Sunday evening in Atlanta, the New England Patriots will play in their ninth Super Bowl since 2001. Their appearance in this year’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, like their appearances in last year’s against the Eagles and 2017’s against the Falcons, only lengthens what was already one of the longest-running success stories in modern sports. Pro football is designed for turnover, but Tom Brady and Bill Belichick—at 41 and 66 years old, respectively—still show few signs of slowing.
The Patriots’ stasis puts most of the standard Super Bowl story lines out of reach. They’re not fresh arrivals like the Rams, who are paced by the 27-year-old defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and this championship appearance doesn’t mark a last chance or culmination; neither Brady nor Belichick has hinted at impending retirement. The 2018 regular season was business as usual: 11 wins and five losses, an NFL-record 10th consecutive division title, a ninth straight first-round playoff bye. Not much is new or expiring about the NFL’s standard-bearing franchise. Boredom, as much as anything, might account for the general distaste for the Pats.
Deeper down the roster, though, New England does have a humanizing element, and it comes from an unlikely source: Rob Gronkowski, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end who once numbered among the sport’s most superhuman specimens. Unlike his quarterback and coach, Gronkowski isn’t quite what he used to be—namely, a four-time All-Pro, Brady’s preferred crunch-time target, and one of the best players at his position of all time. Years of physical play and resultant injuries have piled up; even before this season, the 29-year-old was rumored to be considering leaving the game. So if Gronkowski remains a useful contributor in this diminished state—a smashmouth blocker and an occasional downfield game-breaker—he also gives the Patriots a needed narrative heft, and fans a reason to watch. Brady and Belichick make lasting look easy; Gronk stands as proof that it isn’t.