WELCOME TO BOSTON, CITY OF CHAMPIONS. THAT, IN SO many words, is what passengers arriving at Logan Airport now hear as they take the renovated moving walkway to central parking, greeted by a recording cheerfully espousing the city's sundry charms. Even after winning two Super Bowl titles and a magical World Series championship in the last 12 sweet, emotional months, most residents do a double take when they hear such civic chest-thumping. Titletown has always been some other place. The golden era of sports has been some other time. This is the city of chowdah, bad drivers and nasty nor'easters; of a leaky Big Dig, duck boats and Bunker Hill (a battle the Americans lost). City of Champions? Top burg of American sport? Did we take the wrong plane?
It's a mantle that will take some getting used to. The cloak, while handsome, doesn't quite fit the self-image. The chip is too recently off the shoulder, the persecution complex from living in the shadow of the Big Apple too deeply ingrained. City of Heartbreaking Losses? That's what generations of New Englanders have been talking about. Not Trophytown. The idea of three ticker-tape parades in a 12-month period flies in the face of the frugality for which this region is known. Even the colleges have gotten in on the act this past year. Harvard football went undefeated to win the Ivy League, and Boston College's hoopsters ran off 20 straight wins to start the season and vie for their first tournament No. 1 seed. It's all too glorious, too rich, too in-your-face wonderful. Give us time, Lord, and the grace to accept what we would not change.
Only one other city-- Pittsburgh in 1979--80--has ever sandwiched a World Series title between two Super Bowl wins. After years of doing without, Beantown's teams have triumphantly brought home the bacon, and this excess of success has been transformational. From the Pats' win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII in February '04, to the heart-stopping Red Sox season that saw the Olde Towne Team break an 86-year drought and bring the city to tears, to the 24--21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, we have lived through a Big Bang of sports that's brought about a psychic rebirth. A shining new world has emerged from the black hole of past disappointments. The curse has been utterly, finally lifted, and Boston sports fans, a famously crabby, contentious lot, must come to grips with the fact that they are blessed.
"Don't take this for granted!" I admonished my 12-year-old son, as he wandered upstairs to play Madden in the midst of the Patriots' 41--27 shellacking of the (16--1) Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game. "You may never see a team like this again."
But my son does take the Patriots for granted, just as thousands of other kids in New England do. They didn't live through the first 40 years of the franchise and have never known them to be anything but relentlessly, ruthlessly great. They don't understand yet that not every era is gilded, that players like Adam Vinatieri, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Tom Brady will someday move along.
With their conquest of the NFC champion Eagles, the Pats have now won three Super Bowls in four years, a dynasty by most any estimation. In NFL history only the Dallas Cowboys (1992, '93 and '95 seasons) have also done that. The players are selfless, disciplined, professional, a team in every respect. They destroy without making enemies. They behave like they expect, and are expected, to win.
It never gets old, watching New England perform under the coaching of resident genius Bill Belichick. It's a different experience than it was to cheer for the roller-coaster 2004 Red Sox. With the Sox the city held its breath, buying into the momentum but preparing for, even anticipating, the worst. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. They had crushed our hopes so often over the years. We had faith, but it was blind faith. Blind and dumb. Against reason. We hoped, to be honest. We prayed. Right until the last precious out.
With the Patriots, New England truly believes, the way one believes the godforsaken winter snow will eventually melt. Before the showdown in Jacksonville against the Eagles, we knew. We had seen it before. And frankly, it was a little scary. It's the nature of Bostonians to look for dark clouds and to ignore, even deride, silver linings--it's the Puritan stock in us--but you couldn't find a sportswriter, plumber, teacher or news anchor who wasn't sold on the invincibility of the Pats. We were on board. Other teams have their individual stars-- Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens. The Patriots have Belichick's game plan. A game plan doesn't get injured or sick. It can't be double-teamed. It is money. The disheveled, sweatshirt-clad Belichick, who forever looks like he's just tumbled out of bed, is now 10--1 in the postseason (9--0 with the Pats), eclipsing the record of Vince Lombardi (9--1) for alltime postseason winning percentage.
Name your poison. In these playoffs the Pats' underrated defense (only two Pro Bowlers--Bruschi and Richard Seymour--and Seymour was hurt in December and didn't return until the Super Bowl) held the league's top offense, Manning's Indianapolis Colts, to three points. This despite so many injuries in the secondary that a veteran receiver, Troy Brown, was playing defensive back.
Then, in the AFC Championship Game, playing in subzero windchill, the Patriots' offense torched the Steelers' league-leading defense for 41 points at Heinz Field. Brady (9--0 in the postseason) did another imitation of his boyhood hero, Joe Montana, despite suffering from a 103? fever the night before the game. In his four seasons as a starter Brady has now won three Super Bowls. If he never takes another snap, his place among the city's sports legends is secure.