Preparing for a Super Bowl without the New England Patriots

Football is America’s passion, addiction and compulsion, but there are more people than you might think who watch only one game per year. For those who tune out early each February and wait 12 months to catch NFL fever again, a shock is in store this time around.

The New England Patriots are not in the Super Bowl.

It had become one of the certainties of an extremely uncertain sport, having Tom Brady and his band of pals show up on the biggest stage in sports every year. It is a run that has been historic, mightily impressive, fearless, ruthless and often awe-inspiring.

Yet while all sports love a dynasty — something that is truly rare, especially in the hectic world of football — there are few tears being shed outside of Pats country, little lamenting that Brady won’t be hurling the pigskin in search of a ring for a rare empty finger. If truth be told, this Super Bowl is better for the fact that there are fresh faces and new contenders.

Their run on top has been historic, impressive, and awe-inspiring, but in the year 2020, the Patriots have simply won too much for anyone beyond their own faithful fans to be ecstatic to see them in the Super Bowl once again. Being hated is a realistic byproduct of athletic success, and while New England should wear it like a badge of honor, fans of 31 other teams won’t apologize for being thankful to be spared the possibility of the same predictable outcome this time around.

Whoever emerges victorious when the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers duke it out on Sunday, the winner will be the neutral fan seeking a fresh narrative. Aside from the bizarre tale of Brady’s game-winning jersey getting stolen from next to his locker in 2017 (watch The Great Brady Heist February 1 on FOX at 7 p.m. ET), there were only so many ways the Patriots story could be spun.

Brady and Bill Belichick and many of their supporting cast members have given us all they are going to give about themselves — which in Belichick’s case was a master class in using many words to say very little.

We exalt greatness, but we like unpredictability, too. We love it when newcomers take their chance to forge a legacy. Patrick Mahomes looks very much like a quarterback capable of hoisting the NFL on his back for the next decade, while Jimmy Garoppolo is not only movie-star handsome but has an almighty team with tremendous will behind him.

There is unpredictability in this matchup because both teams ooze it. How could the 49ers not, given that they were predicted to do only marginally better than their 4-12 record from last season — not tear up the league and come within a trio of nail-biters of going 16-0?

And if you like that irresistible buzz of bubbling anticipation in sports, Mahomes provides it every time he crouches under center, a transcendent quarterback who is only ever one throw away from potentially turning a game on its head.

By the time last year’s big game rolled around, the Patriots were so omnipresent that they had almost become bigger than the game. The discussion around the Los Angeles Rams was less about their ill-fated tilt at destiny and more about whether they could slay the looming giant. They couldn’t.

Few could.

Before pressing the eject button against the Tennessee Titans and Derrick Henry’s marauding runs in the Wild Card round, the Patriots had reached nine of the last 19 Super Bowls, five of the last eight, and three in a row.

Only the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants toppled them, while Brady and company crushed the dreams of the Rams, the Atlanta Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks, the Carolina Panthers, plus — long ago — Andy Reid’s Eagles in 2004.

Locally, Miami diehards have spent years suffering at the hands of New England in the AFC East, and have nothing but cheer that they don’t have to see them this week.

USA TODAY’s Josh Peter spent Monday interviewing Miami natives about their delight at the Patriots’ absence — and found plenty of willing talkers.

“To find someone in Miami who is happy the Patriots aren’t here isn’t hard, you just have to go up and talk to someone — anyone,” Peter told me in a telephone conversation. “There is no shortage of people who are sad the Dolphins aren’t in the Super Bowl, but completely thrilled the Patriots missed out. There’s just too much history there, I guess.”

I also had a chance to speak with Miami native Teddy Bridgewater, whose New Orleans Saints missed out on the Super Bowl. He believes his hometown is relieved to see a fresh matchup this time around. When asked if Miami residents were happy the Patriots wouldn’t be part of the Super Bowl, Bridgewater replied, “I think so, (with the Dolphins) having to face the New England Patriots twice a year … in the past they’ve been battling it out. I’m pretty sure that everyone here is pretty happy New England is not in the Super Bowl. Hats off to both teams for doing what they’ve done to get this far.“

We’re on the verge of what has become a rare sight over the past two decades. Not just a winner’s podium devoid of the Pats, but a Super Bowl where Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are nowhere in sight. Casual fans may find this takes some getting used to, but the majority of diehard NFL fans is eager for something new.