now. I picked them to win it.
The Patriots outplayed the Seahawks in the first half, and yet at halftime they were tied, thanks to some bold play-calling and good luck on Seattle’s part. I felt like the Patriots had given them a brilliant shot, but the Seahawks and taken it, and I feared they would start to put it together in the second half.
My fears seemed well-founded. The Seahawks dominated the 3rd quarter. They were ahead 24-14 at the end of it. No team had ever rallied from a 10-point deficit that late in the Super Bowl. The Patriots faced third and long, and I decided that if they didn’t convert there, I was giving up and going to bed.
Brady threw a long pass to Edelman. First down. The Patriots were still alive.
They ended that drive with a touchdown. 24-21.
They forced a Seattle punt on the next series.
This is all I wanted, I told myself as the New England offense took the field. When I made that prediction back in August, I just wanted to see the best quarterback in the league face the best defense in the league with the Lombardi trophy on the line. Whatever happens, I’m happy.
Of course, that wasn’t really true, but you sometimes have to tell yourself these things as an emotional defense mechanism. But with each play, I began to hope more and more that I was getting what I really wanted: another clutch Brady drive like I remembered from seasons past.
And I got it, on a Brady-to-Edelman touchdown with 2:02 to go.
My mind flashed back to another Brady touchdown pass–to Randy Moss, with 2:42 to go in Super Bowl XLII, in the same stadium. I had thought that would be the pass that sealed that game for New England. I hadn’t counted on the bizarre David Tyree catch that was to follow.
Well, I thought, this is why they signed defensive backs like Darrelle Revis this year. To prevent another defensive meltdown like the last two trips they made to this game. That’s why I picked them to win this year. This is where we will find out if it was enough.
The Seahawks ran a very clever pass to Marshawn Lynch, but then they stalled. Things looked promising for the new, improved New England defense.
Then this happened:
This was far, far worse than the Manningham or Tyree catches. This team had to be cursed. As a Bills fan, I knew this feeling well. I stared in a kind of despairing awe of the sheer unlikely cruelty I was witnessing. Cris Collinsworth spoke for every football fan in the world when he said “how many different plays are the Patriots going to have like this?”
It was all over. Nobody could recover from a devastating play like that. I figured that New England’s only chance was to let Seattle score. But they didn’t. On the next play, Lynch ran it to the 1-yard line. The Patriots didn’t call timeout. The clock was running.
My God, I thought. Belichick has given up. He has decided they are cursed and can never win. He doesn’t have any fight left in him.
Dreams never come true, it seemed. No matter how hard you try, Fate will crush you in the cruelest way possible. The Patriots’ chances–and my prediction, that I had stuck by all those months–were one yard away from annihilation.
I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills, first and foremost. I will always root for them. But I’ll always have a soft spot for the 2014 New England Patriots, and their remarkable resilience that rewarded my pre-season prediction.