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Jones: The Patriots' most miraculous Super Bowl 51 accomplishment

 
Tom Brady celebrates with coach Bill Belichick and teammate LeGarrette Blount after the New England Patriots' unprecedented overtime comeback victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Feb. 5, 2017. He was not the Brady everyone knew in the first half, spraying passes and missing receivers, and a large swath of America was reveling in it. Then, in the second half, fans saw the very thing they hope to see whenever they tune in to sports. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) XNYT106
Tom Brady celebrates with coach Bill Belichick and teammate LeGarrette Blount after the New England Patriots' unprecedented overtime comeback victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Feb. 5, 2017. He was not the Brady everyone knew in the first half, spraying passes and missing receivers, and a large swath of America was reveling in it. Then, in the second half, fans saw the very thing they hope to see whenever they tune in to sports. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) XNYT106
Published Feb. 8, 2017

The New England Patriots did the impossible Sunday.

No, it wasn't coming back from a 28-3 deficit. No, it wasn't winning the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. No, it wasn't winning their fifth Super Bowl.

As impressive as all of those things were, it doesn't compare with this:

They became likeable.

That's right. Likeable.

The team that cheated and has the robot coach and the quarterback with the perfect life that, up until now, we've envied more than admired. The team that loves to play the woe-is-us, life-is-so-unfair victim after it was caught with its hands in the cookie jar. The team with the annoying fans who act as if the world is out to get them.

They suddenly became a team that you can't help but like.

Likeable.

Not respected, although they are the most respected franchise in football.

Not appreciated, although even the haters can't help but appreciate their greatness.

Not acknowledged, although their place in history can no longer be denied.

Actually liked.

Okay, not by everybody. Certainly Atlanta fans have lost faith in humanity and will never like football or anyone named "Tom'' or "Brady'' ever again. And, I'm guessing there are stragglers out there who just can't stomach another Patriots title.

A year ago, USA Today put together a list of the most likeable teams. The Pats finished 31st. Uh, there are 32 teams in the NFL.

But, come on, didn't the past few days turn the Evil Empire into good guys? Sort of?

Start with the fact they were able to stick it to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. As hard as it is to believe, Deflategate will be a bigger stain on Goodell's legacy than Brady's. And that's the way it should be for how Goodell bungled the whole matter.

But there's more to it than Goodell looking like a fool.

There was Brady choking up when talking about his parents last week. There was coach Bill Belichick yucking it up after the game. There was owner Bob Kraft taking a subtle, but effective shot at Goodell upon receiving the Lombardi Trophy. There was The Gronk, tight end Rob Gronkowski, partying with this teammates, genuinely happy even though he has been injured and out most of the season.

When you see that, when you realize that these guys really are human, how can you not like them, even begrudgingly?

Our tendency in sports is to despise dynasties, to save our indignation for the most successful teams.

The Yankees. Notre Dame football. Duke basketball. The Trinity squash team. (Look it up.)

And, the Patriots are on that hated list for many. Or were.

But how can you not respect and appreciate what the Patriots did on Sunday? How can you not like them for it?

They never gave up. Even when things were going wrong. Even when all hope seemed lost. Even when they were counted out. Even when some of their fans, such as Mark Wahlberg, threw in the towel.

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They kept fighting. They kept playing. They kept believing.

That's the American way, right?

So is their relentless preparation and dogged dedication.

Meantime, when you think about it, the Patriots really are underdogs.

Belichick was fired once by the lowly Browns.

Unlike Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Brady wasn't a first-round draft pick handed the starting job right out of college.

Their star running backs — Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount — are castoffs from other teams.

Their tiny star receivers could be mistaken for ball boys. Julian Edelman was drafted in the seventh round and Danny Amendola wasn't drafted at all.

The guy who scored the winning touchdown, James White, was the 130th player picked in the 2014 draft.

The whole team is like that. They've always been like that.

Everywhere you look, it's some unknown player making a play because he has worked hard and has been well-coached.

The Patriots really do represent a team whose sum is greater than its parts.

How can you not respect that?

Moreso, how can you not like that?

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones