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Super Bowl: Patriots, Rams renew age-old Boston vs. L.A. rivalry

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In the time it took for Tom Brady to fling his helmet in the air and leap into his teammates' arms last Sunday night, the billboards and tweets popped up: Beat L.A.

Into one of sports' greatest and longest-running rivalries drop the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams, exalted Super Bowl participants next Sunday but neophytes in the generations-spanning, culture-defining, clothesline-generating bloodlust that is the coast-to-coast conflict between Boston and Los Angeles.

In the four major North American sports, teams representing Los Angeles or Boston -- or, most passionately, both -- have participated in championships in 40 of the last 50 seasons, starting in 1969. The Patriots will face the Rams on Sunday in Super Bowl LIII, exactly 98 days after the Red Sox clinched the World Series against the Dodgers, the first time in history the Super Bowl matchup represents the same regions as the World Series opponents from the same season. (The Baltimore-New York matchups in the Super Bowl and World Series in 1969 -- won by the Jets and Mets -- were for two different seasons, the 1968 NFL season and the 1969 baseball season.)

The four Boston-area teams have won a combined 37 world championships in their long histories; the nine teams that represented Los Angeles -- including the Raiders for a time and Anaheim Ducks of the NHL -- have won 22.

It is a staggering show of athletic strength befitting two of America's great -- if wildly different -- cities. Enough time has transpired and enough hard fouls delivered for enmity to develop. Which it has. Just not among football fans.

The Patriots of recent vintage have certainly played a part in this streak. This is their ninth Super Bowl appearance since the 2001 season, the 11th in the last 50 years, and their dominance in this millennium has smoothed over some of the fallow seasons experienced by the other teams that represent the two cities.

But the Rams have represented Los Angeles in only one Super Bowl (after the 1979 season) and the Rams' only championship in Los Angeles came in 1951, the pre-Super Bowl era. This is only their third season since moving back from St. Louis. Even the shared history between the teams -- the Patriots beat the Rams for their first Super Bowl title after the 2001 season -- doesn't really resonate this week. That Rams team, after all, represented St. Louis, whose residents have their own reason for bile this week. It would be understandable if they hate both teams.

This is, then, the most recent iteration of a rivalry that, at its core, is built around the epic battles of the NBA's Celtics and Lakers. Of Jerry West and Bob Cousy. Pat Riley and Red Auerbach. And, of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- a wondrous competition and friendship so fierce it has inspired books, documentaries and a Broadway play, to say nothing of some of the most memorable moments a hardcourt has ever hosted.

The Celtics and L.A. Lakers have met in the NBA Finals 11 times, the most common title matchup in any of the four major American sports. Long before Giants receiver David Tyree became public enemy No. 1, all you had to do was say "Magic Johnson baby sky hook" (Google Game 4, 1987 NBA Finals) to New Englanders if you wanted to see them cringe.

The "Beat L.A." chant -- which thundered through Dodger Stadium when Red Sox fans invaded during the World Series, was echoed when the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round two weeks ago and was tweeted by Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez seconds after the AFC Championship Game ended -- originated during Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference finals as the Philadelphia 76ers were pulling away with a victory over the Celtics. The Boston Garden faithful, already looking ahead to who the Sixers would face for the NBA championship, spontaneously started chanting "Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!"

In other words, anyone but the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots, alas, will meet in the Super Bowl for the first time and Patriots fans don't seem to care who the opponent is.

"First of all, the Rams are not even thought of yet as Los Angeles," said the Boston Globe's longtime columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who remembers by heart the details of many of the great Celtics-Lakers finals. "I'm not feeling it. There will be a Celtics game in the next week when it will start -- 'Beat L.A.' -- like 'Yankees suck' breaks out at a bar mitzvah. But it's not gritty lunch pail team versus Showtime. That was very real. This is just win the Super Bowl, beat the Rams."

For the Rams, though, this might be the right opponent at the right time. Even with its recent success, the team is still trying to gain traction in Los Angeles. While this season has helped galvanize the Rams' fan base and it's expected that the opening of a new stadium in 2020 will give it another boost, fan ambivalence might have been most artfully summed up in a sunlit viral video from a Los Angeles bar as the Rams' NFC-championship-winning 48-yard field goal in overtime sails through the uprights. Four visible patrons briefly whoop, a man hugs the woman he is with and that's it.

While a Super Bowl run is an unquestioned boost to the team's profile, few things in the NFL would garner respect and rally a blase audience as quickly as knocking off the Patriots.

"This is the perfect Boston team to hate," said Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. "The Patriots are everything Lakers fans see in the Celtics. The perception of arrogance, of always winning. How is Deflategate a lot different than the Boston Garden turning up the heat in the dressing room? This is the perfect opportunity for the Rams. What if the Chiefs had won? Nobody hates the Chiefs."

What defined the Lakers and Celtics' rivalry, and what has given it legs for generations, was their stylistic differences, which -- in popular imagination -- mirrored the different cultures of their cities and fans. The Celtics were the gritty team of the working class fan while the Lakers were, well, Showtime. You can envision the parallels now: the Patriots may have the game's biggest star but they are also, famously, grinders, while the Rams are young, dynamic and charismatic with a star coach in Sean McVay straight from the Riley look book.

"One of the cruel ironies of the Rams going to St. Louis is they never became an L.A. team until they left," said Sam Farmer, the longtime NFL writer for the Los Angeles Times.

Farmer used to sneak into the L.A. Forum to see the Lakers, and hated the Celtics so much that when his son played on a YMCA basketball team called the Celtics, he could barely bring himself to root for them.

"Then they became the Showtime Lakers of the NFL," Farmer said. "The Chuck Knox Rams were incongruent with L.A. They became the greatest show on turf while L.A. languished."

Much of the rivalry is also rooted in the admitted defensiveness of both fan bases. Plaschke said he knows Bostonians think Los Angelenoes are lightweights, who are not sufficiently loyal to their teams in good times and bad. He said Los Angelenoes think New Englanders have a tribal mentality and will, "like sheep", support their sports teams, no matter how bad they are. Los Angeles cheers for quality, Plaschke contends, but has plenty else to amuse it if the teams are not good.

"If 'Hamilton' comes to town and it's no good? We don't go," Plaschke said. "We don't need any of these teams. I'm glad it's here, but we didn't ask for it. We have fun with sports."

Still, Plaschke admits, it was brutal to hear Red Sox fans chanting "Beat L.A." while the Red Sox were doing just that to clinch the World Series in Dodger Stadium last fall.

Gordon Edes, the Red Sox team historian who also had long stints as a sportswriter for the Globe and Times, believes New Englanders have a chip on their shoulders about other cities, and during the Celtics-Lakers years got into their heads that Los Angeles was a place to feel contempt for.

The lunch bucket versus Showtime theme is a complete fallacy, he notes. He covered some of those Lakers teams and they were as hardworking as anybody. But he also worked for a sports editor in Los Angeles who used to boast that he would leave Dodger Stadium by 10 p.m. or the seventh inning, never later.

"By adhering to that rule, he walked out on one of Sandy Koufax's no-hitters," Edes said. "That would be unthinkable in Boston."

Nobody will be walking out of the Super Bowl early Sunday night in either city or any city in between. The NFL is the goliath of American sports and its entry into this great coast-to-coast conflict is likely only to enhance it. No matter who wins.

"We are Kurt Rambis going up for a layup and Kevin McHale clotheslining us," Plaschke said of the warring factions. "They are forever chasing us down. And all they can do is cheat."

It's worth remembering that the Rambis-McHale play from Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals -- and the narrative that has been attached to it -- worked out well for everyone in the long run. The Celtics won that game and those finals, the 15th of the franchise's record 17 championships. And the Lakers, perhaps inspired by that beating, won the championship in 1985, 1987 and 1988.

The Patriots and Rams would probably sign up for those results right now.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter at @judybattista.

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