Despite Their Dominance, The Patriots Embrace The Disrespected 'Underdog' Role

Download Audio
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater (Matt Rourke/AP)
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater (Matt Rourke/AP)

If you want to know what motivates Tom Brady, listen to what he says right after big wins.

When the Patriots dismantled the LA Chargers in the AFC divisional round, he told a national television audience, "I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games. So, we’ll see. It’ll be fun."

Then, after the Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs and advanced to the Super Bowl for the third straight year, Brady hugged wide receiver Chris Hogan and their celebratory exchange was caught on camera. “I’m too old,” said Brady. “You’re too slow. We’ve got no skill players. We’ve got no defense. We’ve got nothing.”

Yes, amid the on-field chaos, there was the 41-year-old Brady reminding Hogan what critics had claimed during the regular season.

Now, the reality is that the Patriots may soon win another Super Bowl. That would bring the team’s grand total to six championships since 2001. It’s a record-breaking, dynasty-making run of success.

But leading up to Super Bowl LIII against the LA Rams, the Patriots have eagerly embraced the role of disrespected underdog, taking more than a few pages from the no-one-believed-we-could-do-it playbook. They join a long, proud history of pro teams that have cast themselves as underdogs and made sure everyone knows about the critics who counted them out.

And some Patriots players see that approach helping.

“I think that underdog mentality can bring your team together, can bring a group together,” said Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater, speaking in an upbeat locker room at Gillette Stadium after practice last week. “We realize that the belief that we have in one another is all that really matters and that's certainly brought us closer together this year. With all the ups and downs that we've been through, all the adversity that we've been through, I think it's made us lean on one another a little bit more and really forge our bond as brothers."

“I think that underdog mentality can bring your team together."

Patriots captain Matthew Slater

Long snapper Joe Cardona also recognizes there are potential benefits to being counted out. He added: “Ultimately as a team it's a collective of players all working towards the same goal. And if we can find one more thing that kind of fortifies that bond and pushes the team towards that goal, you know, that's going to be a successful mechanism.”

That kind of thinking resonates with sports psychologists.

Talking about a strong team identity creates an advantage, said Wendy Borlabi, a sports psychologist who works with the Chicago Bulls. “It's about keeping the focus on, 'This is a team. We're going to work together. We've got a goal to accomplish.' ”

The latest Super Bowl betting odds have the Patriots favored by 2.5 points. But don’t expect them to abandon the disrespected underdog narrative any time soon. And they shouldn't. Why? Because favorites can fall into a dangerous mindset and play not to lose. Meanwhile, the way underdogs see it, they have nothing to lose. As a result, they simply play to win.

“Psychologically, when you're playing to win, you actually have a little bit more positive self-talk, a little bit more momentum going,” said peak performance coach Elizabeth Ward, who specializes in sports psychology and counts professional and college athletes among her clients. “Versus playing not to lose, you’re a little more defensive. You're a little more cautious and a little less confident.”


Another advantage to being an underdog?

“They're the hunter,” said Mark Aoyagi, a professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver who also advises the Broncos. "They're going after something. And so now you're the aggressor. You're the person that's proactive. You're the person that's moving toward something.”

You might think an underdog mentality also helps take the pressure off. But it doesn’t exactly work that way, especially when you’re trying to win the Super Bowl. Instead, sports psychologists say you can learn how to manage the pressure and use it to your advantage. Pressure can give players energy and get them focused on what they need to do.

Long-snapper Cardona sees how that can happen before a big game.

"What it really comes down to is, when teams have such a goal and that camaraderie, it takes the pressure off the individual and it spreads throughout the team,” said Cardona. “So, everybody can pick each other up because that's really what the team's about.”

That's what the Patriots are counting on this Sunday and hoping translates onto the field.

"What it really comes down to is performance," said offensive lineman Ted Karras. "No one's going to remember ever who the underdog is. They’re just going to remember what the results are."

He’s right. In the end, all that anyone remembers is who gets to call themselves Super Bowl champions.

This segment aired on January 30, 2019.


Headshot of Shira Springer

Shira Springer Sports and Society Reporter
Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society.



More from WBUR

Listen Live