PHOENIX-- --America used to love the New England Patriots. Now that they are on the doorstep of perfection and the cusp of a fourth Super Bowl title, America is consumed by them again - but this time, by the burning desire to see them lose.
You don't have to go far anywhere in the country, outside of New England, to find fans who will be rooting passionately for the New York Giants on Sunday. Not because they're Giants fans, but because, for one reason or another, they can't stand the Patriots.
This shift in loyalty is downright seismic. Not even a full year ago, the Patriots were still as beloved as they were on the night of Feb. 3, 2002. That was when they took the Louisiana Superdome field for the Super Bowl, against the prohibitive favorite St. Louis Rams, less than five months after Sept. 11, and instantly stole the hearts of the viewers by being introduced not individually, but as a team.
By night's end, after Tom Brady's dramatic final drive, Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal at the final gun and the shock of the emotion-drenched upset, the Patriots could have been elected presidents, as a team.
Now? From letters to newspapers to talk-radio callers to message-board posters to blog-site contributors, the public's surge against the Patriots has steadily grown, well beyond the power of its detractors - current and former players and coaches who appreciate the accomplishment and Patriots faithful defending their team - to stem the flow.
"Not often do you see a team really get it together and do everything right," said Brian Mitchell, who starred for the Washington Redskins team that won the Super Bowl after the 1991 season and now co-hosts a radio show in D.C. "I would love to see it. A lot of people want to go against it because of the Spygate stuff, but let's face it: Do you think the Patriots are the only ones that have filmed the sidelines?"
As for the early stretch of the season when the Patriots kept trying to score in games they eventually won 52-7 and 56-10, Mitchell said: "The first thing I learned in football was that the other team's job is to stop you; it's not your job to stop yourself. They just tried to maximize everything from their offense. ... I'm cheering for them because you can't stop them."
Mitchell, though, pinpointed exactly why the team has become the New England Hate-triots.
There was the spying, first of all, which branched into other fields on which fans could sow their bitterness. The guilty coach, Bill Belichick, and his refusal to address or acknowledge his act, was left with a Nixonian sheen. Many also thought the NFL took it easy on the Patriots with its punishment and its quick destruction of evidence that was turned over to the league.
Then came the Patriots' reaction to it - to try to crush every opponent in their path, without mercy or impunity. It was the polar opposite of the style in which they had won their previous three Super Bowls, when they found contributions from unexpected sources and rode their blue-collar ethic and former sixth-round-pick quarterback to narrow victory.
By midseason, the organization once hailed as a paragon of ego-free, team-first efficiency, the ideal all others should follow, was looked upon as insufferably arrogant, secretive, paranoid and reclusive. The result was a nation sharply divided on what otherwise would have been a coronation.
Ratings for late-season games skyrocketed - the game in Baltimore on Dec. 3, in which the Patriots narrowly escaped, 27-24, was the most-watched program in the history of cable television - as fans were either hoping the Patriots kept it up or got taken down.
The fact that they have now become tabloid fodder, with the intense focus on Brady's foot and love life, has created new sources of venom.
Most of the season, the Patriots have relished their role as villains. But even they recognize that at one basic level, things are different.
"I wasn't used to 52-7 or 52-14 or anything like that," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said when the team arrived in Arizona on Sunday. "What I've been used to my entire career are the games we've been experiencing the last two months. That's what I'm used to - to have to grit your teeth and win in the fourth quarter. That's what I think this football team is all about."
That team, in many minds, no longer exists. It has been replaced by a team everybody now loves to hate.
Listen to David Steele on Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).