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Jerry Sullivan: Goodell, revenge on Super Bowl collision course

Readers often accuse me of being a Patriots fan. "Go back to New England" is one of the more common refrains on Twitter. Yes, I've written some positive things about the Pats since becoming the senior columnist 16 years ago, and I've considered Tom Brady the best quarterback of all time for more than a decade. Imagine that.

But a fan? No way. I grew up in Rhode Island as a Red Sox and Celtics fan, but had no attachment to the Patriots as a kid. We thought of the AFL as a lesser league. Besides, we didn't get their games on TV in the dark ages.

We grew up rooting for the Giants, because we got their games on Sundays. I have no memory of the Pats losing to the Bills in the 1964 regular-season finale, or the Bills winning the AFL title, but I vividly recall watching the Browns beat the Colts for the NFL title that year with my dad.

As an objective columnist, what I root for now is the best story. And next Sunday in Houston, the best story line is for the Patriots to win the Super Bowl and to accept the Lombardi Trophy from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell while the nation looks on and Goodell fakes a smile.

I'm also rooting for a great game, which is always a desirable story. Super Bowl LI (51), a matchup of the league's two top-rated passers –Atlanta's Matt Ryan against the Pats' Tom Brady – could be one of the most entertaining championship games ever. Oddsmakers and experts expect a shootout. The over-under is 58 points, the highest ever for a Super Bowl. I'm seeing a lot of predictions in the 34-31 range. Both teams reached 30 points twice in the 50 previous Bowls: The Ravens over the Niners, 34-31, in 2013, and the Steelers over the Cowboys, 35-31, in 1979.

Atlanta scored 540 points, the eighth-highest in NFL history, and had 80 more in two playoff games. The Patriots have Brady at the top of his game. They put up a combined 70 in playoff wins against strong Houston and Pittsburgh defenses. They also led the league in fewest points allowed.

But it's not the matchup that will dominate the discussion during the week, starting with Monday night's opening interview sessions. It'll be the Pats' perceived revenge tour, their irrepressible march to the big game despite Brady's four-game suspension for deflating footballs two years ago.

The idea of Goodell having to present the championship trophy to Pats owner Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick, and perhaps handing a fourth MVP award to Brady, has been percolating in the minds of New England fans since a federal appeals court reinstated Brady's suspension last April.

New Englanders can carry a chip around on their shoulders, as I well know. This would be the sweetest Super Bowl win of them all. A fifth ring would be one for the thumb, but also a giant middle finger to the commissioner.

Goodell hasn't been at a Pats game since Brady's suspension was reinstated. He went to Atlanta for both Falcons playoff games, while avoiding Gillette. It was a cowardly move. Players get booed and ridiculed all the time. Goodell can play king and suspend players, but he can't take the heat?

If the issue dominates the week, Goodell has himself to blame for taking a heavy hand on an inflated scandal. For the second time in three years, Brady and DeflateGate could overshadow the proceedings before the Bowl, steal attention from the NFC champion and detract from the joyous scene afterward.

The Pats will follow the lead of the dour Belichick and dismiss any revenge talk while trying not to bite through their lower lips. They didn't need extra motivation to get this far, and they don't need to win to complete a revenge tour. Getting to another Super Bowl was revenge enough.

Win or lose, this season has been further affirmation of the Pats as one of the greatest franchises in sports history. It might be Belichick's best coaching job, which is like trying to pick Mozart's greatest symphony.

Belichick had to prepare his team for the first quarter of the season without Brady. He had to coach up Jimmy Garoppolo as starting quarterback, then Jacoby Brissett after Garoppolo got hurt. He traded his top two defensive players, Chandler Jones before the season and Jamie Collins during it.

He lost Rob Gronkowski halfway through the year to back surgery. Tailback Dion Lewis played only seven games. Still, the Pats went 14-2, their seventh straight season with at least 12 wins and the fifth time they won 14 or more with Belichick/Brady.

As always, they had their doubters. After a 31-24 home loss to Seattle, a game in which Russell Wilson threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns, critics ripped Belichick for weakening his defense. They also wondered if the offense, which had a tough night, was susceptible to strong, mobile defensive fronts.

They haven't lost since that Nov. 13 game. The Pats have allowed 120 points in nine games since. They led the NFL in fewest points allowed with 250, their lowest total in 10 years. Still, they have yet to face a quarterback who rated in the top 10 (Ben Roethlisberger was 11th), and questions linger.

Critics wonder how the Patriots will fare against an elite quarterback who can sustain long drives and pick them apart. The Falcons are the standard in the NFC. Ryan had an MVP year. He has a superstar wideout in Julio Jones and a top running back tandem in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Let's hope for a better game that last year's. Carolina, also the NFL's top-scoring team, was stifled by an inspired Denver defense. New England's defense isn't nearly as good as Denver's, and Ryan is a better passer than Cam Newton, with better weapons.

As the capper to an NFL season in which bad ratings were an issue, it would be nice if the Super Bowl turned into an epic offensive show, an epic contest that would rise above the DeflateGate nonsense. Ryan lighting it up and matching throws with Brady would make it a game for the ages.

Brady could become the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls and the second-oldest to win one. Peyton Manning was two months shy of 40 when the Broncos won last year. Brady turns 40 in August. But Manning was a shell of himself at the time.

Brett Favre and Warren Moon were productive after 40, but no quarterback has ever been as good as Brady at his age. Like Roger Federer in Australia, he is venturing where few in his sport have gone before. Brady can add to his legend by winning and convince a few more skeptics that he's the best ever.

It would be an exclamation, but not an ending, for Brady and Belichick. They're still building their legacies. Brady has said he could play well into his 40s. Belichick shows no signs of slowing down. They could win another title or two before they're through.

Who will challenge them in the AFC next year? Who has the quarterback to stand up to the Pats? Roethlisberger is pondering retirement. The Dolphins and  Texans aren't good enough at quarterback. Maybe the Raiders, or a team with a rising young quarterback like the Titans with Marcus Mariota.

For now, the Pats remain the class of the AFC, as they have for the millennium. It's an old story, but a compelling one. I can't wait to see Goodell's face if they win. That'll be the best revenge of all for the Pats. They wouldn't have to say a word.

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