No one is happy. It's about halfway through the third quarter and the Oakland Raiders appear to have the conference playoff game well in hand. It seems for all the world that the New England Patriots have done what Boston-area teams seem to do best: raised everyone's hopes only to cave in during a game they were supposed to win.
But it's never quite that easy with the Pats. So while the roomful of guys who are, for the moment, calling themselves Patriots fans are decidedly unhappy, so am I, the single Raiders fan in the crowd. I'm unhappy because I, too, have been watching the Pats all my life. I'm unhappy because I know the Pats are going to come back and win it. They have to. That's what they do when everyone has given up on them.
"I knew it," says Bill, probably the purest Pats fan in the room. He leans forward and thumps the arm of the couch lightly with his palm. The Raiders are again moving the ball downfield in spite of the much-hyped Patriots defense, and in spite of the snowstorm that was supposed to spell doom for Oakland. "It's all over now," he says. "We might as well go home. I knew it."
I laugh a little bit. It starts out amused, but comes out sounding nervous.
"You know what, man," I say. "There's an awful lot of time left in this game. They're not down by that much. This is still anybody's game."
I'm hopeful this will turn out to be nothing more than generous reassurance, something to offset the quiet gloating I hope to do later. But it's also an incantation, an offering to the football gods. Maybe if I say the Patriots still have a chance that will break the spell. Maybe if I trick the universe into believing there's someone out there who still believes the Pats can win, fate will hesitate from intervening long enough for the Raiders to sew this thing up.
"Shut up," Bill counters. "Your Raiders are gonna win, OK? I admit it. You were right, they're gonna win. So shut up."
Jack, who's sitting nearer to me than Bill, opens his mouth for the first time since halftime. "They can't come back," he says. "I wish they could, but they can't." He retreats back into silence. His arms are crossed tight and high across his chest. His face registers the kind of pout you typically only see when he blows an easy putt or registers an empty hand in a game of darts.
Under less tense circumstances, I'd have pointed out how much Jack's outlook on the game has changed. He did, after all, spend the week e-mailing me various stats, theories and weather forecasts that "proved" the Raiders couldn't possibly win this game.
Rob and his wife, Jackie, have retreated to the kitchen where they're playing with Jack's dog and making as much noise as possible. They want everyone to know they don't really care about the game. But we all know the truth: Neither of them can bear to watch the Pats lose yet another big game.
Glum faces and talk of heading out before the snow gets too bad fill the living room. As far as everyone is concerned, the Patriots have officially crapped out.
And the attitude here only reflects what's taking place in Foxboro Stadium, where it seems the only Pats fans who aren't booing are the ones walking to the exits.
There's nothing new about the scene here in Douglas, Mass., or the one in Foxboro. Indeed, both capture the very essence of what it means to be a Patriots fan.
Bill is as close to being a tried-and-true Pats fan as anybody I've ever met. He doesn't follow any other team. He begins every season with at least some hope that New England will at least finish 8-8. He spends every draft day hoping the Patriots will finally make a good decision, will finally pick up that one great piece that completes the puzzle the team seems to have been working on for decades.
Even Bill doesn't expect much, though. And he's fairly quick to turn his attentions to other sports once the Pats season goes into a tailspin (usually by Week 5).
The rest are like me. Just about every New England football fan I've ever met is like me. We get excited when the Pats do well, but we never expect anything to come of it. We never commit to the Pats until there's nothing else to do. We have our other teams and they come first. It's the Raiders for me. Jack likes the Denver Broncos. Rob follows whatever team has his favorite player of the moment. Come playoff time, if our primary teams are eliminated and the Patriots are still playing (this happens about once a decade), we become hesitant Pats boosters.
None of us are transplants to the region; we didn't bring loyalties with us from elsewhere (except for Jackie, who grew up in Cleveland and remains a Browns fan first). In fact, the town we all grew up in, Milford, Mass., is perhaps half an hour's drive from Foxboro Stadium. We're fans of other teams first because when you're a football fan in New England you have to be. Otherwise, most seasons get depressing rather quickly, and there's almost never anything to get excited about in January.
The Patriots aren't the Red Sox. They wish they were the Red Sox. Because they're worse than the Red Sox. The Sox break your heart at least two out of every three years. The Pats only do it once in a blue moon, and then they do it more abruptly. And the silver lining to heartbreak, as everyone knows, is that you at least get to fall in love for a while first.
That moment is usually too fleeting with the Pats. So unlike the Sox, when the Patriots do have one of their moments, the affair develops more slowly. There's more reluctance to start the romance. And thanks to history, there's a lot less romance to the romance. That doesn't stop the bandwagon from loading up when the Pats do get going, though.
In a season like this one, the bandwagon starts loading up early. Many were already on board by mid-November, when the Patriots lost 24-17 to the powerhouse St. Louis Rams in Foxboro. For every one of us who was sure that game marked the beginning of the end for Tom Brady and the Pats, there were two or three praising the team for keeping it close and predicting (accurately, as it turned out) that the Pats would win out. Some were even talking crazy talk about a division title, though none were so bold as to so much as whisper Super Bowl.
By the time Week 15 rolled around and the Pats beat the Miami Dolphins before heading into a bye, it was clear that the annual heartbreak was going to be delayed at least until mid-January. Just about everyone in New England had made the transformation (except for those of us whose primary teams were still in the hunt). Everyone was riding the Pats bandwagon. But, as usual, the middle of the wagon was fairly empty; everyone was riding close to the edge, ready to jump off when the situation grew dim.
It didn't dim. And the bandwagon stayed loaded up.
But now it's Jan. 20 and things are looking mighty dim indeed. The Raiders appear to have got the best of the Pats, and fans are jumping from the bandwagon faster than the snowflakes are falling from the sky.
Then the fourth quarter comes and Brady drives the Pats down the field with a series of precision passes, and brings them within three points. Then he appears to be doing it again, only to be crushed by Charles Woodson and fumble the ball in Raiders territory with less than two minutes left.
"That's it," says Jack.
And Bill, on his feet, head on his chest: "OK, I'm leaving."
But, of course, the refs overturn the call. And Adam Vinatieri hits an impossible field goal to tie the game.
The Patriots win the coin toss in overtime and take the ball. But even as they line up for a Vinatieri chip shot that will win the game, no one is convinced quite yet. They expect things to go wrong for the Pats. They know they have to. They always do.
They don't. Vinatieri kicks it through the swirling snow and through the uprights. The Pats have won.
Bill bounds around the room with Jack's dog, who is excited by the excitement, jumping at his heels. Rob and Jackie attempt to persuade others in the room to pigpile on the lone Raiders fan. Jack looks at me and says, without a hint of irony, "I told you the Raiders couldn't win."
He celebrates with the others for a few minutes, then turns back to me. "So who are you gonna root for next week?"
"The Patriots," I say.
"Aren't you mad?"
"I'm mad that the Raiders lost. I'm mad about the call. I'm not mad at the Pats."
"You think they'll win?"
"Not if they have to go to Pittsburgh."
"But you're gonna root for them?"
"Of course I'm gonna root for them."
Bill chimes in, "They're going to the Super Bowl."
"Twenty minutes ago, you thought their season was over," I remind him.
"Yeah," he says, "but they won."
He's right, of course. They did win. And then they went into Pittsburgh and won again.
And that means that, for the moment, at least, the Pats are unstoppable. Until they get stopped.
That's what it means to be a Patriots fan. And now I'm on the bandwagon too. I'm riding it all the way to New Orleans, where I'm sure I'm going to get my heart broken.