ATLANTA — Seventeen years ago, the Patriots were the plucky upstarts challenging the league’s best team when they played the first Super Bowl of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era against the then-St. Louis Rams.
The Patriots entered that game 14-point underdogs, and not many people gave them a chance against Kurt Warner and Co. They stunned the Rams and America that day and it was a feel-good story.
Imagine that? The Patriots being an underdog, feel-good story.
Since that day, they have become arguably the most hated team in sports. The ultimate overdog. Forget about the Yankees, who have won one World Series during that time. Forget about the Cowboys, who can barely win playoff games. Forget about Notre Dame or the Red Wings.
New England is Public Enemy No. 1 for sports fans everywhere outside of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine.
When they defeated the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, you could feel the collective groan across America: “Not them again!”
And here they are at Super Bowl week, talking about how no one predicted them to be here, everyone doubts them, acting like they are that same out-of-nowhere team they were in 2001.
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“I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Brady said after the Patriots beat the Chargers in the playoffs.
Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts has been in the NFL for three years. This is his third trip to the Super Bowl. He knows you are probably pulling for the Rams.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a Super Bowl and everybody was like, ‘Oh, I want New England to win,’ ” Roberts said. “None of the years.”
So why does everyone hate the Patriots?
“I don’t know,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “I think maybe because Tom Brady is Tom Brady.”
Oh, he’s definitely a big part of it. Brady is 41 years old and talking about playing until he’s 45. He always seems to find a way to win. He is married to the world’s richest supermodel. Someone so seemingly perfect is tough to like. Even his avocado ice cream diet is annoying.
But it is not just Brady. It is all the winning the Patriots do. It is the cheating they have been found to have done. It is the arrogance. It is Scott Zolak. It is your favorite team’s worst player going there and becoming a star. It is the “Patriot Way.”
No one can deny the greatness of Brady and Belichick. But you don’t have to like it. They spy on opponents. They deflate the footballs. The whole thing started with some rule about tucking the football none of us ever heard of previously.
Opponents talk about Gillette Stadium like the place is filled with booby traps. Teams make sure to take their garbage with them. They never leave any play sheets laying around because they know they could end up in Belichick’s office. The headsets seem to conveniently go out at the worst time for opponents.
“It is what it is,” Roberts said of the haters. “We’ve got the region of New England behind us.”
The fan base is tough to take, too. There are kids in Massachusetts who think the Patriots automatically make the playoffs every year.
Van Noy said the Patriots relish playing the villains. He said they want to prove their believers right more than their doubters wrong.
“They’re always going to be there,” Van Noy said. “There are people that think you’re going to do your job wrong. You just keep going.”
The Chiefs were America’s Team in the AFC title game. Patrick Mahomes looked like he could be the dragon slayer. But, no. The Patriots found a way in overtime and here they are in the Super Bowl for the third year in a row and fourth time in five years.
After that win in Kansas City, Brady posted a video on Instagram of him and tight end Rob Gronkowski walking to the team buses with smirks on their faces and P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy For Life” playing over it.
“We ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Diddy sang.
Tell us about it.