In the wake of the New England Patriots’ recent come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, many commentators have seen the game correctly as a final exclamation point for the legacies of quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and the current New England Patriots sports dynasty: seven championships, two additional Super Bowl appearances, and sixteen straight seasons (and counting) as a serious contender. No other franchise in NFL history has equaled this record—not the 1960s-80s Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers under Chuck Noll, nor the 1980s-90s San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh and his successors. The accomplishment is all the more impressive when one considers that the previous dynasties existed under much more favorable circumstances, when neither free agency nor salary caps posed any restraints on their ability to acquire and retain the players necessary to remain competitive. Walsh admitted as much in David Halberstam’s biography of Belichick, marveling at Belichick’s ability to build and maintain the Patriots without having the unlimited bank account that Walsh enjoyed when Eddie D. was signing the checks. It may be easy for fans outside of Boston who aren’t Trump supporters to hate the Patriots, but after this game, one cannot begrudge them their unprecedented success.The one question I would raise in this regard is whether this game was the greatest in NFL history, as some have suggested. If fourth quarters were all that counted, I would agree, but this game was fairly boring for the first three quarters when the Falcons seemed ready to accept the Lombardi Trophy and pop the champagne. For drama in a championship game that kept fans on the edge of their seats from the opening kickoff to the final gun, Super Bowl LI was nothing compared to the 1982 NFC Championship Game between two of the dynasties mentioned above: the 49ers and the Cowboys. That game, won by the 49ers 28-27, featured six lead changes with neither team ahead by more than a touchdown at any point during the proceedings. Nor was it over even after Dwight Clark made his iconic catch with 51 seconds remaining; all that kept the Cowboys from scoring immediately afterward and breaking the hearts of seventy thousand fans in Candlestick Park was the grip that 49er cornerback Eric Wright barely managed to get on Drew Pearson’s jersey after he caught a pass over the middle from Cowboy quarterback Danny White. When White fumbled on the next play and the 49ers knelt with the ball afterward to end the game, it was hard to realize at first that the contest was actually over. Last Sunday’s game turned out to be good, but it wasn’t close to that one.
Of course, games can assume more meaning over time in the memory of those who watched them. If they replay scenes from Super Bowl LI more than thirty years after the fact, as the NFL still does with Clark’s catch, the verdict might then be open to question.