The New England Patriots enter Sunday’s Super Bowl game against the Atlanta Falcons with two seemingly contradictory distinctions–they’re favored to win the game, and they may be America’s most hated team (football division).
The Patriots are favored primarily because of their sustained excellence since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2001: They’ve won the AFC East title 13 times since then and are appearing in their record ninth Super Bowl (the seventh in the Belichick/Tom Brady era). Teams that are consistently that good deserve respect.
How New England was able to take the title of most hated team in America from Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys is a complex mix of how fans react to success, the personas of the team’s most prominent personalities, and the general conduct of the team and its management.
For some reason, sports fans don’t like teams that are consistent winners (see: New York Yankees), particularly if their team is a consistent loser; ask a Cleveland Browns fan what he thinks of the Patriots. A football team that has won 73 per cent of its games since 2001 is going to generate resentment.
Then there’s the team’s two most prominent employees: Belichick and Brady. By general consensus, Belichick is the best coach in football today, a master at getting the most from the talent available to him. Former coach Bum Phillips could have been talking about Belichick when he said the following about another coach many years ago: “He can take his and beat yours, and then take yours and beat his.”
But Belichick also has the worst personality of any coach in the game. His dour expression at press conferences tell you he’d rather be somewhere else, and his one or two-word answers when he doesn’t mumble reinforce that impression. The only reason he shows up at press conferences is because the NFL mandates it–he’d face huge fines if he didn’t appear.
Brady is a more engaging personality, even if he seems cold and distant. You always get the impression he’s operating from talking points, careful to never say anything revealing or controversial.
He has a reputation for being a whiner–he constantly complains about late hits–and comes across as arrogant, but you probably would too if you were handsome, made $20 million a year playing football, was married to a super model, and had a jet-set lifestyle in the off-season. How many people do you know who attended the Kentucky Derby then jumped on a private jet to make it to Las Vegas in time for the Mayweather-Pacquaio fight?
Brady’s reputation took at hit last season when he was accused of using under inflated balls in cold playoff games, making it easier to grip and throw the ball. He was suspended for the first four games of this season, and Deflategate just added to the team’s reputation for testing the boundaries of the rules if not cheating. (For more on the subject, read http://www.si.com/nfl/2015/09/08/patriots-cheating-suspicions-bill-belichick-tom-brady.)
But the odds makers in Las Vegas aren’t interested in choir boys or saints (unless they’re from New Orleans); they’re trying to figure out who the winners and losers will be. As I write this Saturday, the Patriots are favored by three points (the over/under is a Super Bowl record high 59) because of coaching, experience, and the top-rated defense in the NFL.
The Patriots will face the top-rated offense in the league, the seventh time this match-up has occurred in Super Bowls. The best defensive team has a 5-1 record in the previous games. But New England’s defense isn’t everything it appears to be.
New England faced a who’s who of quarterback mediocrity this season, with an average rating of an NFL-low 83.1. Against the Patriots, the group actually did better, 84.4. The team didn’t face a top-10 quarterback all season, and the three highest-rated it faced during the regular season–Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton–combined for an impressive 106.4 rating in three games.
If the Falcons’ QB, top-rated Matt Ryan, performs at that level in the Super Bowl, he’ll finish the game with a rating of 118.9. The 11 Super Bowl quarterbacks who exceeded that mark are 11-0.
The Patriots clearly have the experience edge–21 players who have appeared in Super Bowls vs. four for Atlanta–and this is generally thought to offer a significant advantage in a game that defines high pressure. As it turns out, experience is meaningless. In the last 40 Super Bowls, 38 teams have held an experience advantage over its opponents. Those teams are 16-22.
The other New England advantage is Belichick, who has been a master at nullifying what the other team does well. The problem here is that Atlanta does a lot of things well. If you stop their ace receiver Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu is equally capable of ruining your day. If you can get to Ryan and shut-down the passing games, the Falcons can give the ball the two excellent runners, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
In short, I think Atlanta has more fire-power than New England can contain. I like the Falcons to win the game.