2018-01-22 08:55:03
On Pro Football: It’s the Patriots’ Stage; All the Rest Are Merely Players

08:55, January 22 159 0

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Moments after the New England Patriots grabbed the late fourth quarter lead in the A.F.C. Championship game on Sunday, a portable podium, like an apparition, suddenly emerged from the shadows of a tunnel beyond one of the end zones.

Five minutes earlier, when the Patriots were still behind and it felt like their dynasty was collapsing on itself, the podium was not visible. But then, Tom Brady’s poised passing led to yet another playoff comeback as the Patriots methodically squashed the Jacksonville Jaguars’ dreams of an upset.

And like magic, the podium, resembling a parade float, was wheeled into position on the field at Gillette Stadium for the Patriots to celebrate their eighth conference championship since 2001, the third in the last four years.

As the confetti fell here Sunday evening, the stage seemed like a metaphor for the coming Super Bowl.

Two teams will play in it on Feb. 4, but why does it feel like the Patriots own the stage and they are bringing it with them?

The Philadelphia Eagles, who routed the Minnesota Vikings by 38-7 to win the N.F.C. championship, certainly are a worthy, powerful opponent. Until their stellar quarterback Carson Wentz was injured late in the season, they would have probably been predicted to win the Super Bowl no matter whom they were playing.

It helps give the Eagles an irresistible story line. They are, for example, the anti-Patriots in so many ways. Their back-up quarterback, Nick Foles, is not a nationally known figure, a castoff who began the year firmly planted on the bench.

While Patriots fans are haughtily delirious with success, Philadelphia fans are shamed by decades of harrowing letdowns.

The Brady-led Patriots often have benefited from quirks of good fortune in the postseason. The Eagles, who have been to two Super Bowls but never won, are usually doomed by ill-timed bounces, unlucky injuries and other bad breaks — not only in the playoffs but whenever they get near the playoffs.

They lost their last Super Bowl appearance to the Patriots, 24-21, in 2005.

So in that context, the browbeaten Eagles may be a fan favorite, and not just because of the virulent backlash against the Patriots outside of New England (see Deflategate).

But can they win?

The Eagles pass rush, so evident Sunday, is the perfect nuisance to get under Brady’s skin. Philadelphia’s defense forces turnovers, which is another key to defeating New England. The Eagles also have plenty of moxie, which they displayed with their goal line stand Sunday when the Vikings were trying to claw back into the game in the third quarter.

On offense, Foles looked newly confident and self-reliant, never more so than during the Eagles’ opening drive of the second half when he tossed an extraordinary touchdown pass on a flea-flicker.

First, Foles caught a wayward, slow lateral on the play, then he avoided the pressure in a disintegrating pocket and finally stepped up and emphatically threw the football through a narrow window in the Vikings defense to wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 41-yard touchdown. It was the dagger that all but finished off Minnesota (the defensive goal line stand was truly the final blow).

Afterward, Foles exulted in a way that spoke for the essence of Eagles fandom.

“Everyone was against us,” he said. “We weren’t anyone’s pick in this game. But you know what, we stuck together and just jumped on them.”

So watching these Eagles negotiate the Super Bowl landscape in the next two weeks is going to be entertaining. Cue the “Rocky” theme.

But at the same time, there will be an overriding narrative in the run-up to the game and it will be the Patriots’ ongoing campaign to rewrite the history of pro football.

This would be their sixth Super Bowl victory, which would not only tie the Patriots with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most ever, it might cement the team as the best, or at least one of the best, of any N.F.L. era.

Since the Patriots championships are occurring in an age of free agency and the N.F.L. salary cap, which are two factors that would likely have broken up dynastic teams like Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, the 1950s Yankees and the 1960s Boston Celtics, another Patriots Super Bowl victory raises the question: Where does their current run rank among the great championship streaks of any team in any sport?

All their wins have come since 2001, and so another victory would give them

more championships than any franchise in any major American sport in the same period.

The most titles by any N.B.A. team since 2001 is four, by the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. In Major League Baseball, the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have won three World Series each.

On Sunday, the Patriots came back to win despite having lost one of their best players, the tight end Rob Gronkowski, to a head injury. Their defensive unit’s lack of speed on the corners of the field was being exploited by the Jaguars fleet-footed running backs. Brady had an injured hand. For a long time Sunday, things did not look good for the home team.

And still they won. It’s what they do.

“It’s just been an unbelievable run,” Brady said Sunday evening. “It’s a different team every year and the results have been pretty consistent. It’s pretty amazing. It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks.”

And so another Super Bowl, another Patriots appearance.

They are a team not only made for the big stage, they always seem to know where to find it.