Patriots Prefer Schadenfreude to Mediocrity

Let's face it, Patriots fans were absolutely delighted to see the New York Jets get taken down by the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan didn't make any friends in New England a few weeks ago with all his comments about not being intimidated by the Patriots and not being here to "kiss Bill Belichick's rings." Ryan was joined by safety Kerry Rhodes, who claimed the Jets wanted to "embarrass" the Patriots. When the Jets beat the Pats 16-9 in Week 2, the comments hurt that much more. So we reveled in the schadenfreude of the Jets' most recent loss.

All of which led me to wonder: Is it just teams from New York that get our dander up as New England fans, or is it any team that "disrespects" us (as former Patriot safety Rodney Harrison would no doubt say)? Sure, trash talk is a big part of professional sports, but when it goes beyond fans and extends to players and coaches, does it sting that much more?

Patriots fans especially delighted in New England’s win over the Indianapolis Colts in the 2004 season opener, because the Pats' win was due to a missed Mike Vanderjagt field goal. Willie McGinest sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning out of field goal range on the previous play, and Vanderjagt's attempt sailed wide. The miss was sweet and, according to New England fans, karmic justice for Vanderjagt's taunting the Patriots from the sideline with his hand gestures and insinuations that he was "money" and wouldn't miss the kick. The Patriots faced the Colts again in the divisional playoff round and beat them 20-3 on their way to winning their third Super Bowl in four years.

Then, there's the matter of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Back in 2001, almost no one — including this Patriots fan — really believed the Pats were going all the way. Nevertheless, we didn't take kindly to the loud proclamations of Steelers players that they'd already booked their hotel rooms in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. So when the Patriots surprised everyone — and overcame a Tom Brady injury by putting Drew Bledsoe in as quarterback — to defeat the Steelers 24-17, the stunned looks on the faces of Steelers players were a wonderful sight.

Of course, the 2001 season was the last one in which the Patriots could rightly be considered an underdog (despite what Rodney Harrison kept insisting). Since then, the Pats have turned themselves into a powerhouse, heavily favored in most matchups. As such, they've become the team everyone else loves to hate.

Winning will do that to a franchise. So will events like Spygate, and what opposing fans see as the smugness of the Patriots’ head coach and entitlement of its fans. To be sure, nearly everyone outside of New England was thrilled when the underdog Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLI in 2007, preventing the Pats from the NFL's second perfect season.

The schadenfreude following that Super Bowl loss was perhaps the most painful and embarrassing that Patriots fans have had to endure. That loss was worse even than the 1990 season in which the Patriots went 1-15. Sometimes, it's more painful to come close and fall just short than never to get anywhere near a championship.

In the current season, the Patriots aren't Super Bowl favorites — but they're certainly not underdogs. ESPN's weekly power rankings poll lists the Pats as the No. 6 team in the NFL. And there are plenty of other teams that elicit the ire of fans.

Some people aren't too fond of the Philadelphia Eagles because they signed Michael Vick, who recently finished serving time for dogfighting charges. Others are holding grudges against the Minnesota Vikings for signing former Packers and Jets quarterback Brett Favre, thus validating Favre's months of endless will-he-or-won't-he retirement waffling. And still other fans will always have teams they love to hate for a variety of reasons.

But the Patriots don't look to be anyone's favorites anytime soon. Outside of New England, you'd have about as much luck convincing a football fan that Tom Brady is worthy of praise as you would convincing a Red Sox fan to love Derek Jeter. The comparison chaps Boston fans, for sure, but it's certainly valid.

Marrying the world's biggest supermodel doesn't do anything to keep Brady out of the public eye when he's not playing, and with the NFL's new "Brady Rule" designed to punish players who hit quarterbacks below the knees, opposing teams’ fans have had enough of the Patriots’ star quarterback on their televisions and in their magazines and newspapers. Of course, to Patriots fans, Brady can do no wrong.

And New England fans now know what it feels like to be the bad guy. It's been a bitter lesson, but since it came as the result of three Super Bowl titles, I'm guessing most of us wouldn't trade it for better standing in the eyes of NFL fans.

That said, no one really likes being the bad guy, and it's certainly no fun when the rest of the world delights in your team's failure. Common sense says that the more mediocre the Patriots become, the less people will care about their failings. But New England fans don't want to be mediocre. They've grown accustomed to success over the past decade and enjoy being on top.

That's the responsibility that comes with being one of the elite teams in the NFL. Other teams are always gunning for you and fans of the remaining 31 teams revel in your failure. It's been a difficult lesson to learn and an even harder one to swallow — especially when opposing players can back up their trash talk. But in sports, schadenfreude works both ways.

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