It was almost certainly an innocent mistake, a whistle blown prematurely by an NFL official as he traipsed along the sideline. But in New England, in this year of blatant fuck-you’s, no slight, however small, is considered inadvertent.
And so after it happened, in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 20-13 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday night, the reaction was predictably incendiary; even Captain America seemed to imply that this whole thing was part of the deliberate screwjob being perpetrated on his hometown.
This is not to say that every home crowd in every NFL stadium in every city in America wouldn’t have booed the hell out of an error like this one, especially considering wide receiver Danny Amendola might have scored a touchdown if the play had been permitted to continue. But there was a palpable anger in Foxboro, home of the Patriots, that felt almost mutinous; this was the kind of booing that transcended mere homerism and transitioned into something deeper. Those boos were replete with a Trump-ian sense of disrespect for authority; those boos were New England’s way of expressing to the nation how much they don’t give a damn about the nation’s opprobrium.
These are the Patriots at 10-0: Every week, it gets uglier and uglier, more and more inflamed with fury and bad feeling, and still this undefeated season chugs onward. There is Angry Tom Brady, lecturing his offensive line and muttering to himself like the world’s most handsome hobo and openly blowing snot rockets on the sideline like a pissed-off John Lydon. There are second- and third-stringers like running back James White, making key plays for a team whose skill-position talent is falling victim to one injury after the next (this week, it was receivers Aaron Dobson and Amendola who hobbled off); there is a defense that seems to come up big whenever it needs to. There was no Julian Edelman, and Gronk hardly gronked at all on Monday night, and the running game was halting and ineffective behind a suspect offensive line – and still the Patriots won a football game.
Not that it was so simple. Until the final play of the first half, this game was deadlocked at 3-3, largely because Bills coach Rex Ryan appeared to have concocted an entirely unpredictable blitz scheme that Brady and his line couldn’t quite seem to grasp. But then Brady found White streaking down the sideline, and a Bills defender missed a tackle that could have saved the touchdown, and just like that it was 10-3. And while the Bills would eventually tie it up and have a chance to tie the game again at the end, the Patriots consistently appeared one step ahead after halftime. You never really thought they would lose their first game to Rex Ryan, of all people.
And what else is new? There is no doubt that Ryan takes this rivalry with the Patriots personally, largely because he can’t figure the damned thing out to save his life: He’s now 4-11 in his career against New England dating back to his tenure with the Jets, and he has lost nine of his last 10 to the Patriots. Early in the game, Brady audibled at the line by using the call “Rex Ryan,” which is the kind of blatant taunt that Ryan will no doubt obsess over for several days while reviewing film. It’s also the kind of grade-school shit-talking that these Patriots seem so capable of pulling and getting away with, as they have time and again this year. As they’ll no doubt continue to do, in their continued attempts to mix it up with the outside world.
Next up, just a few days from now, are the Broncos, and the potential denouement of another rivalry, the one between Brady and Peyton Manning. It would have been the 17th meeting between these two, except for the fact that Manning’s body has betrayed him in ways that Brady’s has yet to do. But this is how it must feel to be Tom Brady right now, to roll through every obstacle that’s ever stood in your way, to be on top while everyone else scrambles for footing around you. This is certainly how it felt in Foxboro, when a referee made a call that wound up meaning nothing but felt, within the moment, as if it was metaphor for everything.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb