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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Compelling to the Bitter End, Only the '04 Red Sox Have Anything On These Patriots

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Barry Chin/Globe Staff


Knowing that we tend to react in the heat of moments before fully understanding their context, I ask this with little hyperbole: Was this the most compelling three-week period in Boston sports history?

It was an exhaustive stretch, both frivolous and fascinating, with enough story lines and loopholes to keep even the most casual football fan riveted. Indeed, it’s difficult to fathom that only 19 days ago, the little that most of us knew about PSI and atmospheric pressure involved the tire limit inscribed on our driver’s side doors and whatever the local meteorologist was talking about before getting to the seven-day forecast.

The winning? We’re used to that.

But the fourth Super Bowl title drive for the New England Patriots, the region’s ninth championship in the past 13 years, also had a litany of sideline characteristics, rivaled only by the Boston Red Sox’ magical month of October in 2004. Here’s why this run may top that legendary stretch in terms of pure intrigue: While both teams' narratives were about redemption in much different aspects, these Patriots did in spite of a country, of a league, seemingly rooting against them, while 11 years ago, the Red Sox were the darlings of America, with the majority waiting to witness 86 years of heartache wash away with one, final Keith Foulke windup.

This time, New England truly embraced the feelings of resentment and anger that have been percolating around the country since this glorious run began. This time, it felt pretty damned good to be the bad guy.

At least in the sense that the Patriots were the subject of a silly witch hunt, perpetrated by John Harbaugh, the Indianapolis Colts and their embedded media suckups, and, ultimately, the NFL, New England’s 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX brought with it a climax that laughed in the faces of their detractors.

That parade on Wednesday wasn't just a Rolling Rally, it was a Comeuppance Caravan, fueled by the broken accusations that plagued the Patriots since Indianapolis’ Bob Kravitz broke the story that the Colts questioned whether the Patriots were playing on an even playing field in the AFC Championship game. The ensuing days brought reports that as many as 12 footballs were deflated, then maybe one. Wilson Sporting Goods defended its product. Bill Nye chimed in. And let’s not forget the stupid reaching its apex when truth-seekers tried to argue the contingency of deflating a dozen footballs during a 90-second bathroom break caught on tape.

But the most captivating moment of it all came when Belichick surprisingly announced a Saturday afternoon press conference to take the situation head-on, arguing his team’s innocence in terms of science and weather. It was only topped two days later when team owner Bob Kraft arrived in Arizona and demanded an apology from the NFL, should head investigator Ted Wells and his Bloodhound Gang find no evidence of wrongdoing.

They were fiery speeches by coach and owner, each laced with a tinge of simmering fury. The Patriots, normally benign in their response to swirling controversy, were taking on the role of defiance, and it suited them well.

In embracing the part of the villain, so do did their fan base, some of whom actually had to come around from the possibility that their team “cheated” in the wake of the overinflated Deflategate. “They Hate Us Can’t They Ain't Us,” read one popular T-shirt. “Deflate This” read another.

Together, New England, the bastion of Puritan culture, collectively stopped caring what anyone else thought of them, and metaphorically raised the arm of Cape Cod as the proud region’s middle finger to anyone who had something to say.

There were plenty.

Of course, then there was the game, a taut 60 minutes that cemented both Tom Brady as the best quarterback to ever play the game, and Belichick as the greatest coach the NFL has ever seen. Malcolm Butler will go down in history as the pigskin version of Dave Roberts and David Ortiz rolled into one, switching the inevitable in New England’s favor, just when it seemed the tables couldn't possibly be turned. The aftermath scenarios of the Patriots losing yet another heartbreaker don’t have to be imagined, even if the bitter tastes of them were in everybody’s mouths for a few, short moments last Sunday night.

Think about it in that realm for a moment. If the Red Sox lost Game 4 of the ALCS to the New York Yankees, it’s what the world expected. Another fall, another choke for Boston.

If the Patriots hadn't beaten the Seahawks, Jermaine Kearse is in their nightmares along with David Tyree and Mario Manningham. But New England, the most polarizing team in the NFL, would also be the continued subject of doubt. The Patriots would indeed take on the fictive of being cursed, like the Red Sox before them.

In essence, Butler put an end to the agendas.

It feels better telling breathing humans where to stick it than it does some portly ghost, doesn't it?

Oh, sure, each of these nine championship lives carry with them their own traits of enchantment, but the nature of this Super Bowl pursuit was so bitter, so contextually wrapped up in drama, that everything leading up to it played a bit role in the final exultation, and the atonement is delicious.

If you want to argue that the ’04 Sox were more important in the grand scheme of things, nobody’s going to debate that point. But this Patriots soap opera belongs in the discussion with that team’s chase because of the improbable absurdity that surrounded the cementing of legacies.

Phew. Now, what’s going on with those Bruins?

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