Somehow, some way, while we were all blaming parity for the lack of a great team, a contender emerged. The New England Patriots don't have a glitzy quarterback, flashy wide receiver, pounding running back or terrorizing defender, but they will become the odds-on, team-of-the-decade favorite with a win this Sunday in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
How did this happen? How did a dominant team emerge in a day and age dedicated to denying dominance?
Blame it on parity. The rest of the league may be so watered down that it became vulnerable to one team that has made all of the right decisions.
By now you all know what the Patriots have done to rise from the ashes of a 5-11 record in Bill Belichick's first year as head coach, 2000, to win the Super Bowl title the following season. You know all about moving Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy out, trading for draft picks and hitting on almost every pick they've made. Under Belichick, the Patriots are famous for signing unwanted free agents and turning them into valuable contributors; players such as Antowain Smith and Mike Vrabel. Everybody knows about the attention New England has paid to its salary cap.
What we haven't understood, until now, is that all of the above was a blueprint to greatness. We thought the Patriots were a fluke when they went all the way in '01. We decided any team could make that leap if they went out and signed a bunch of cheap, over-achieving free agents. But we ignored all of those first-round picks on defense, and we ignored the indicators that Belichick was building something lasting.
The Patriots will beat the Carolina Panthers this Sunday. That'll happen because the Panthers are a made-to-order opponent for the Patriots, which is to say a run-the-ball offense and a defense most believe isn't as good against the pass as the numbers would suggest. Belichick will always stop the run, and quarterback Tom Brady is just as good at finding the soft spots in pass-defenses.
Brady would seem to overmatch Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, and as much as defense wins championships, it's still good to have a quarterback who makes plays at crunch time. Brady is the best in the game at that.
So, the Patriots will win their second Super Bowl title in three seasons, and they will begin next season as the overwhelming choice to represent the AFC in Jacksonville next winter. The team that was thought to have over-achieved two years ago is now just a win away from being recognized as a potential dynasty, and Belichick and owner Bob Kraft deserve to be recognized as the reasons for the Patriots' success. But give a little credit to parity, too. It's so much easier to be great when all of the other teams are so ordinary.