The Secret of All Victory

"The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious." —Marcus Aurelius

I usually don't write about the Patriots unless there's a playoff game coming up. However, the way things have gone this season, every game has become a playoff of one kind or another.

And now that the end of the regular season is in sight, each future matchup has its own peculiar importance. Currently those games carry the obvious weight of their undefeated status. At the same time, the overall image of the Patriots, given their recent inability to overwhelm opponents with ease, has created an impression of a stumbling giant, suddenly vulnerable to any opponent, regardless of ability.

As an image of an aging superpower—helmed by a madman bent on a principled if feral revenge—the idea is Nixonian, and alive with scheming color. The only way this idea may be truly on-target is that the team may rightly fear most opponents with the least to lose: a superpower can be planned around rationally; an apparently underpowered opponent may present startling asymmetries.

Like a superpower, talented opponents with a playoff future conduct themselves soberly, as the Steelers did this week. Faced with a three score deficit in the final moments, the Steelers ran the ball, evidently content to think they must only beat the Patriots once this year, and it was perhaps better to do so in January than December.

The teams that have no January to look forward to are those who threaten the Patriots more. Teams like the Eagles and the Ravens, and perhaps the Jets and the Dolphins, can burn all of their emotional energy in their 60 minutes appearance with the Patriots. The promise of a disruption to the Patriots record is enough to combust a rare chemistry within the game, where the favorite must be somewhat conservative and handle all manner of low-percentage strategies, gadget plays, on-side kicks, hell-bent pass rushers, and the like. This challenge is all the more difficult if your own offense gambles as confidently as the Patriots do.

This is surely the reason the undefeated season is a goal frequently lost in the last few games of the season. To my mind the real record the Patriots currently carry is that of narrative. The New England Patriots are going on their seventh straight season sustaining a fascinating and nuanced organizational Bildungsroman that is possibly without peer. It is one wherein the normal tropes of sports journalism don't seem to hold: where campaign, battle, conquest, and triumph seem necessary, yes, but wholly rational and philosophical. In that sense, Bill Belichick and the coaches and players of the New England Patriots stand not so close to Nixon, as to Marcus Aurelius.

Posted December 12, 2007.