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Football Patriots-Chargers matchup could have been a classic – but it was just another NFL routine

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hugs Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers after an AFC divisional playoff game, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass., on Jan. 13, 2019.

Elsa/Getty Images

The undisputed winners of the NFL weekend were Tom Brady and the status quo.

The losers were Philip Rivers, fans of music and, in the meta-sense, the league itself.

The great disappointment was Sunday’s New England-Los Angeles Chargers game. Featuring two legendary pivots, this might have been a classic battle.

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Instead, it was a fight in the same way watching someone get thrown down a flight of stairs is a fight. There is a winner and a loser, but it’s hard to enjoy.

Brady and the New England running game were surgical. The Chargers defence was … what is the opposite of surgical? Funerary?

The Chargers weren’t just run over by New England. They gave their opponents a running start. Los Angeles was praised around the league this season for its outside-the-box defensive thinking – putting as many as seven defensive backs on the field at once and containing offences with speed.

That works right up until someone a lot bigger and nearly as fast repeatedly punches you in the mouth, which the Patriots were pleased to do. At points, it looked as if all 22 players on the field were running in the same direction. Then you noticed that six or seven of them were being pushed as they did so.

The score was 35-7 at halftime. As the other players shuffled to the locker rooms, Brady was having a conniption on the sideline because one of his receivers hadn’t got out of bounds on the final play, denying New England a last-second, field-goal chance.

Three more points was already beginning to seem sadistic, but Brady always wants more.

The game ended 41-28, a score that does not begin to capture the dreariness of the second half. Brady was only half-interested. Rivers was forlorn. Everyone else was trying not to get hurt.

So it’s back to the future. It’s 2004 again. Or 2007. Or last year. The Brady-Bill Belichick axis remains ascendant. New England may not win it all, but they will suck up all the oxygen in the Western hemisphere until it’s over.

As a neutral, you want to like this team. You really do. They’re a juggernaut. Which is why it’s so hard.

Asked about next weekend’s AFC championship game – Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs – Brady could not help himself.

“I know everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games,” he smirked. “But we’ll see.”

Well, he got one out of two right, and proved “everyone’s” point in doing so.

Still, the NFL will be delighted. Brady remains their top salesman and strongest connection to those not-so-long-ago glory days.

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Viewers were gently reminded of how far the league has sunk in general estimation during the intermission when Maroon 5 was announced as the Super Bowl halftime performer. CBS’ James Brown did the announcing and you could almost hear him sigh as he was forced to pronounce this jumped-up, third-rate casino act “a global music sensation.”

Prince has played the Super Bowl. So has Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Madonna. A few of their previous choices (Lady Gaga, the Who long past their sell-by date) might even be called risky.

I covered a Super Bowl in New Orleans and my great memory was being in the room as Beyoncé did an a cappella version of The Star-Spangled Banner during a news conference. That was the presence of greatness.

Now they’ve fallen to Maroon 5, a band that brings to mind long rides in an elevator or happy hour at TGI Friday’s.

This sad compromise was months in the making. According to multiple reports, other, better, hotter acts (Cardi B, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, et. al.) were asked. All refused.

Since Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted, the NFL has grown so toxic in the entertainment community that no one felt they could take the gig while maintaining their cool factor.

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The bar on that was already pretty low – I refer you to any random Super Bowl performance, almost all of which look like something Stravinsky would have come up with while high on ludes.

But now the hucksters of pop music are too good for football. Oh, the humanity.

The NFL has become what no vibrant cultural product can afford to be – something deeply out-of-touch people enjoy. Like NCIS spin-offs or resurrecting that unbearable Geico ad with the camel, the NFL has become a cheerleader of the inoffensive.

I’d say that Maroon 5 might never live this down, but they’re Maroon 5. Their capacity for shamelessness has already proven infinite.

The one decent act in the upcoming Super Bowl show – Atlanta rapper Big Boi – had his own credibility as an artist destroyed when CBS’ play-by-play guy, Jim Nantz, declared himself a big fan.

“You like that stuff?” analyst Tony Romo said, a note of wonder in his voice.

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“I do!” Nantz, a 59-year-old with the hair of a far more interesting man, said. “I work out to it.”

It’s like finding out that your high-school principal was really into Pere Ubu back in the day. It ruins everything.

But this is where the NFL lives now. It’s tethered to a peak moment that feels like a long time ago, though it was only a few years. As such, all they have left is the quality of the on-field product.

The postseason has so far been moderately compelling. A few good games and a couple of decent talking points, but no real surprises.

The league will be hoping to see Brady back in the championship, knowing he is polarizing in a way that doesn’t excite real feeling. People don’t love or hate him, but they’ll watch because he is so familiar to them.

That still works for now. But you can only be milquetoast for so long before people begin to crave something with more flavour.

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