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Patriots: New 'America's Team' or Public Enemy No. 1?

You love them. You hate them. Either way, you care. You care very deeply. Television ratings say so. So does Internet traffic, my e-mail inbox, talk radio, and any other forum where sports fans can vent.

Even Time magazine and the Times of London recently devoted space to those ultra-strong feelings (read: hate) evoked by the New England Patriots. The Patriots' incredible popularity/unpopularity begins with their incredible success. The best somehow have a way of bringing out the worst in people -- especially those whose loyalties are with the rest.

The NFL has had several such teams that fans have loved to hate: The Dallas Cowboys (insufferably labeled "America's Team"), the San Francisco 49ers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Miami Dolphins, who had the league's last perfect season. The Pats are one victory away from joining the Dolphins in perfection. That would also give them their fourth Super Bowl crown in seven years.

Show me a dynasty and I'll show you a bull's eye.

But it is hardly a stretch to say that no team in league history has generated the sort of emotions that the Patriots have produced on their way to 18-0.

That is because no team has had the combination of flashpoints that the Pats have beyond their perfect season. The biggest, of course, is "Spygate," when they were caught videotaping the signals of the New York Jets' defensive coaches during the season opener. Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Bill Belichick $500,000 and the franchise $250,000. He also stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick.

Since then, the Pats have been labeled "cheaters." Their three Super Bowl victories have been called "tainted." And Goodell has been criticized for not punishing Belichick more severely. Fans and media members have said Belichick should have been suspended as well as fined. After "Spygate," the New York Post went as far as to put an asterisk next to the Patriots in its NFL standings.

Mario Ruiz, a hip-hop artist from Los Angeles, released a song called "Patriots Hater." Among the lyrics: "The coach, he's a jerk … Got the whole country hatin' on him …We know you cheat, Bill Belicheat."

But it doesn't end there.

Watch: Who Is Tom Brady?

Belichick's personality is another thorn in the collective side of Patriot haters. To anyone who doesn't know him, he can come off as humorless and aloof. Many reporters find him condescending and frustratingly secretive when it comes to player injuries. The image they portray does nothing to endear him to the masses, even if he is the best and most talented coach the NFL has ever seen.

Belichick lost more points with the public after being accused of running up the score in consecutive lopsided victories over Miami and Washington in October and another over the Buffalo Bills in November. After the Bills' game, a caller to a Buffalo radio station said Bills coach Dick Jauron should have ordered his players to intentionally injure Tom Brady because he was still on the field when the outcome had long been determined.

Brady also manages to rub the anti-Patriots faction the wrong way with off-the-charts statistics and matinee-idol looks. No longer is he viewed as the sixth-round draft pick who beat the odds and made the most of his chance to be a starter.

Now Brady is a megastar, complete with a supermodel girlfriend. One would think his record-setting 50 touchdown passes would enhance his standing as one of the NFL's all-time best quarterbacks. But Patriot haters prefer to say he is simply benefitting from: 1) the team's cheating; and 2) the addition of Randy Moss, who also made league history with 23 touchdown catches, and other receiver upgrades.

"I hear how people hate this team," Patriots tight end Kyle Brady says. "A lot of people don't want to see this team succeed. Sometimes people love an underdog and they want to see us lose. Sometimes they want to see the big guy on the block go down."

That would help explain the creation of so many anti-Patriots websites and blogs. There's even a blog that sells a T-shirt, for $15.95, professing one's hatred for the Pats.

Yet, when it came to voting for major postseason awards, support was hardly lacking for Belichick or Brady. Belichick was chosen NFL Coach of the Year in a landslide by a media panel that included reporters who have been openly critical of the coach for "Spygate." Brady was voted the league's Most Valuable Player, also in a landslide.

The New York Giants' late surge to the Super Bowl has made them one of the more fascinating stories in the league and their fan base is enormous. But when it comes to drawing a television audience, the Patriots have had no equal. Their regular-season games against the Giants, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Dallas were the four highest-rated programs on any network during the fall viewing season, surpassing "Dancing With the Stars" and "CSI."

Whether you tuned in because you love them or hate them doesn't matter. What matters is that you tuned in. What matters is that you care.

Very deeply.

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