Obviously, hating the New England Patriots is even more futile today than it was before. The Patriots are the best team ever at what they do, and what they do is win games and championships in the NFL. It cannot be correct or fair to deny this. And still—their sixth Super Bowl victory was, if anything, even more irritating than the five before it. They are inevitable without being inspiring; they are the most successful football team in existence, but successful at what?
Not at scoring points. That was the obvious thing that was missing from last night’s plodding 13-3 win over the confused and feckless Los Angeles Rams. It was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history and also the biggest Super Bowl margin of victory for a Patriots team. Their previous biggest margin was six points against the Atlanta Falcons, which had to be six points because they won with a touchdown in overtime, after hurriedly rallying from down 28-3 to eke out a tie in regulation. Overall, going backwards in time, their Super Bowl victories have been by 10, 6, 4, 3, 3, and 3 points.
By cumulative score, the Patriots franchise is still underwater relative to their 46-10 stomping by the 1985 Bears. The Bears promptly spun to pieces and still haven’t won another title, but they were fun and glorious and immortal, like the old 49ers were polished and glorious and immortal, and like the ’90s Cowboys were rampaging and glorious and immortal, and like the turn-of-the-century St. Louis Rams seemed to be electrifying and glorious and immortal until the Patriots slowed them down and tangled them up and kicked a field goal at the end to squeak by them.
That was the season something fundamental changed in the NFL, though it took years to discover how complete the change was. It changed with a single play: Charles Woodson of the Raiders sacking Tom Brady late in the AFC divisional round, making Brady fumble the ball and the game away in the snow—a classic sack-and-strip, a heroic play by a star defender against an inexperienced quarterback. And then the replay officials took over, and after careful slow-motion analysis of the video, cross-referenced with a highly technical passage of the rulebook, they declared that the obvious sack and fumble everyone had just watched had in fact been an incomplete pass. And after that, Brady kept throwing short-yardage pitch-and-catch plays underneath the defenders, who were hanging back warily on the slippery field, inexorably setting up the tying and winning field goals, while the Raiders waited for the Patriots to try something they could make a play against.
The rest was history, or at least a chronological arrangement of facts. It’s poor form to stay mad about the Tuck Rule Game after all these years, but I wasn’t especially mad about it at the time—dumb call, good luck for the hapless Patriots, congratulations on solving the snow. It took another decade or so of plays hanging in indeterminacy, waiting to be made real by the deliberations of a committee and the details of an ever-more-legalistic and absurd rulebook, before it occurred to me that I didn’t really like watching football anymore.
This is the game the Patriots have mastered. Early in this Super Bowl, when it still seemed possible for interesting things to happen, Brady threw a short pass to Rex Burkhead on second and long, and Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams tackled Burkhead as soon as he caught the ball, blowing up the play behind the line of scrimmage. The referees (misidentifying who made the tackle) flagged the Rams for 15 yards, because by being in the right place at the right time, Robey-Coleman had not given a legally defenseless receiver time to legally transition into being a legal runner before stopping him.
The rule is supposed to protect players from being unfairly clobbered. Gone are the days when Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick could send his players out to hammer the Buffalo Bills receivers until the Bills stopped wanting to catch the ball in their clever, high-speed offense. But there’s a different sort of unfairness, and gladiatorial cruelty, in still having people crash their bodies into each other at high speed, only to micromanage away the meaning and agency of that violence.
The Patriots command 21st century football because they are, themselves, pure management: player management, game management, clock management. They are a creative and singleminded coach, an ascetic and not-even-singleminded quarterback, and a ceaselessly overhauled roster of talented and motivated and disposable meat. There is nothing mythic or transcendent about them; their approach to the big game is to size up the opposition, measure out the game clock, and execute the minimum sequence of events necessary to end up with more points than the other team.
New England is incapable of putting on a Super Bowl performance like the dancing Bears. The time they showed up with an undefeated record, an all-time explosive offense, and Randy Moss, they let Eli Manning stay close enough to gun-sling his way past them. The closest the Patriots have ever come to a memorable Super Bowl rampage was when the math said they needed to score 25 points in 23 minutes and 31 seconds to catch the Falcons. Even then, though, it was like watching an inventory management system speed up to meet a production goal. The Falcons were already dead when the scoreboard said New England still needed two touchdowns and two two-point conversions.
The Rams were dead when they left the locker room. They were dead when they got on the plane to the Super Bowl. They thought they were young and fast and dynamic and clever. They heard people saying they were the joyful, high-scoring future of football, and they believed it. But the future of football arrives in 60 minute increments, and this particular future contained only 16 points, 13 of which belonged to the Patriots.