January 06, 2017

Remember, Patriots fans: It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

So while most NFL fans see the upside in their quarterback being named a second-team All-Pro, New Englanders see the invisible hand of commissioner Roger Goodell and yet another conspiracy aimed at Tom Brady. The notion that voters on a nationwide panel would conclude that Atlanta's Matt Ryan had a better regular season seems to them a little too, well, pat.

They don't care that Ryan held onto a slight edge in almost every important statistical passing measure that can be compared despite playing a longer season - 16 games to Brady's 12.

Because while the rest of the country has moved on, they're still fixated on why Brady had to sit out those four games - serving his sentence from ''Deflategate'' - in the first place.

You might think all that winning - four Super Bowls since 2001 - and the packed trophy case at whichever mansion Brady and his Brazilian supermodel wife, Giselle Bundchen, and their perfect children occupy at the moment, would have erased most of that spite.

Or that this season's 14-2 record and the top seed in the upcoming playoffs, on top of another precedent-shattering season by their 39-year-old quarterback, would have at least tamped those feelings down.

If so, you don't know Patriots fans. They're not happy unless their team is winning everything in sight AND Goodell is being forced into a witness-protection program.

One resident of the six-state region, Richard Pate of Biddeford, Maine, has taken his campaign to the skies.

When a ruling by the U.S. Second Circuit Court last summer forced Brady to abandon his appeal and accept the four-game suspension resulting from Deflategate, Pate made up a giant banner reading ''Comm. Goodell Jet Home to N.Y.'' and hired a plane to tow it back and forth over Goodell's summer home nearby.

On Brady's birthday last August, Pate marked the occasion with a second banner, ''Happy B-day T Brady from Maine and Roger G.''

He hasn't tipped his hand on future plans, but he's made clear the $450-per-hour tab to rent the plane isn't going to dissuade him from letting his Patriots' freak flag fly.

That kind of commitment marks New England fans as a breed apart. What's turned it into a divide is not just jealousy over how often the Pats have won, but how often that pride spills over into the obnoxious.

Take that annoying third-down horn in Gillette Stadium - please. Or those even-more-annoying colonial re-enactors shooting off muskets on the sideline, or that barely recognizable replica of a New England lighthouse looming over the home end zone, or even the way the opposing coaches' headsets suddenly start playing elevator music at crucial moments in big games.

Then remember all those times coach Bill ''Smartypants'' Belichick ran up the score or found a flaw in the rule book and rubbed some unsuspecting opponent's face in it.

And don't get us started on how often the team's weekly injury report ran on at a length that would have made a Revolutionary War general blush.

While most franchises get more genteel the higher up you look, the opposite is true with the Patriots.

Owner Robert Kraft may look like a kindly grandfather, but behind the scenes he acts like Harvey Keitel's character in ''Pulp Fiction.''

Remember how quietly and completely all the evidence from ''Spygate'' was scrubbed away? Well so do the rest of us.

And while we're revisiting past grudges, has anybody ever heard a suitable explanation for the infamous ''Tuck Rule'' that gave the Pats that 2002 playoff win against the Raiders? Or the 1982 home game against the Dolphins - retroactively dubbed ''Snowplowgate'' - that gave rise to the whole ''Patriots-are-cheaters'' trope in the first place?

The point is that just like Don Shula, who was coaching the Dolphins that night, we registered our protest over the apparent chicanery and then moved on. It's a lesson that Patriots fans would do well to learn. Especially since the team they worship already has.

Instead of sulking this week over landing on the All-Pro second team, Brady was already hard at work hawking a line of pajamas - or as the get-it-exactly-right burghers of New England insist on calling it, ''athlete recovery sleepwear.'' But if you needed further proof that the Patriots have recovered from the snub, there was this.

Tight end Martellus Bennett played eight seasons elsewhere before landing in New England at the start of this one. Having appeared in exactly two playoff games before now, he wouldn't know much about winning.

But when asked if it ever gets old, Bennett had no problem channeling the smugness that is the lifeblood of Patriots fans.

''I like cake a lot,'' he said, ''and every time I get a new slice, I'm just as happy.''

Enough said.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and https://Twitter.com/JimLitke

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