Athletic competitions are easiest to process when they entail very clear Good Guys playing very clear Bad Guys. Like any sports movie worth its salt, the formula is pretty simple: Our Lovable Underdogs vs. Their Arrogant Powerhouse. When it’s laid out like that, you either make a conscious decision to hate the Powerhouse and root for the Underdogs, slowly get brainwashed into it, or, if you’re a contrarian, swim upstream and root for the Bad Guys.
But a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys matchup is exactly what I hope doesn’t happen at the biggest professional football game this year. For Super Bowl LI, I want what would be seen as a straightforward Bad Guys vs. Bad Guys matchup. I want a game that brings fans of neither team to their knees as they agonize over which horrible franchise to root for.
That’s right: I want a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl.
It could very well happen: Both teams are the No. 1 seed in their respective divisions. But the thing about a Dallas vs. New England Super Bowl is that it would actually be more complicated than a simple Bad Guys vs. Bad Guys fight to the finish. The levels of vitriol this matchup would arouse in fans who hate the teams would be off the charts, but the levels of joy it would bring those who love them would be, too.
I know, I know, if you have no ties to Dallas or New England, this hypothetical game seems like the physical manifestation of the maniacal laugh a villain emits right before they press the “Destroy Earth” button. People hate these teams: If you Google “most hated NFL teams,” the lists all put the Patriots and the Cowboys at the top. This headline from Feb. 2016 reads, “Patriots pass Cowboys as most hated NFL team in national poll.”
But people also love these teams with as much fervor as others despise them: A poll from a little over a year ago found that the Cowboys and the Patriots were the two favorite teams in the NFL.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
By Fitzgerald’s definition, this game would reward first-rate intelligences to the moon and back. The Patriots and the Cowboys are the worst of the worst and the best of the best. No matter which camp you fall into, each comes with skyscraper high levels of emotional stakes. No one wouldn’t have an opinion about this matchup.
And sports are best when people care. When they care irrationally.
Especially when the reason people are disgusted or devoted is the same. Which is that, in this case, both teams are good. And have been consistently good for long stretches of time historically. They’re certainly both very good right now: The Patriots are 14-2. The Cowboys are 13-3. They have not stumbled (though both teams have tripped a few times), nor have they left room for underdogs. Instead, they plowed through their 2016 opponents.
People who don’t root for powerhouse teams like the Patriots or the Cowboys naturally turn on them. No one likes to watch the same team win over and over when it’s not their team. People turn on the fans who support the teams, too, because they’ll inevitably come across as entitled, or as the proud owners of an obnoxious “us against the world” mentality.
Both the Patriots and the Cowboys certainly have more than enough non-strictly-football reasons to garner hate — most people outside New England consider the Patriots cheaters. The Cowboys are big, brash, and have had several players involved in domestic violence cases. At this point, there are few NFL teams that could be considered, well, moral, but these two have tested the limits more than others.
This season, however, anti-Cowboys NFL fan could probably admit that, at least from a football perspective, it’s been fun to watch them play. The chemistry between Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, or Prescott and Dez Bryant, or Prescott and anyone on the offense, really, has been off the charts.
The Patriots have put on a show, too. It was unpredictable and exciting to watch their backup quarterbacks play the first four games. Since then, Tom Brady’s been doing his job with his typical skill, abilities that make him one of the G.O.A.T.s.
After a season that my colleague Louis Bien referred to as “an unceasing fart,” it would be a treat to watch two undoubtedly top-notch teams face each other in the final game of the year. And it would be hard to make up a better narrative than one in which Brady and Prescott — two MVP candidates, one time-tested, the other one of the best rookie quarterbacks the league has ever seen — face off.
The other storylines we’d get from this game would be intriguing, too: We could watch a sad but gracious Tony Romo on the sidelines, we could shake our heads at Jerry Jones, we could make fun of Belichick’s press conferences. And, perhaps most importantly, we could continue to read thinkpiece after thinkpiece about why these teams are so unlovable and brilliant.
(Also — forgive me, I did grow up in New England, and you can’t change where you come from — it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be satisfying to watch Roger Goodell have to hand Brady the trophy after all that DeflateGate nonsense. Even if you hate the Pats, you can probably admit that that whole saga was ridiculous ... right?)
But the bottom line is that the levels of investment would make the game feel like it mattered even more than usual. 2016 has been labeled The Worst Year Ever, and yeah, it totally sucked in many regards. But it was also a year full of passion and high stakes. And I can’t think of a more fitting coda to all of that than a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl.
If the Patriots and the Cowboys played each other in the Super Bowl, which team would you root for?— Charlotte Wilder (@TheWilderThings) January 2, 2017