HOUSTON -- A fun parlor game to play at every Super Bowl is to see which team has brought more fans. Last year, Denver fans were everywhere in San Francisco and Santa Clara; Seahawks fans essentially took over Phoenix and Glendale in 2015, just like they did New York City the year before; Patriots fans and Giants fans were roughly equal in both Phoenix and Indianapolis. As a general rule, the teams that travel the best are largely considered to be Pittsburgh, Seattle, Green Bay and, to a slightly lesser extent, New England and the N.Y. Giants. (If the Cowboys ever made the Super Bowl, we might see that they should be added to that group.) One of these days, the Bills are going to make the Super Bowl and their fans are going to take over the poor unsuspecting town where the game is being played that year -- though, to be fair, by then they may all be able to teleport there.
This year's game already has the growing reputation as the Super Bowl people aren't wholly excited by. Ticket prices keep plummeting by the day; your ticket today is probably worth about half what you paid for it a week ago. Anecdotally, there just isn't the electricity on the streets you've seen at past Super Bowls. Maybe this is Houston itself -- a fine city but a spread-out one that doesn't naturally thrive when they build one of those "NFL cities" and restrict everyone's movement to a small downtown area. (Every Texan here has the body language of someone in a crowded elevator.) But the primary reason for the collective pseudo-shrug this game has inspired is the teams.
You have the Falcons, who have a larger, more dedicated fanbase than is nationally recognized, but still isn't the sort of national brand name that brings out fans from all across the country. And then you combine them with the Patriots, who have played in seven of the past 16 Super Bowls and carry themselves with the comportment of men who have done this so many times that it has become a bit rote. (One of Bill Belichick's most impressive magic tricks is his ability to make even the rookies and young players who have never been to a Super Bowl before act like this. Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is someone who should be overwhelmed by all this, considering he was eight years old when Tom Brady played in his first Super Bowl, but listen to him talk: It's like this is the most normal thing in the world.)
The Falcons are not specifically inspiring in a national sense, and the Patriots feel like old hat. This ends up working against the game in almost a psychological way. The fun of a Super Bowl with a hated team like the Patriots is that everybody gets to get behind the underdog, but the Falcons, to the passive, "just-showing-up-to-the-party-with-clam-dip-hey-who's-playing?" Super Bowl viewer, do not inherently carry any such casual fascination. They take a cue from their quarterback: They are low-key and dutiful and modest and efficient. People might want them to win because they hate the Patriots. But they don't really care if they win.
Which leads this Super Bowl into the strange space of having the most polarizing team in the sport, maybe in all of sports, and just about everyone lining up to cheer against them, yet without the overwhelming amount of vitriol that would elevate the game into the stratosphere of the truly dramatic. The Falcons are an excellent team with a vivid, delightful offense, but they are not so stylistically different than the Patriots that you can make a logical, obvious contrast. They just feel, even in terms of uniform (with a logo that, even decades in, still feels like a logo from a generic team in a football movie that didn't have NFL rights), like Opponent. The Patriots have a psychic hold over this game, and honestly, maybe the Super Bowl in general. It takes a certain sort of opponent to elevate a Super Bowl against them -- the Giants, maybe the Packers, definitely the Cowboys -- and, fair or not, the Falcons do not elevate to that level. This is (I think) what the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy was trying to say, though you had to dig through layer after layer of Boston provincialism to get there.
What this has all distracted us from, though, is the very real possibility that this is in fact the last time the Patriots could be here. I've written before about how we don't seriously account for Tom Brady's age, but because of this, we assume that he, and Bill Belichick, will be around forever. We don't allot for the notion that we could be at the end of the story, not in the middle of it. In any other context, every reporter would be asking if a Super Bowl victory here -- Brady breaking Joe Montana's record, Belichick breaking Chuck Noll's record, the definitive middle-finger capper to Roger Goodell -- would be the perfect time to walk away. But it would be, right? Can that be topped? Brady is 39. Belichick is 64, 17 years older than Noll was when he won his last Super Bowl, seven years older than Bill Walsh when he won his last one, 10 years older than Vince Lombardi when the Packers won Super Bowl II. How much longer do either one of these men want to keep doing this? What more can they do? What would really be the point?
It's difficult to get back to the Super Bowl. If the Patriots don't get back next year -- and for all their dominance, they still have missed more than half of the past 16 Super Bowls -- Brady will be 41 heading into the 2018 season, and Belichick will be pushing 70. We assume the Patriots are always coming back here, but it requires everything to fall just right. The odds are excellent -- they are nearly overhwhelming, in fact -- that this is the last time we will see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl again, even if they do decide to keep going after this game. We don't consider them that old, but they deep down must know it. Would it be that terribly shocking if they have a secret pact to walk away if they win this game? If there were ever a duo that made sure info like that didn't leak out, it would be them.
This Super Bowl isn't capturing the national imagination in large part because there is a general sense that we have seen it before. But everything ends. The Patriots have been the signature dynasty of the NFL for the last 20 years. It is likely that this is the last rodeo on this stage, whether Brady and Belichick have a pact or not. You might be too sick of the Pats to feel particularly inspired about this game. But just you wait: I bet it's the last time we see them here, and thus, it might just end up being the one we remember the most. We'll all miss having the Patriots to kick around.