This is the team led by Darth Sidious, owned by Hugh Hefner, and quarterbacked by Justin Bieber. They cut players the day before the Super Bowl, they don't negotiate with the franchise's all time leading receiver and quarterback's best friend, and they get rid of defensive leaders right before the season starts. They've used cameras, run up the score, and punted on third down just because they could.
This is your New England Patriots. And they're the league's only hope.
It's not long ago that the Patriots were the most disliked franchise in the NFL, and it's fair to see why. They've had endless success since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady took the helm and they've moved forward in such a cold and calculated way that it just seemed impersonal. The team has been programmed to win and have rattled off thirteen straight winning seasons, unparalleled in the age of salary cap and parity. Everyone hated the Patriots in the same way that they hated the Yankees and the Lakers and the Red Wings- it's because they won and everyone hated how they went about doing it.
Off to the side, the golden child of the NFL had been waiting in the wings. Peyton Manning was the franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and he represented everything that the Patriots did not. Sure, he was the ultimate team player and just as ruthless as Brady when it came to quarterbacking, but his persona emanated something different entirely. He was hilarious on SNL. He made fantastic commercials. He was the first overall pick and he was destined for greatness from the start.
Manning put up historic season after historic season, cementing his place as one of the all time greatest quarterbacks out of sheer volume of production. But when it came time for the playoffs, he was confounded by Belichick and the Patriots defense. Manning was a likable figure so his performance became the struggle of the average fan. The seemingly easy success of the Patriots went from underdog to overlord and they became the league's villain.
Manning was the face that everyone could identify with, while the Patriots under Belichick were the heel. So when the Patriots came back in 2006 for their attempt at a fourth Super Bowl victory, the storybook seemed too perfect. The Patriots roared out to a seemingly insurmountable lead, only to see it fall away to Manning, who finally emerged victorious. He'd slain the beast and his chapter was forever written in football lore.
And there remained Brady, not as statistically significant as Manning, yet always the winner. What was he now, once Manning had staked a claim to the crown? The Patriots retooled and like the cliche villain in any movie, book, or show, they came back bigger and stronger and they came to take away what Manning held dear.
Brady laid an assault on the record books, tearing down Manning's records and leaving his own. Peyton was no longer the lovable face of the NFL, or at least he certainly didn't hold the same shine. He had won, his story was on the backburner. In his place rose his younger brother, to strike down the Leviathan in the Super Bowl itself.
In a cruel twist of fate, Brady was injured in 2008, leaving the league without a villain and with a less interesting Peyton (27 passing touchdowns was all he needed to win MVP, really?). Newer heros, like Drew Brees with his asinine passing yards, rose to the scene and even captured hearts in the wake of tragedy. Plucked from stories, the Saints unified and brought together communities, much like the 2001 Patriots. But these heroes didn't last.
Brady came back to the game in 2009 and a new challengers immediately showed on the scene. Cut from the same cloth, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets challenged the Patriots in the same physical, smash talk way. The Jets pushed the Patriots to the limits in the division, while the Ravens became the new team that haunted the Patriots.
2009, the Patriots were rocked at home by the Ravens in the playoffs. 2010, the Patriots were embarrassed at home by the Jets in the playoffs. 2011, the Patriots barely escaped the Ravens in the AFCCG due to a missed field goal, only to be stopped in the Super Bowl by Eli Manning and the Giants. Again.
The Patriots set the stage for 2012. The Ravens, who had come so close and were a chipped field goal away from forcing overtime and challenging for the Super Bowl the year before, came together for one final ride into the sunset. All timers like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed led an aging defense for one final time, and Joe Flacco put together a perfect post season to send off two of the greatest to ever play the game.
And they did it by going through the Patriots. New England played the villain and the beast one final time, allowed the Ravens to breath a sigh of relief and triumph as they headed into the Super Bowl. Just like there's no Super Bowl without facing Manning, the Ravens wouldn't have been able to reach that same degree of satisfaction if they hadn't beaten Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots on their own field.
But that should be it, right? It should be over? The Patriots are no longer the heel of the NFL. They've paid their dues for Spygate, they've haven't won in such a long span of time that they can't be regarded as the beast, they've been at the top for so long that they deserve one last chance at glory. Right?
This year, though, should be that year and it has to be with the Patriots playing the unlikeable heel.
In the AFC, the Patriots main challengers are Peyton Manning with his superstar laced offense and defense (who have, quite possibly, taken the Patriots spot as the heel in the AFC, even if Manning is still the leader), the Kansas City Chiefs who are rife with "no-one-believes-in-us" syndrome after falling short to the Broncos. Behind those two, the Colts (let by potential face Andrew Luck) and the Bengals are both so injured that any noise they make in the playoffs would be considered a positive.
With the Chiefs the forever underdog and the Broncos somehow straddling the heel/face fence, the Patriots are going to have to find their role in the post-season story. Are they going to be another stepping stone on the Broncos crash course for Peyton's sunset? Or are they going to play spoiler and bring Peyton back for one more season? Will they fall victim to the Chiefs as they play with nothing to lose? Or will the Patriots kick down the door like they did against the Broncos in 2011?
Either way, the Patriots are playing spoiled in the AFC. No one cares to see them win again. The Patriots are a current nonentity, a name with some weight, but not the great hope of the AFC. Buried behind all of the spirit and courage of the duct-taped defense and the young and promising offense lay the specter of Brady and Belichick back on the throne, shrouded by Spygate and Aaron Hernandez. This Patriots team is an eclectic mix of stories that combine to create one giant non-story.
The Patriots are back. Now what.
The most important face of the league, though, is no longer in the AFC. It's in Seattle and he's basking in the afterglow of a complete and total thrashing of fallen hero Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Russell Wilson is the perfect face of the league for the future.
He quarterbacks a team with the best record in the league, with the second best points for and points against.
He's a third round pick in a draft filled with star studded names at quarterback, so he can play with the same chip on his shoulder that's followed Brady his entire career.
He's supposed to be too short, at 5'11, so he can have the same everyman feel and charisma that followed Brees and (hey, why not) Doug Flutie their careers.
He's a multi-sport athlete, drafted in the fourth round of the MLB draft, which led him to transfer schools in college, leading two Division I teams to success, growing his fan base.
He's appeared in commercials and oozes the same moxie that made Peyton successful on the silver screen.
Watch this video. How could you not be a fan of his?
You can't. You just can't. He's everything that's great in the world and that's why he'll be the face of the NFL for the next decade. Not Luck. Not Robert Griffin III. Not Matt Ryan, or Aaron Rodgers, or Joe Flacco. Russell Wilson.
And that's why the Patriots have to destroy him this year and, in doing so, claim the identity of the heel for one last ride into the sunset.
The Patriots will have to embrace the spoiler role in the AFC, making sure that no one believed in the Chiefs for a reason and ruining Manning's storybook. They'll have to play villain and take out the inevitable NFC champion Seahawks and their undeniably lovable quarterback in the Super Bowl.
The story of 2014 will be written out. Russell Wilson takes his team back to the promised land and finishes what they were unable to do the year before and everyone will rightfully be rooting for him
Belichick and Brady were born to play the villain to the face of the NFL, attacking everything that people and the league hold dear.
The Patriots have one more quarter of the season to define themselves. I think it's clear what they have to do.