On Tuesday morning, perpetually tapped-in ESPN reporter John Clayton surveyed several NFL general managers to ask them their favorites to win Super Bowl LII next year in Minneapolis. The NFC favorites were the Green Bay Packers; the AFC favorites, as you'd probably expect, were the New England Patriots. If you went to Las Vegas right now and tried to wager on the Super Bowl LII champions -- and allow me to say that this would not be a particularly intelligent decision on your part -- you would find them at 5-1 odds, the best odds in the sport. The general consensus is that they are still the best.
Let us contrast that thought, at 8:52 a.m. ET on a Tuesday morning, to where we all stood at 8:52 p.m. Sunday night, just 36 hours ago. At 8:52 p.m. Sunday, the Patriots were down 28-3 after a Tevin Coleman touchdown, and the Super Bowl, with just 23 minutes of gameplay left, was over. The Falcons fans were going crazy -- the "ATL! ATL!" chant that echoed throughout NRG Stadium will haunt my dreams forever -- Bill Belichick was growling into his headset and the Patriots, the vaunted, dynastic Patriots, looked for all the world like an old team whose time had passed. Tom Brady had a curiously faraway look in his eyes. He may be a positive person -- he is a very positive person, just ask him -- but right then, he just looked like an elderly quarterback whose entire career was flashing before his eyes.
At that moment, the Patriots didn't look like favorites to win Super Bowl LII: You half wondered if they were going to survive Super Bowl LI. It didn't look like the beginning of anything. It looked like the end of everything.
I know Tuesday is the parade for the Patriots, so the last thing anyone's thinking about is next year, or some sort of alternative history. As I warned Sunday night, the comeback that the Patriots pulled off has already calcified itself into legend, and it feels like in retrospect, the only way it could have ever gone down. The game is the ultimate Patriots culmination, the vindication of their overarching strategies, their otherworldly intensity, The Patriots Way, every shady activity they've ever been a part of (real or imagined), all of it. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were probably going to be known as the best NFL coach and quarterback of all time no matter what happened in Super Bowl LI, but now they are those things and the total lunacy of that game. They get the sundae and the cherry on the top and the spoon and also any change you had in your pockets or just lying around. They are the girls with the most cake.
But it really is still pretty astounding -- not just what happened, but how we're already reacting to it. What went down in the first three quarters of that game were real. The Falcons' offense was slicing though the vaunted, top-scoring-defense-in-the-NFL Patriots defense. Patriots receivers were dropping everything Brady was putting right in their hands. Patriots fans, including Mark Wahlberg and his ill son, were leaving the game early.
Tom Brady kept making this face.
It was all falling apart. This was how it was all going to end, the entire Brady-Belichick-Patriots dynasty, all the Roger Goodell hate, all the provincialism, all the transformations of the entire sporting culture of the New England region that this specific team and those two specific people pulled off … it was going to end with Jordan memes and Donald Trump jokes and Brady lying on the ground, defeated, destroyed, as Robert Alford sped away from him and into Super Bowl and Atlanta history.
Do you think anyone, John Clayton's GMs or Las Vegas or anyone else, was picking the Patriots as the Super Bowl LII favorite, at that point? The Patriots looked like the past, and the Falcons -- youth, speed, swag -- felt like the future. Every empire eventually falls, and for three quarters on Sunday, that's what we were watching. We were watching the end of an empire. Fans cheered as Falcons soldiers pulled down the statue of Supreme Leader Belichick. They bathed in Brady's tears.
And that would have been the end of it. Belichick and Brady might have come back next season -- they almost surely would have -- but could we really have held them in the same esteem? After being blown off the field in their big culmination game, the one where they were going to become the first quarterback and coach to win five Super Bowls, the one where they were going to stick it to Roger Goodell, could we trust in them again? With Belichick hitting the back half of his sixties and Brady finally hitting 40? After looking so old and behind the times for most of that game? After (probably) losing Dont'a Hightower and Martellus Bennett and Malcolm Butler and who knows who else? With the whole league suddenly, perhaps at last, lifted of the illusion of Brady-Belichick invincibility? Joe Montana was never embarrassed on a stage like that. Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll never were. It would stick to them forever. We would never let them forget it.
This ending was assured. Until it wasn't. It all changed in one quarter. It didn't just change history. It changed the future. Now we still believe. Now the Patriots are the 2017-18 Super Bowl favorites, and the Falcons -- those beautiful, doomed, poor Falcons -- are just the most brutal example of an Atlanta fanbase that is beginning to feel like Hot Buffalo in terms of sports torture. That one quarter changed the universe. It led to hundreds of thousands of people gathering in Boston today to scream and dance and act like they were never worried, that they knew all along. And it led to us believing that this can go on forever, rather than ending in the ugliest fashion with the whole world watching and laughing and pointing. The Patriots went from doornail dead to immortal in the span of 15 minutes of gametime. It has only been 36 hours since it happened. It still feels like the darndest thing I ever saw.