The legacy is officially on the line and only a win can restore it.
Sunday is more than just the two best teams in the NFL meeting to determine who will lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. For the New England Patriots, this game is about ensuring that a legacy birthed in 2001 doesn't end up with an asterisk in the history books. It's about making sure that their place in the annals of the sport is more than just some deflated balls.
History tells us that those who cheat have a legacy that is forever cloudy and murky, the issue now found in baseball by the likes of Pete Rose and Barry Bonds, in college football by an SMU program that still hasn't been able to rebuild since the heyday of the 'Pony Express.' The Patriots, tarnished by 'Spygate' and with wind knocked out of their sails by 'Deflategate,' have now been caught cheating cheating twice. Once is enough to knock most stars or teams off of a pedestal.
Twice means that any legacy worth noting is often erased for good.
It is this that makes Sunday not just any other Super Bowl for a team that has been there any astonishing five times this young century. This game is now a referendum on the team and the organization unlike no other game before or likely for any that will come. This game can validate not just the current 53 players on the Patriots roster but those who come before and those who come after.
What a Gatorade bath for Bill Belichick would mean to this team is the chance to vindicate the haters. Since 'Deflategate' popped up last week, his legacy and that of the organization as a whole has come under warranted scrutiny. That the Patriots haven't won a title since 'Spygate' is an indictment on Belichick, proof for critics and cynics to point their fingers at the already unlikeable head coach and question his every win. Failure to win Sunday would rightly draw into question whether this man and his team can win without an unfair advantage. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And for a two-time cheater like Belichick, going without a win on Sunday would make him incapable of winning without cheating.
Talk about a legacy killer.
But Belichick and his dapper and dashing quarterback Tom Brady can crush all that cynicism with a win.
If the Patriots can win this one game, using footballs inflated not by their staff but by the NFL, then they will reclaim their mantle as a dynasty. That would be four Super Bowl rings for the head coach and the quarterback, putting a tandem that already breathes the rarefied air of NFL success into the pantheon of legends. It would show that talent and not cheating is what got them those trophies and is what will eventually get them to Canton someday.
One more win this year, one more win and suddenly Belichick and Brady aren't cheats. Even should an investigation deem that 'Deflategate' did occur, no amount of improper handling of balls will taint this duo. History will write the story about this controversy but with a shiny spin of gleam from their trophy cast over the words. Should the Patriots win this game, then it won't matter.
When it mattered most, the books will someday say, the Patriots won the big game. And that they did so in the Super Bowl, in a neutral setting and with the league's balls will only vindicate their legacy.
Losing would be more evidence that the Patriots can't win the big ones without a little help, without a competitive edge. But if they walk out victorious, the narrative is different.
A win here in this Super Bowl would overshadow the negativity and the derision. It would show that this team isn't built on cheating or cutting corners. That the 'Patriot Way' is a viable legacy.
A legacy that the Patriots can write in bold on Sunday evening in Arizona. A legacy that they can put some air back into after a week where it saw nothing but deflation.
A legacy that only exists with a win on Sunday.