Super Bowl 51: Confidence, Uncertainty and Anger Fuels Patriots Fans in Boston

"Yeah, it's just football. But it's also not just football"

Patriots fans have mixed emotions going into Super Bowl 51 agains the Atlanta Falcons. Credit: Getty

"You really don't get a sense of how much they hate us unless you leave here and so much as mention the Patriots."

It's early in the third quarter during the AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Steelers at Faneuil Hall, the Boston tourist shopping mecca where there are a few bars for locals to gather, and where past Bostonians still return when they come home. Durgin Park, a bar located in the heart of it, whose little tagline slogan is "Established Before You Were Born," has been around since the time of Paul Revere. The man talking about Pats hate is in his early thirties. He has a suitcase next to his bar stool. He's in town for a wedding. Right after the game he is flying out to Chicago, where he lives. A Pats fan in Bears country. 

"You so much as say Brady or Belichick in Chicago, and you get the cheaters thing. First word from people usually." He concedes, "Everyone is an Atlanta Falcons fan for a couple weeks now."

Even though it's early in the second half, this game is obviously over. The Steelers' coaching plan has done them in, it's like watching a balloon slowly deflate. If you're not from Boston, and you don't engage in Patriots talk, it's easy to think that this is when great gobs of gloating would begin to accrue, with talk of how much the Steelers suck and what little chance those poor pawns the Falcons have as they take up their spot in the Patriots' grand historical narrative.

Two women, one married, the other divorced and back on the dating scene, her misadventures there fueling much of their conversation, break in with opinions on football. People don't say "wicked" in Boston anywhere near as much as television would have you believe, but the nascent dater has a deep Revere accent at her disposal, and says it almost for utmost effect.

"I don't know. People say our defense isn't very good. I remember when Matt Ryan was at BC, which was like the last time they were any good. And their offense [Atlanta] is wicked good."

Her friend is not convinced.

"Who cares. That's what they said about the Rams back when people thought the Pats were cool. All of that stupid the Brady Bunch shit."

The dater is hopeful, but unconvinced.

"Yeah. That's true. That Rams team was wicked good. Matt Ryan was better than Brady this year, though."

Perhaps. Yet what's interesting about Pats fans and the collegiums they hold in bars is that they’re more balanced than their preceding reputations suggests. Granted, this is not a huge sample size, and there are plenty of people in plenty of basements in Patriots onesies worshipping Master Belichick and Jedi Brady, who pepper their conversations with phrases like "In Bill we trust," and will tell you there has never been a better team in American sports. Yet overall, even though this team has been to this point many times before, New England fans are still excited. This year, however, it's a mix of things. As the big Sunday approaches, you detect a respect for the Falcons in Boston, it's in the air. They can beat the Pats. It would not be shocking if they won. But will they?

"They're not going to win, nope. They might scare everyone here shitless and it could be one of those games that puts you in the fetal position with you taking potassium pills for your heart rate, but come on."

This is at the Beacon Hill Pub in the early evening a few days later. The Beacon Hill Pub is, to be charitable, a dive in Boston's fancy neighborhood. One of the men's bathrooms features a urinal and a toilet, separated by a half wall. Among the least pleasant moments of my early life involved pulling up to the urinal as a bro type sat down on the toilet, looked up at me in the eye and said, "Sorry, dude, I have to drop a deuce." They have their afternoon and early evening regulars, who tend to skew older, but you can also find them at night, amidst the college girls, the Financial District yuppies and the wandering forty-somethings.

This latest opiner is big, bear-like, probably around fifty. He will make the occasional John Hannah reference going back to the 1970s Pats teams. But interestingly, his take on what a Patriots victory would mean isn't that far off from the one a BU grad student gave me out on Comm. Ave., at the Dugout Cafe, which is nestled right in Terriers territory.

"Sometimes, when someone fucks you, you know know what I mean" – I nod – "you think about it so much, and so much time goes by, that your anger sort of goes away, maybe, or really becomes something else. You're as mad, but it's different, because your focus becomes holding that other person accountable. Getting something you deserve that is better than anything they'll get."

He's talking about the whole Deflategate thing, of course, and Roger Goodell. There was a lot of anger about that, for an age, and cheapjack T-shirts reading "Free Brady," and then "Free Brady Again," were sold by the bushel at outdoor pushcart stands.

You pick up on a quiet determination to bury the whole thing, to have the satisfaction of both winning and justice, when people talk about Deflategate. It's a bit like Macduff having been pissed for a long time at Macbeth, and now just wanting to run the dude through the gut in a very controlled, almost elegantly effective manner, natural order restored.

The Beacon Hill bruiser echoes the same sentiment.

"I don't know what makes me more tired than Deflategate talk. It's just a mission at this point. Give us the trophy, dick, thanks. Was it worth it? Look, in this life, when you're done being pissed, you just see the right thing through. Yeah, it's just football. But it's also not just football. But that's getting ahead of everything anyways. Matt Ryan looks like he’s finally figured out how to win in the postseason. If the Pats get into a track meet with these guys, they're in trouble."

Ah, but will the Pats get into a track meet? Is trouble primed to be a'brewin'?

"Me, I don't bet anymore. Used to have a bit of a problem there. But if I did bet, you have to figure you have the GOAT, right, in your coach and your quarterback. This is history if they win. Not just the Goodell crap, but bigger stuff: five Super Bowls, maybe best dynasty ever. The Falcons are a nice team, really good offense, playmakers up the ass. But they're like a pony show. It's like the Red Sox in 2004 after they beat the Yankees. They weren't going to lose to the freakin' Cardinals with all of that history right in their face being like, 'eat me, eat me, I'm history, eat me.' Do you think the Falcons are going to stop Brady and Belichick from history? These Falcons? Ponies don't beat GOATs."