Wed. Jan 19th, 2022

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Imagine a week-long cross-country bus ride, sitting between an infant who has colic and one with onion breaths who shouts along on a Limp Bizkit playlist while the person behind you kicks to your seat and the bus engine keeps giving backlash. Now imagine that millions of people across the country endure the same experience.

This is how a Super Bowl between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots will feel.

Quarterback Tom Brady’s Buccaneers and Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots appear to be on a collision course for Super Bowl LVI. The Patriots have won six games in a row and seven of their last eight. The Buccaneers are 8-3 and their late-season schedule is a walk down a red carpet. Football Outsiders calculate a 14.8 percent chance of a Patriots-Buccaneers Super Bowl, the highest probability of a matchup.

A duel between Brady and his former team would be a boon for TV companies targeting a casual audience, and a welcome matchup for the few remaining fans who still find the 20-year-old Brady story fascinating. For those who are tired of watching a few individuals throw themselves over success for decades, a Super Bowl-sized instructor of “Brady vs. Belichick: Dawn of Just Us” will be migraine fuel.

Get ready for weeks of philosophical deliberations on “heritage”. Get ready for interviews with forgotten fourth-stringers who tell of the awkward details of Brady-Belichick saliva they overheard in 2006. Prepare to suppress your gag reflex as a nation once again toots over 44-year-old Brady’s apparent immortality and Belichick’s tactical brilliance. The prelude to such a Super Bowl would be like watching the seven-hour documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” on a continuous loop, except with all the timeless music replaced by sports stalk segments.

The divorce from Brady-Belichick was to be settled in 2020: Belichick got the house, Brady got custody of the children (at least Rob Gronkowski) and the Lombardi trophy. The 2020 Patriots fell to 7-9 as Belichick grumbled uncharacteristic excuses for loss while wearing more ugly sweatshirts than usual. This year, Brady even returned to Foxborough, Mass., To confirm his dominance, leading his team to a 19-17 victory on October 3, which improved the Buccaneers’ record to 3-1, while dropping the Patriots to 1- 3 and what seemed at the time to be irrelevant.

The Patriots have taken themselves together since then. Veterans like linebacker Dont’a Hightower (who signed out of the 2020 season) and offensive linemen David Andrews and Shaq Mason are enjoying recurring years. Free agent acquisitions like pass-rusher Matt Judon, receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight-end Hunter Henry have been much-needed upgrades to a list that became too dependent on Brady in the late 2010s. And a schedule full of Jets, Houston Texans, and opponents in injury-exacerbated free fall (like the Tennessee Titans, who lost to the Patriots in Week 12) has also played a role.

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones also deserves credit, though his recent success is more a result of the Patriots’ turnaround than the cause. Jones has done a fine job of not overturning Belichick’s luxury sedan while driving with a provisional driver’s license, but the urgency of anointing him as the next Brady has been premature and self-consciously skinning.

Troy Aikman, a television analyst, said Jones would be Belichick’s “signal call for the next 15 to 18 years” as the player threw routine passes during a win over the Atlanta Falcons, which could drop to a gentle breeze. If Jones reaches the Super Bowl, Patriots fans can demand that his birthday be designated a national holiday.

Meanwhile, Brady continues his winning streak around the NFC. He can still hit some of the high notes when called upon, but he leads the Buccaneers to most wins by distributing the ball to Pro Bowl playmakers behind one of the league’s most impregnable offensive lines.

Even the schedule meets Brady’s needs: The last six Buccaneers matches come against opponents with a combined record of 7-17 since November 1, including the Jets, who refused to take sides during the separation.

A championship clash between the 21st century greatest player and his former mentor should be an objectively compelling sporting event with universal appeal. Unfortunately, the Super Bowl hype is as noisy and persistent as a neighborhood filled with leaf blowers, and both Brady’s distant press conference look and Belichick’s impatient growl lost their limited charm over the decades.

In the absence of fresh personalities and storylines, Super Bowl week faces the prospect of incessantly constructed debates over whether the quarterback or coach “deserves credit” for all the previous championships. There may be strained efforts to gather new superlatives on men already mentioned in almost messianic terms, and a nauseating feeling that everyone west of Interstate 91 will be forced to smile uncomfortably while Boston area fans whip themselves into an ecstatic madness.

Those hoping to avoid the football equivalent of the insane Lovecraft thriller have to mess with the Buffalo Bills (7-4), who face the Patriots twice, including Monday night, and the Buccaneers once further down. Assuming the Bills fail in their replacement Van Helsing role, as they have done for most of the last 20 years, the AFC’s best hope lies in potential playoff enemies like the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) and the Baltimore Ravens ( 8-3), the flashy but unreliable hares of Belichick’s turtle.

The best bet to beat Brady’s Buccaneers in the NFC playoffs could be the Green Bay Packers (9-3). Yes, the thought of a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl is so shocking that it makes it appealing to root for Aaron Rodgers.

If the fear of a potential Brady Bowl fills you with an urge to give up football and spend the winter in a Himalayan yurt, know that you are not alone. Still, there is another option: Put the NFL in the right perspective among life’s priorities, fine-tune history, and learn to celebrate the achievements of others and enjoy the game.

If you achieve that level of enlightenment when a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl inevitably arrives, please keep those of us, for whom it is too late, in your hearts.

By Victor

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