They are hated.
Hated and envied, but mostly hated.
For their arrogance. For their smugness. For their gall.
They are despised because everyone thinks they are a bunch of cheaters. And they stick up for their cheating team with the blind loyalty of a cult. Don't they see that?
We hate their coach. We hate their pretty-boy quarterback. We hate their accents.
We hate them.
And they love it.
After all, is there anything better than being a New England Patriots fan?
They root for the best team in all of sports. Their Pats have dominated the NFL for two decades. For the entire county, the Super Bowl is practically a national holiday. For New Englanders, it's another Sunday on their team's schedule.
"There's the old expression: you hate us because you ain't us,'' says Pats fan Noam Neusner. "There's no doubt that we love the bitter hate.''
Neusner, 47, grew up in Rhode Island. He worked in newspapers. He wrote speeches for President George W. Bush. He has a communications consulting firm now in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Nice guy. Smart. A good husband and father. There's so much to like about him, except for his favorite football team.
"There's definitely an us-against-the-world, no doubt,'' Neusner said. "When you're a Patriots fan now, you know you're rooting for the Evil Empire.''
Pats fan Erika Nardini says, "Nobody likes us.''
Nardini, 40, is the CEO of Barstool Sports, the former head of marketing for AOL and a typical Pats fan. She grew up in New Hampshire and Vermont. Married a guy from Boston. She has a license plate that says "NEPBB'' — which stands for New England Patriots Bill Belichick, the sinister robot in charge of the Pats. When Nardini and her husband moved to New York, she got DirecTV before she got living room furniture so she wouldn't miss even one Patriots game.
She has a cat named Mo Lewis, which is simultaneously sick and exquisite. Lewis was the Jets player whose hit on New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe in a 2001 game gave the backup a chance to play. That backup? The almighty Tom Brady.
"Patriots fans are hugely loyal,'' Nardini said. "We are all emotion. I think Patriots fans are righteous and mouthy and loyal. Fiercely loyal. We'll go down with the team and we'll go down swinging.''
Swinging at anybody who wants to use Deflategate and Spygate as a reason why the Pats have had so much success.
"We view all that with derision,'' Neusner said. "Deflategate was a load of baloney. Go into any conversation with a Patriots fan, they will get apoplectic about it because they feel – and I believe correctly – that there was no there there. There was no incident.''
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Accusations of cheating only make Patriots fans more vigilant in their loyalty to the Patriots, in their contempt for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and in their disdain of the rest of the NFL.
"There's this fierce, loyal protectiveness of the Patriots and so much of it goes back to how bad they were,'' says ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, who grew up in New England and was a longtime sports writer at the Boston Globe. "They were so bad. They were the Patsies.''
There are two generations of Pats fans. There are those who remember the bad old days when losing records far outweighed playoff appearances. The best season New England had before Belichick arrived ended with one of the most embarrassing Super Bowl losses ever when the Pats were crushed by the Bears, 46-10, at the end of the 1985 season.
"Now we talk about them in the same breathe as the San Antonio Spurs, which I think is probably the ultimate compliment in sports,'' MacMullan said. "So they are very protective of that. It's hard for them to listen to people devalue what has happened.''
The new generation of Pats fans only know winning and more winning.
"They don't understand how hard it was to get here where they just dominate all the time,'' MacMullan, 56, said. "My kids and their generation don't quite have the edge about this that older fans do because their hearts weren't broken. When your heart is broken and then it goes right, you're just so fiercely protective of that. I think the new generation of fans are like, 'We won the Super Bowl. Yeah, we do that a lot. That's what Belichick and Brady do.'''
Still, it's strange. Those outside of New England don't hate the Red Sox or Celtics or Bruins like they do the Patriots even though those other Boston teams have had plenty of success with the same fan base.
People outside of New England rooted for those "idiot'' Red Sox to break the curse of not winning a World Series. In the '80s, you were either a Celtics or Lakers fan, so half the country rooted for Larry Bird's Celts.
"No one outside of New England ever roots for the Patriots,'' MacMullan said, "because it's Belichick and there's an arrogance about him.''
Patriots fans have taken on Belichick's personalty.
"There's no emotional attachment between the franchise and the players other than, perhaps, Tom Brady,'' Neusner said. "It's a cold and calculating franchise that is exceptionally well run. ... Patriots fans have been trained to become kind of cold and calculating.''
Someday, this will all end. Brady will retire. Belichick will retire. The Pats will lose.
"I don't even let myself go there,'' Nardini said.
Meantime, this Sunday, in big cites such as Boston and Hartford and in all those little towns and villages dotted across New England and in bars and homes all over the country, Patriots fans will do what they've grown accustomed to doing on Sundays.
"Sunday is off limits,'' MacMullan said. "It becomes part of the fabric of your social life. It's weird. And you don't even realize that it happened.''
They will sit and watch the best team in all of sports playing for another championship. Again.
"Yeah, it's fun,'' Nardini said. "It's fun and we love it.''
The rest of the country will hate it.