For those of you born since 1990, I would like to begin by stating the obvious, which is that I resent you.
In an attempt to be helpful, though, I do wish to point out that even in a world as preposterous as this one, you still never know. You never know when, for one thing, some goofball team you support might just lapse into prowess.
You already know full well that on Sunday, the New England Patriots will host the AFC Championship Game for the fourth time in the last 12 seasons, and will play in it for the whopping seventh time in the last 12 seasons. The fans and the late-game television audience will focus upon Foxborough, and some will complain that this has grown monotonous. Seeing the stable, savvy Patriots well into January has become a mainstay of 21st-century America.
Yet with a hope of fostering hope, let me state that our childhoods perceiving the Patriots differed vastly from your childhoods perceiving the Patriots. Back then, the idea of the Patriots seldom popped up to those of us outside New England and when it did, it often popped up as wacko.
Until January 2002, we knew this crazy-uncle franchise basically for a roughing-the-passer penalty, a head coach who had to be reinstated for the playoffs, a prison-furlough snowplow driver, a sudden turn as unidentifiable fodder in a Super Bowl, a locker-room scandal featuring a repugnant owner and another Super Bowl turn in which the head coach spent the week deflecting questions about a bolt to the Jets.
When it blared that the Patriots might move to St. Louis in the early 1990s, hardly any of us cared. When it blared that the homegrown Robert K. Kraft probably saved the Patriots from moving to St. Louis in January 1994 by paying an NFL-record sum for a low-value franchise, hardly any of us cared.
Many New Englanders did care, of course, but in a way the Patriots typified the dichotomy between Boston and elsewhere, which got apt illustration the other night when Tina Fey said Ben Affleck moved his film setting from Boston to Iran "because he wanted to film somewhere that was friendlier to outsiders." Those Patriots seemed warded-off, apart, far from now, which finds them far from kooky or fluky. Forbes ranks them tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the sixth-most-valuable franchise on Earth, just ahead of the club most-adored worldwide circa now (Barcelona).
If you'll stop being annoyed with their omnipresence for just a second, you'll see they're remarkable.
They used to wear red. (I remember that.) They used to play in Fenway Park. (I don't remember that.) Their wondrously eccentric logo used to feature a center in patriot garb. (You always thought he got blocked aside for a sack.) They once drafted first overall the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim Plunkett, with the minor detail that he won those two Super Bowls playing for somebody else. They never ranked first among Boston's panoply of pro sports, and we all know who did.
In their first 41 seasons, they reached the playoffs 10 times. As a No. 5 seed in January 1986, they became the first team to win three road playoff games, then appeared in the Super Bowl opposite the Chicago Bears, who turned them into indistinguishable yard mulch, as those Bears would have done to anyone. As a No. 2 seed in January 1997, they reached the Super Bowl largely because they had to beat second-year Jacksonville at home to get there -- largely because Jacksonville had done the favor of removing No. 1 Denver, whereupon New England lost a quirky Super Bowl to Green Bay on the weakness of its kickoff defense.
(Bill Parcells left for New York five days later.)
They had a fabulous team in 1976. It became the only team to beat the 16-1 champion Oakland Raiders; it lost to Oakland in the playoffs largely through a roughing-the-passer call still bewailed.
When they won their first AFC East title in the penultimate game of 1978, the fans tore down the goal posts … even as the head coach, Chuck Fairbanks, flirted with the job at Colorado University, whereupon ownership suspended him, whereupon two assistants co-coached a Week 16 loss, whereupon ownership reinstated him, whereupon they lost a home playoff game to Bum Phillips' Houston Oilers, whereupon the coach-ownership situation wound up in court. (Jeez.)
Their playoff appearance in the strike year of 1982 hinged on one of my favorite NFL games ever, a late scoreless tie in the snow when a prisoner on weekend furlough drove his plow onto the field to clear the area for kicker John Smith and a 3-0 win.
We forget that even the 2001-02 team that started all this mastery came across as a ragtag, oddball Super Bowl champion. It began 0-2. Its franchise quarterback got hurt. Its sixth-round, No. 199-selected backup took over. It meandered to 5-5. Then it won six straight games, some through narrow passageways, and got a bye when a Jets kicker made a poor-snap, just-over-crossbar, 53-yard field goal in Oakland. Then it got enough post-season breaks that some of us saw a cosmic curiosity in a team called "Patriots" winning months after Sept. 11, 2001.
I apologize for my own participation in that runaway lunacy.
Well, by 2013, an AFC title game in Foxborough comes as a continuation of a near-ritual. The ensuing years have filled up with 14-2s, 13-3s, even a 16-0. Patriots fans have the honor of other fans tiring of their team, a privilege people once knew around Dallas. They have the honor of other fans perceiving their team as villainous, a feeling stoked with an unearthed case of video cheating.
And it just goes to show those born since 1990 that if you happen into one of the best owners in American sports history, and if you happen to pick a guy 199th who turns out to be one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and if you get yourself one of those good, mirthless coaches, then you, too, someday might know such an era.