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It will be fascinating to observe how the Patriots handle the humiliation of their meltdown in Indianapolis. Because this was no ordinary defeat nor is the vanquished any ordinary team. Plus, what they have lost -- squandered, really -- was monumental. And the way they lost it was downright ugly.
After all, it was much more than just another championship that they had squarely in their sites when they got bushwhacked by an inspired Colts team that they'd long disdained as lacking in what we shall politely call “fortitude.”
It was History itself -- and a quite glorious place in it --that the upstarts from Foxborough had in their tenacious grip and all they had to do was make a 21-3 lead hold up because the Bears two weeks hence would have been a relative lay-down. For a few rarefied moments in the second period, as Asante Samuel and his chums were celebrating Peyton Manning’s latest folly, Bill Belichick might have at last allowed himself to believe that all the wonderful things everyone has been saying about him were actually true.
And then it all turned to dust. If the calm before the storm can be deceiving, the rapture that leads to the fall is even more so.
Sure, they could come back. They could win it all next year. There could be a couple of more championships left in the Brady-Belichick epoch. It’s possible. But I wouldn’t bet on it. This is the way would-be dynasties end; not with a whimper but with a resounding thud marking the total collapse of egos and reputations and false images of invincibility and all of the petty pretenses that go with it. The horror show at the Hoosier Dome will haunt this team and its thoroughly haunted coach.
There will be no more comparisons of Belichick’s Patriots to Lombardi’s Packers or Noll’s Steelers or Walsh’s 49ers or the ancient Monsters of the Midway that the Patriarch George Halas made the yardstick of football greatness. The turn-of-the-millennium Patriots were terrific. They were gifted, spunky, smart, and very, very lucky. They need apologize to no one. But there will be no more talk of ‘‘dynasty.’’ The party’s over. I can’t prove it this week. But I would not hesitate to bet on it.
Few who reside west of the Connecticut River will mourn. At the end of their run, that fresh touch of pizzazz that had made them charming at the beginning was oddly lacking. It was not something you could easily finger. But there was a certain edge that had developed that made them less attractive. In fairness, it’s difficult if not impossible to sustain the fetching spirit this team had when it rose from the ashes. It is unfair to expect it and unreasonable to hammer them when suddenly you realize it’s gone. Nor can just when and how and why it happened be easily explained.
It is only clear that the 2007 Patriots are decidedly different from the 2001 Patriots. They are not the band of brothers they once were. It may have a lot to do with the coach. Like all the great field marshals of NFL history he is a bit of a twisted character. Or it may just be that resentments build when teams win and win and win, especially nowadays when we take it all much too seriously. Maybe the most important changes are in the eyes of beholders. Maybe! But is this the time to pursue the point? Maybe not. Picking them apart this week may not be the nicest option. There will be plenty of time for all that.
In the meantime, you should give the Colts their due. New England sports fans, who have become brutally chauvinistic in their militant devotions to the home teams, will not manage this task easily but it is only fair. Where does the disdain for Manning come from and how can it be justified? Much as was the case with John Elway, Peyton had to struggle to fulfill his promise but he did so with dignity. Where is the shame in that? His hour of deliverance came with the running up of those 32 second-half points against a defense which no matter how tired and flu-ridden it might have been was still designed and orchestrated by Bill Belichick. That epic performance will be remembered as long as they play this crazy game and if Peyton racks up a dozen titles before he’s done men will still say, “this was his finest hour.” Does that rankle the Patriots all the more? Is the pope Catholic?
Which leads us to Soupey XLI. In the wake of the titanic struggle in the AFC, the NFC champ -- those Bears of royal lineage descended from Papa George -- deservedly get short shrift. Expect much of the ragtime over the fortnight leading up to Soupey to focus on the shabbiness of the Bears’ pretensions and how much the Colts should win by. Within minutes of their triumph over the Pats, the Colts were posted a seven point favorite and by kickoff it may be up to 17. There’s no reason to quibble. After bringing down the Foxboroughs it would seem inconceivable that Peyton and his pals would have a problem with any of the pretenders from the relatively limp NFC.
Still, there’s much that’s likeable about Lovie Smith’s Bears. Their QB -- Rex Grossman -- is lightly regarded and yet he seems to have a knack for doing just enough to win without regard for how swell he may or may not look in the process. Such chaps are dangerous. Might he be a football version of Eddie Stanky; a chap who can’t run, can’t throw, can’t outwit opponents or out-hit ’em either and yet, somehow, ends up on top when they add up the score? Which is all that counts. Right?
Grossman is better than the sum of his stats. When the conference final was being furiously contested on the frozen tundra along Lake Michigan he marched his team down field picking apart the over-zealous Saints as snow cascaded across Soldiers Field. It was a slice of the old-time football that Patriarch Halas perfected back when his Bears featured Nagurski, McAfee, Luckman, and the immortal Clyde ‘‘Bulldog’’ Turner.
As that redoubtable football fan Gertrude Stein might have said, “the Bears are the Bears are the Bears.” They bring a certain aura to the subject just by showing up. Moreover, this particular edition has a fine defense anchored by the superb Brian Urlacher and the even scarier Tank Johnson, famed for having an arsenal of assault weapons stashed in his cellar. The Bears’ mystique counts for something. Such characters are not to be trifled with. It will be a game worth seeing.
And already a game noteworthy in NFL history for matching up black head coaches -- Tony Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears -- for the first time in the history of American professional football. Is this a fabulous moment of which we should all be proud? Or ought we be profoundly embarrassed that we allowed it to take so long? Both sentiments are in order, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, the Patriots scatter to the winds. One suspects there will be a lot of changes when they re-gather. They have two number one draft picks, neither of them high. They have lots of cap space, but not a lot of enthusiasm for using it. They have at least three potential free-agent defections plus a couple of high character vets edging toward retirement. But they also have a crack staff of proven talent scouts. They have Tom Brady theoretically at his prime. They have Bill Belichick. Could he be past his prime? They have pleased a lot of people in this game for at last experiencing a major comeuppance. Few weep. It will be a long, long off-season.