End of an empire: Why NFL fans will miss the New England Patriots

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If history teaches us one thing, it is that people inevitably create heroes and villains. A classic storytelling staple, the division between these two sides gives us a reason to keep watching and following along, as we align ourselves with the side we choose. Being able to root for those we see as heroes is almost as important as being able to root against those perceived as villains.

This story’s beginning was perfect — a doe-eyed, sixth-round backup quarterback quickly rose to become the hero that an overlooked coach and franchise struggling to get over the hump needed. For a time, it was the quintessential underdog story, but people grew tired of watching the same team win. Although the New England Patriots started as David, three Super Bowl victories within four years quickly transformed them into Goliath.

For the past two decades, the Patriots have been the perfect villain for many NFL fans outside of the northeast U.S. As they dominated the early 2000s, fans of the other 31 NFL teams began to enjoy seeing New England lose rather than enjoy continued success.

Viewers cheered as Eli Manning and the New York Giants ended the Patriots’ bid at a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII. They continued to cheer when the Patriots were upset again by the Giants and later by the Nick Foles-led Philadelphia Eagles. Nevertheless, these were all minor victories and there was always the feeling that the Patriots would be back next season.

On Jan. 4, however, it seemed the final word was written in the Patriots’ story. The sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans had just entered Foxborough and stomped New England in its own house. Derrick “King” Henry gashed the Patriots for 204 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. Tom Brady’s last pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by former teammate Logan Ryan. Bill Belichick was seemingly outcoached by his former player, Mike Vrabel. Just like that, New England faced its earliest playoff exit in 10 years.

When the final seconds ticked off the clock, fans outside of New England celebrated like the rebels after the second Death Star blew up at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” And perhaps that is because, for many of those fans, the Empire had finally fallen. For the first time in 20 years, it felt like the Patriots were vulnerable.

Tom Brady is set to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his 20-year NFL career. Although it has since become clear that Josh McDaniels will return to New England next season, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator seemed to be looking for a head coaching gig elsewhere. Rob Gronkowski never made his anticipated return to football, as many expected and feared he would. New England fielded one of the oldest rosters in football with many key players such as Devin McCourty and Kyle Van Noy also set to hit the market this spring.

If there is one thing sports fans like to do more than love their team, it is to hate the perceived enemy of that team — rivalries are a fundamental part of competition. For basically all fans outside of the New England area, the Patriots represented public enemy No. 1.

Whether it be the alleged scandals from Spygate to Deflategate to Spygate 2.0, the opinion that controversial calls tended to go the Patriots’ way more often than not, or the weakness of the AFC East, NFL fans always had something to point to when discussing the Patriots’ success. There was almost always an invisible asterisk.

If this is truly the end, however, NFL fans are going to miss the Patriots. Just as it was unnatural to see Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs jersey or Jerry Rice in an Oakland Raiders uniform, it would be weird to see Tom Brady don anything but the navy and red.

It was unusual enough to see the Patriots playing during wild-card weekend. Now imagine the AFC playoffs bracket without the Patriots’ logo at all, and it just doesn’t feel right. We, as fans, have simply become accustomed to seeing the Patriots playing in late January year in and year out.

In sports, there have always been heroes and villains. Who those heroes and villains are depends on whose jersey you choose to don, but there is always a team to root against. Whether it be the almost any iteration of the New York Yankees, the Miami Heat’s Big Three or the Patriots of the past two decades, sports fans need a common foe. It is important for fans to see the pinnacle of success and a king sitting upon the throne because it leaves a hunger to challenge and dethrone the king in the hope that, one day, our team might even surpass those heights.

The NFL needs the Patriots because they represent the perfect adversary. Just as the Lakers would not be the Lakers without the Celtics, the modern NFL would not be what it is without New England.

As a sports fan, it is easy to see the six Super Bowl victories the Patriots have had and feel jealous when one’s own team fails to replicate that success, let alone consistently make the playoffs. But it is important to remember that New England is the anomaly, the outlier. Its run of sustained dominance may never again be seen in the NFL and, for that, we should pay our respects.

Change is always hard to deal with, even in sports. NFL playoffs without the Patriots are hard to envision, but it is a reality that, oddly enough, may not be so far away. As NFL fans, we should celebrate the idea that fresh faces and teams will finally get their time in the sun, but we should also mourn for what is arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history.

To the Patriots: I tip my cap to you and everything you have accomplished so far, but it is a time for change, so don’t let the door hit you on the way out. While part of me was ecstatic to see you guys get a taste of your own medicine, a smaller part of me is going to miss rooting against you in the Super Bowls to come.

Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]