FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – References to the "S-word" really don't irritate the Patriots, because Spygate or not, New England keeps winning.
As the Patriots attempt to make the Super Bowl for the sixth time in 12 seasons, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo became the latest player to discredit the Patriots with tweets last Sunday that touched on Spygate. Although Ayanbadejo subsequently apologized, he's unlikely the last critic to make such a dig.
"For me, honestly, no, it doesn't matter," New England quarterback Tom Brady said. "By this time, we've heard it all."
And they keep beating people in the process.
This year marks the sixth season since the scandal broke following the 2007 season opener, putting the incident in the midpoint of New England's long run of high-end play. Since the start of the '07 season, New England has gone 76-20 in the regular season. In the six seasons before the scandal, the Patriots are 70-26.
Critics will point to the lack of championships since the incident: New England won three Super Bowls prior to 2007, winning their first 10 postseason games under Brady and coach Bill Belichick, and was 12-2 in the postseason. Since then, they're just 5-4 in the postseason heading into Sunday's AFC championship game against the Ravens. However, they have come about as close as humanly possible to capturing a fourth title. It took a miracle catch by David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII and a spectacular two-minute drive last season to prevent them from winning two more titles.
In other words, for all the hue and cry from critics that the key to the Patriots' success was they were cheating by anticipating calls, they have been nearly as good overall since they got caught.
So yap all you want, Patriots players say in their own way, then check the scoreboard.
"Back then, when it was fresh, it mattered," Patriots wide receiver Donte' Stallworth said. "It was frustrating to hear people talk about it. That's why [retired safety] Rodney [Harrison] always had some choice words.
"Now, it's like, say whatever you want … yeah, we haven't won a title and it would be nice to do that. But not just so we can shut people up. [Coach] Bill [Belichick] wouldn't allow that anyway. Even back then, he didn't even use it as motivation. We talked about it once, he said what he felt about it and moved on. It was all about maintaining focus."
Of course, that does little to quiet the critics. Ayanbadejo's pre-apology remarks echo what many others have said as they attempt to dismiss the Patriots' success. From Brian Dawkins to Hines Ward, former players have consistently raised a suspicious eye toward what the Patriots did in the pre-Spygate years, wondering how they were able to consistently win. But those same players and other critics conveniently seem to ignore that the Patriots have kept winning even as they have almost completely overhauled the roster.
There are only five players on the Patriots' active roster (Stallworth is on injured reserve) who were with the team prior to 2007 (Brady, wide receiver Deion Branch, guard Logan Mankins, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and kicker Stephen Gostkowski).
"Yeah, but that wouldn't really support their argument, would it," Stallworth said with a chuckle. "But that's fine. Let them say whatever. It doesn't get anybody around here more motivated. It's like [Belichick] says, 'If you have to have that kind of stuff to get up for a game like this, you're probably in the wrong business.'"
Or as Mankins put it on Thursday when asked if Spygate talk still angers him.
"Nah, that was a long time ago," Mankins said.
It doesn't get under your skin at all?
"No," Mankins said with a smile peaking from his face. "But you are."
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