Someone, eventually, will correctly predict the end of this run of the New England Patriots, which has now yielded its sixth Super Bowl title in nine tries in the course of eighteen seasons under the head coach, Bill Belichick, and the starting quarterback, Tom Brady. There has been much sport made in New England of the pundits, both national and local, who have prognosticated the team’s demise, going back several years, only to be left looking foolish. Yet who could blame them? The football actuarial tables have said as much for some time; after Sunday’s 13–3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Belichick and Brady are now the oldest head coach and starting QB to have won an N.F.L. title.
But it wasn’t just the numbers. There have been signs, displayed by the team’s best players, that the Patriots might have been done with the whole Super-Bowl-winning thing. Last year, after the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the lingering image of Brady was of him stumbling like a lamed horse while failing to catch a pass, on a trick play in the first half. Never a graceful runner, even in his youth, Brady, at that moment, looked physically diminished, all of his forty years, as the ball bounced off of his outstretched fingers and out of bounds. It was just one exciting play in a game full of them, but it looked like something of a coda.
This season, in a December game against the Miami Dolphins, there was another stumble by another central player in the Patriots’ story. In the game’s final seconds, trailing 33–28, the Dolphins executed a desperate play that, unaccountably, got the ball past all the Patriots’ defenders but one, the tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was in on defense to stop a Hail Mary pass. As the Dolphins’ runner sprinted for the end zone, Gronkowski lurched and foundered, missing the tackle and allowing a miracle touchdown. It was a sad sight: a future Hall of Famer—twenty-nine years old but battered, often injured, his legs shot and his left arm wrapped in armor-like padding—rendered meek and mortal.
The loss to the Dolphins was the Patriots’ fifth of the season—the team’s most since 2009. Brady’s numbers were down; so were Gronkowski’s. The team more or less lucked into a first-round bye in the playoffs. Yet, despite all this, it was rightly deemed ridiculous when Brady & Company, with straight faces, declared themselves overlooked. “I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Brady said, during the playoffs, after winning a game against the Los Angeles Chargers and before winning a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, to reach the Super Bowl. Across the country, a million pairs of eyes rolled in unison: members of the Patriots, of all people, don’t get to call themselves underdogs.
It turned out, of course, that the Patriots didn’t suck. And it was fitting, too, that Sunday’s lone burst of real excitement on offense came from the two players who have shown signs of being nearest to the end of the line. In the fourth quarter, with the game tied 3–3, it was Brady to Gronkowski, on a brilliant pass to the outside, down to the two-yard line. Gronkowski eluded three defenders to make the diving catch; the ball was right where it needed to be. On the next play, the Patriots scored the game’s only touchdown.
Inside the stadium, in Atlanta, it was clear that there were many people rooting for the Patriots—afterward, Pats players said it sounded like a home game. But for most people, New England’s victory was just more bad news. The sports site Deadspin, speaking for a distraught nation, published its post about the Patriots’ victory with the headline “God Fucking Dammit.” For those rooting against the Patriots, it had been a dismal four quarters—a grinding, tactical, and boring game that not only burnished the legend of Belichick (whose defense held the Rams to just three points) but, thanks to the central role played by punters and special teams, must have delighted him to no end. For viewers who do not thrill to the field-position battle, the game was of a piece with its surroundings. The halftime show was bland. The commercials were mostly about how sad robots are. It was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. And the Patriots won again.
After the game, Belichick, holding his granddaughter in lieu of the championship trophy, reiterated that everyone had counted his team out—never mind that they were betting favorites against the Rams—before adding, “We’re still here.” The safe call is that they will be for a while yet. But, for those looking to get a jump on the contrarian competition, today would be a good one to come out with a bold new prediction. The Patriots—this time, surely—must be finished. Next year could be your year.