DENVER — The new conspiracy theory is Son Of Deflategate, a bastard son at that. It assumes Roger Goodell would rather return to his original lowly position in the NFL office — playing chauffeur, fetching coffee — than see Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots anywhere near Levi’s Stadium two Sundays from now. To wit, the theorists point to today’s referee for the AFC title game, Ed Hochuli, and how the Denver Broncos never have lost in games he has worked while the Patriots have lost four of their last seven with Hochuli flaunting his big biceps.
Between that curious assignment and the potential for pre-game subterfuge involving pressure gauges, footballs and bathrooms, the theorists are convinced the NFL doesn’t want the Patriots in Super Bowl 50. The golden championship game, these paranoiacs insist, will not be infiltrated and smeared by scandalous scum.
All of which is a lot of get-a-life bunk. Those actually immersed in such speculation don’t understand what ultimately drives Goodell: money and big business. Sure, he chafes at having lost to Brady in a courtroom, where a federal judge found legal holes in an NFL probe that had concluded Brady was culpable in a backroom scheme to deflate footballs below league standards because — sorry, I must have fun with this subject — he likes his balls to be smaller. Sure, he still sulks that Brady skirted a four-game suspension after Goodell, rightfully, had determined that the league’s marquee attraction and champion was flouting the rulebook and undermining the sport’s integrity. Yes, the league continues to fight the ruling, with an appeal scheduled for March 3. But losing a case, in fact, is trivial in the commissioner’s world when it means winning in much larger ways.
Buzz. Traffic. Ratings.
For all their drama, deviousness and general unlikeability, the Patriots have a way of inspiring spirited conversations and, thus, moving the media meter. The NFL pockets its multiple billions for The Big Game regardless of which combatants participate, but the league does like to maximize a story line as much as CBS wants to squeeze it and the world’s sports consumers want to lap it up. And the most compelling pending narrative, one of the juiciest in Super Bowl history, is one New England victory away.
It has Brady, after beating the league behemoth in court last year, returning to his native Bay Area on a mission of conquering football history. Who wouldn’t watch this polarizing American icon, with the supermodel wife and lovely family and Donald Trump as a buddy, running into a stadium 35 miles from San Mateo — a straight shot down the 101 from Junipero Serra High — and trying to become the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls? Right now, Brady is tied with two others. One is Terry Bradshaw.
The other is Joe Montana. Meaning Tom Brady, after one-upping Goodell, can rule the world by one-upping Montana in his town.
You don’t think the NFL wants that angle swallowing our minds, as El Nino soaks our heads, the next two weeks?
As a creature of today, not tomorrow, Brady hasn’t spoken yet about the homecoming scenario. But surely he has thought about it in what has become almost a maniacal pursuit this season. Notice how his screaming and F-bomb-dropping, sometimes at no one in particular, has become a regular part of his routine? He felt unfairly targeted last summer. He senses he isn’t the most popular athlete in the country — most metrics say Stephen Curry now — although his accomplishments and life would suggest otherwise. Because of Deflategate and his role in it, Brady has been called a phony.
“I don’t think a lot of people know personally who I am,” he said recently. “They may know what they think I may be, or what they see on the TV screen when I’m exposed publicly to them. For people who may think they know, or have snippets of who I am, you can attack that person. That’s part of being a public figure.”
If the Patriots win today, the poetic odes to San Mateo and Joe Cool, Brady’s idol growing up, will begin. First, they must get by a challenge that no longer involves a quick-fading Peyton Manning — in what might be the final game of football’s best-ever September-to-December quarterbacking career — but the mystique of a stadium. Nothing much has stopped the dynasty of Brady, Belichick and owner Bob Kraft since the Patriots started winning Super Bowls in February 2002, but Sports Authority Field has. A mile above sea level, Brady has yet to win there in two playoff games, including a loss in the AFC championship game two years ago. In the regular season, Brady is 2-4 there, and one loss came in late November when the Patriots had been 10-0.
He faces a ferocious defense, with freight-train pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, that led the league in sacks and ranked No. 1 in least net yards per game. It may not matter, though, if Brady continues to get rid of the ball quicker than a hiccup. “Sometimes,” said Miller, “he doesn’t even need an offensive line.”
Nor does Brady react to trash-talk, much as the Broncos tried this week. Noticing what the rest of us notice — Brady having a running dialogue with the officials, trying to coax calls out of them — they fired shots at him. “I’ve never seen any quarterback look to the referee right after he gets sacked more than Brady,” defensive lineman Antonio Smith said. “Every time he gets sacked he looks at the ref like, ‘You see him sack me? Was that supposed to happen? He did it a little hard. Please throw a 15-yard penalty on him. Get him fined,’ ”
To which Brady replied, unflappably, of his chats with officials over time: “I don’t remember much about them. I’ve taken a lot of hits over the years. If the refs want to throw the flag, I love when they throw flags on the defenders, absolutely. It advances our team, so that’s just part of football.”
In our heart of hearts, the afternoon would evolve into a final duel between Brady and Manning, the two greatest quarterbacks of our time and maybe — other than Montana — any time. Most likely, given the limp condition of Manning’s surgery-weakened arm and neck, their 17th meeting will be anything but a classic in the vein of Ali-Frazier, Nicklaus-Palmer, Chamberlain-Russell and Bird-Magic.
The fact Brady and Belichick have been so reverential toward Manning in recent days speaks to the finality of it all. “Peyton is a great player,” Belichick said. “We’ve had tremendous battles against him through the years. There isn’t a player off our team that I have any more respect for than Peyton Manning, so his preparation, his consistency, his skills, I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstances.”
It was revealing last month, when Manning was dragged through mud by a since-disbanded TV network about an unsubstantiated report claiming his involvement with human growth hormone, that Brady publicly backed him. “Tom has always been in support of me,” Manning said, “and I always try to be the same for him.”
Still, this showdown clearly is about Brady vs. the Denver defense. Just as it was Brady vs. the NFL. And Brady and the Patriots vs. the forces of justice when Belichick was nailed in the Spygate scam. At some point, people will realize Goodell, even after infuriating Kraft with his Deflategate crusade, knows deep down that the Patriots are very good for his $14-billion-a-year industry.
And that the concept of Tom Brady’s Homecoming Redemption, no matter which NFC team shows up, might make 50 the biggest of all Super Bowl. Or, of course, the most nauseous.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
AFC ChampionshipBill BelichickDeflategateDeMarcus WareDenver Broncosed hochuliJoe Montanajunipero serra highNew England PatriotsNFL playoffspeyton ManningRoger GoodellSan Francisco 49ersSan MateospygateSuper Bowl 50Tom Bradyvon miller