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A Patriots vs. Falcons Super Bowl makes it easy for fans to decide who to root for

The Patriots: A divisive force.

New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Well, folks, it’s happening: The Patriots are going to appear in the Super Bowl for the 15,000th time in 10 years, setting a new record for Super Bowl appearances by a team that makes many NFL fans outside of New England want to gouge their eyes out.

The Pats will be playing the Falcons, if you haven’t heard. Atlanta has only ever been in one Super Bowl before, 18 years ago. Its players have never lifted the Lombardi Trophy over their heads in an Atlanta-colored confetti storm.

About a month ago, I wrote about how great it would be if we witnessed a Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl. It would’ve been both the ultimate troll and the ultimate reward for NFL fans, because the Cowboys and the Patriots are the most reviled teams outside of their fan bases and the most beloved inside them. Making Americans outside of Texas and New England grapple with which evil empire to root for as they mainlined guacamole seemed like such a fitting end to the 2016 season. It would’ve been a classic Bad Guys vs. Bad Guys matchup.

Instead, we get Bad Guys and Good Guys for Super Bowl LI. We saw varying degrees of this trope in sporting events last year: The Warriors and the Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Finals last spring, and America watched as Golden State become less and less likable as they blew more and more of a 3-1 lead. Ultimately, Cleveland became the home of a championship team for the first time in over 50 years. Then, in the fall, the Cubs played the Indians, and, while both of them hadn’t won a World Series in over five decades, the Cubs’ 100-year-plus drought meant that most of the country was pulling for Chicago.

Now, however, we have — from the perspective of most fans in the nation without ties to New England — the most clear-cut Good Guys/Bad Guys matchup in a long time.

People hate the Patriots with a passion: The team can’t stop winning, many people think they cheat, and fans are fiercely loyal and happy to fight you about it. Most recently, the team’s connection to Trump (including a shout out from our new president at his inauguration) has given people who are opposed to the man’s presidency one more reason to despise the team.

But people also love the hell out of the Patriots. That fierce loyalty is a powerful force among those who belong to Patriots Nation: It’s turned into one of the most impressive fan bases in professional sports.

By contrast, even nominal Falcons fans haven’t historically cared about the Falcons that much — their base ranked 31st in fan equity in 2013. The rest of the country has been largely indifferent to the team, too; recently, the most passionate sentiment has probably been pleasant surprise at how insanely good the team’s offense has become. Unless you’re a Saints fan, in which case you hate Matt Ryan’s guts.

All it takes, however, to unite a dedicated group of citizens in Falcons fandom is a shared enemy. The widespread hate for the Patriots means that most Super Bowl parties around the nation (outside of the Home of Maple Syrup) will probably not follow a theme of red, white, and blue, but one of red, white, and black.

But no matter which side you’re on, this Super Bowl is pretty much a win-win for NFL fans everywhere: The Pats are something to rebel against if you’re already out, or delight in defending if you’re already in. And to a lot of people, that Falcons bandwagon is looking pretty good.

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