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Tom Brady and the Cinderella Patriots are the underdog story the NFL needs

The Patriots are riding a wave of disrespect(?) into the AFC Championship Game.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots, America’s beloved underdogs, know you don’t believe in them. But a young upstart named Tom Brady is ready to change all that.

“I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games,” Brady told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after pushing his 11-win team to a home victory over a 13-win Chargers squad. “So we’ll see [about next week’s showdown against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game]. It’ll be fun.”

Brady was beaming in the moment. He’d shaken off the ignominy of merely being named a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2018 and turned the narrative he slowed down this fall onto its ear with a 343-yard, one-touchdown performance in a rout over Los Angeles. The fans in New England responded in kind, rising up to sing the ultimate underdog anthem, led by a regular kid from New Jersey, as the sun began to wane in the second half.

That crowd motivation was the boost that turned a 41-14 Patriots third quarter lead into a 41-28 victory. And now this cast of lovable underdogs is just one win away from its first Super Bowl trip since 2018.

The shade is real, but New England isn’t listening

The Pro Bowl quarterback wasn’t the only Patriot to bathe in the worldwide disrespect that drenched a game in which New England was favored by more than a field goal — the 69th straight Brady start in which the Pats were the favorites.

“We’re still here, we’re still going,” wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, once cast away by the Indianapolis Colts but now a member of New England’s rag tag receiving corps. “We know it’s going to be a challenge next week so we have got to get in and have the same focus we had this week on the game plan and all the details.”

“We were going to prepare and be ready to go, whether you pick us or you don’t pick us,” safety Devin McCourty said. “But, we see it. We see our quarterback’s too old, we’re not good enough on defense, the skill players aren’t good. We see it, but it doesn’t affect how we prepare. We love practicing and we love playing with each other, preparing.”

This buzz permeated through the New England locker room as the Patriots’ opening -5 line slid all the way down to -4 as the Chargers prepared for their trip to Foxborough, stretching from the team’s stars to its role players.

“You do hear things like that,” Rob Gronkowski, the tight end whose inability to play a convincing safety helped push Sunday’s AFC title game to Kansas City said. “But you’ve got to ignore it in a way where it doesn’t ruin your preparation, ruin what you’re trying to do, ruin what you’re trying to accomplish that week. So, if you take it in, if you take it for motivation, that’s great. But other than that, you can’t let it get you down. You’ve just got to keep on preparing how you’ve prepared every week.”

“Any motivation that you can use when it’s playoff time,” fellow receiver Chris Hogan told reporters after a three-catch, 13-yard performance against Los Angeles. “It’s fine, people can count us out. The guys in this locker room, we believe in each other. We believe in ourselves and our abilities. We’re just going to continue to work hard every single week.”

That belief will be put to the test now that the Patriots are actual underdogs

The Patriots will be actual underdogs when they head to western Missouri for what may be an absolutely frigid game Sunday night against the Chiefs. ESPN’s Football Power index gives New England the worst odds to win this year’s NFL championship.

Oddsmakers were a little more bullish on the Pats’ chances — but not by much.

Odds to win the Super Bowl

New Orleans Saints: +175
Kansas City Chiefs: +275
New England Patriots: +325
Los Angeles Rams: +350

But these Patriots aren’t letting that or what’s merely their eighth straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game get to their heads. After all, only slightly more than half those games have ended in Super Bowl appearances, a fact not lost on head coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick isn’t going to play the “just happy to be here” game, because he wants more for his underdog team. Smart. But someone probably should have told special teams ace Matthew Slater about that narrative before Sunday, as he crashed New England’s underdog party with a sobering dose of realism and perspective after beating the Chargers.

“We’ve been extremely blessed over the last eight years to be a competitive football team,” Slater replied when asked about the Patriots reaching the AFC title game. “I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but I don’t know, the good Lord keeps giving us some good opportunities and we try to take advantage of them.

“We’re humbled to be in this situation. Love this group of guys, love this locker room. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

Those sound like the words of an underdog. And that’s not going to fly for America’s team on Sunday.