IT'S EXHAUSTING trying to beat the world every week, all season.
Over 18 games coach Bill Belichick cultivated the New England Patriots' persecution complex. He channeled every late-show joke about his video spies. Every verbal jab by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who were all but sticking pins in voodoo dolls wearing hoodies. Every slight uttered by players well-known ( Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens) and not ( Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith).
Every attack on the Patriots' superiority was not simply used as sophomoric bulletin-board material by Belichick but also as a Post-it for the team's competitive soul: Remember, the world is against us.
This in-house slogan of Belichick's became a self-fulfilling prophecy as New England plowed its way through an undefeated season to reach Super Bowl XLII on Sunday. Any poll beyond the Mass Pike would reveal a broad anti-Patriots vote: They are too smug to tolerate; Tom Brady is too precious to cheer; Randy Moss is too damaged to embrace; Belichick is too aloof to love.
Only those who operate on the same plane of genius as Belichick understand how lonely life as a virtuoso can be. "On one level it's flattering [to be called a genius], but it can be frustrating too," says Eric Maskin, a Belichick devotee who won the Nobel in economic sciences last year. "I think in some fields you have to have a certain mind-set in order to make progress. Sometimes you have to cut yourself off."
To Belichick's credit, his players get him. They buy into his Mensa mystique and appreciate his methods and forgive his congeniality gap. Spygate certainly took more of a toll than it had to when Belichick remained unrepentant after being caught—no Jimmy Swaggart tears for Hoodie—but his troops just circled around him.
"If you read the history of great composers, they're different," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "Bill is special. He can see things no one else does."
Belichick has been called many names, but he has always been referred to as brilliant—until perhaps now. He outsmarted himself on the run to Super Bowl XLII. By the time his team arrived in the Arizona desert, it was mentally and physically spent. Five of New England's last eight games were decided by 10 points or less. "Battling isn't easy," as one member of the organization said last week, "especially when you're fighting perception too."
Against the New York Giants the Belichick Wall came tumbling down. The Patriots' worn-down offensive line could not have protected Brady from the paparazzi, much less Justin Tuck. Their gasping defense permitted not one, but two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 17--14 defeat.
And it wasn't the pressure of remaining unbeaten that ground them down. "Our record didn't lose the game," New England linebacker Junior Seau said. "We lost it, and it hurts."