Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2013

Patriots Narrowly Escape As A New Season Begins

Not that I need any, but as I run my usual Sunday errands the reminders are everywhere. At the grocery store I favor for commodities the checkers and baggers are all dressed in Patriots gear. At the upscale market with its better selection of produce, meat and fish, three staff members are more interested in talking about the upcoming game than in taking my order. Driving down a residential street on my way home I pass a young woman walking from her apartment to her car. She is dressed in the familiar blue jersey with red and white accents, the large numeral 12 gracing the front and back. The thought occurs to me that a statistically significant percentage of New England residents must own some sort of Tom Brady memorabilia.

The Red Sox are the Old Town Team, on their way to a surprising AL East division championship and a spot in the postseason. The Bruins are a charter member of the NHL and had won three Stanley Cups before the Patriots existed. The Celtics, with their 17 NBA titles, have the most distinguished history of the Boston franchises. But whenever local fans are surveyed it is the New England Patriots who always rank as the region’s favorite sports team.

That’s in part due to their recent success. Fans everywhere find it easy to cheer on a winner, and under head coach Bill Belichick the Pats have won with such consistency that they are one of the truly elite franchises in the NFL. With ten playoff appearances in thirteen years, Belichick’s teams have won three Super Bowls, appeared in two others, and come up one game short of the Super Bowl twice more.

But the team’s popularity is about more than its winning percentage, for the scenes I observe while out and about on Sunday morning are not exclusive to New England. I could travel all across the land and see them repeated, with only the changing colors of the jerseys marking my progress from one region to another. Since few of those other franchises can come close to matching the success of the Patriots, the widespread excitement at the start of a new NFL season is a testament to the deep appeal of a game that is both artistic and brutal. It is also a tribute to the consistently upbeat and rigidly controlled marketing of the NFL. For more than half a century, from Pete Rozelle to Paul Tagliabue to Roger Goodell, professional football has had the good fortune to be led by men who have grown the game and burnished its image, with only a rare misstep.

Of course not everyone in New England is a Patriots fan. Just down the road in Hampton lives a close friend who grew up in other locales rooting for the New York Giants. Decades later he retains his childhood allegiance, and thus was considerably happier at the outcomes of the Patriots’ last two trips to the Super Bowl than were his neighbors. Similarly, I grew up in the suburbs of our nation’s capital. While I don’t dislike the Patriots, my first loyalty is still to the regrettably named Washington franchise. But we are the exceptions around here on this Sunday. Far more common is my upstairs neighbor. A quiet gentleman who lives alone, he seldom makes any noise, except when there’s a Pats game on television. Then the unassuming norm is replaced by screamed exhortations at his flat screen, echoes of which drift down from my ceiling.

So it is that despite it being a spectacular late summer day the streets of Portsmouth grow unusually quiet as one o’clock approaches. The Patriots are visiting the Buffalo Bills, one of ten early afternoon games on the first Sunday of a new NFL season. The game is happily free of any helmet to helmet hits that can suddenly remind fans of their favorite sport’s obvious danger. The CBS announcers of course make no mention of the ongoing and bitter dispute between the league and the players union over HGH testing. For three hours on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium it is football just as the NFL’s marketing department would want it.

New England is expected to be the class of the AFC East, and the Patriots have dominated the Bills in recent years, losing to Buffalo just three times in the Belichick era. So it is no surprise when New England scores first. After their initial drive stalls, the Patriots force a fumble on the Bills second play from scrimmage. Given a very short field, Brady needs just two plays to move 16 yards for the opening touchdown. On their next possession the Patriots drive for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to expand the lead to 10-0.

But just as fans across New England are starting to envision a rout, running back Stevan Ridley slips trying to make a cut and loses the ball as he goes to the ground. Buffalo safety Da’Norris Searcy scoops up the pigskin and rambles 74 yards for a score that energizes the young Buffalo squad. The play also lands Ridley in Belichick’s doghouse, and he watches the remainder of the game from the sidelines.

The Patriots once again build a 10 point lead with another score late in the second quarter, but then Brady makes a mistake that he did not commit a single time all last season. He throws an interception with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Given new life just before the break rookie quarterback EJ Manuel completes consecutive deep passes for a quick score that pulls the Bills to within 3 points at the game’s midpoint.

With more than 65,000 fans screaming their support, Manuel engineers an 11-play, 80-yard drive on the Bills opening possession of the second half, capped by an 18-yard TD pass to Stevie Johnson. Suddenly Buffalo has the lead. Now the problems that this year’s team will face become apparent to every Patriots fan. Last season’s pass offense was based on Brady repeatedly tossing to his two tight ends, with passes to wide receivers often a seeming afterthought. But Rob Gronkowski is still working his way back from injury, and Aaron Hernandez sits in a Massachusetts jail cell awaiting trial for murder.

The former is not on the field today and the latter is now a non-person to the Patriots, who allowed fans to exchange Hernandez jerseys for free after his arrest and quick release by the team. With the added departure of Brady’s favorite wide receiver Wes Welker to Denver, the veteran quarterback is throwing to a mostly new and young receiving corps. As passes fall to the ground it’s clear that Brady’s new teammates don’t yet have their assignments or timing down.

Early in the fourth quarter a drive stalls deep in Buffalo territory, and the Patriots must settle for a field goal that pulls them to within a point. Then with less than five minutes to play New England takes possession at its own 34-yard line. Fans in the stands in western New York are dreaming of a huge upset, while the dream of those glued to their televisions all around New England is that Brady will engineer the 36th fourth quarter comeback of his career.

About the only thing the NFL marketing masters haven’t figured out is how to make the dreams of both sets of fans watching a game come true. On this Sunday it is the Patriots’ faithful who will breathe a happy sigh of relief when the final gun sounds. Mixing quick passes to Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen with runs by Vereen, Brady moves the Patriots down the field. Twice he finds Amendola for third down conversions. Finally Vereen goes around left end for fifteen yards and a first down at the Buffalo 14-yard line. On the next play Brady falls to his right to position the ball in the middle of the field. On second down he kneels down. On third down Gostkowski splits the uprights to put New England ahead, 23-21, with five seconds to play.

While credit is often given to Rozelle, it was actually his predecessor Bert Bell who said that on any given Sunday any team can beat any other team. That notion of competitive parity has been the NFL’s mantra for as long as I can remember, and it, along with smart and focused marketing, has made football the country’s number one sport. That was evident at the grocery store Sunday morning, just as the old mantra’s power was very much in evidence at Ralph Wilson Stadium several hours later. Meanwhile on the field, as at almost every other NFL stadium on this opening weekend, white letters painted against a red rectangular background near the 30-yard lines spelled out BACK TO FOOTBALL. For fans in New England, and all across the land, so it was on Sunday.

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