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Ahead of Sunday's game against the New York Jets, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick came out to inspect the field wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

It was -12 C at the time (-21 C with the wind chill).

Belichick had clubbies put a huge, novelty thermometer up in the tunnel leading to the field. Then his whole offence came out sleeveless. (But for Tom Brady, who really feels the chill now that he's in his 60s).

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Only in football could this sort of nonsense be considered "psychology."

Sadly, it worked (or, at least, was not proven not to work).

The Patriots whipped the Jets 26-6 on the final weekend of the NFL regular season – we can expect to see more of this high-profile masochism in Foxborough for the coming month.

For the league's sake, it had better work. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots are the last solidly marketable storyline it has going.

To put it feather lightly, it has not been a good year for the NFL. Ratings are down, dissatisfaction is up and it's become the rope in a cultural tug-of-war. For the first time in several generations, it's okay for an American kid to hate football.

With such tumult around it, the NFL – for so long, impervious to reality – began to feel its foundations rattling.

That started at the top. The chummiest cabal in all of sport – the league's 30 owners – is beginning to look like a fraternity during a police raid, each spiffed-up toff pointing at the guy next to him saying, "No, no, him. It was him."

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We now realize that many of them dislike each other and all of them hate Cowboys field generalissimo Jerry Jones.

The most visible victim of that turmoil was commissioner Roger Goodell, who's lost all of his regality, much of his authority and very nearly his job.

While the bosses had a food fight in the executive dining room, many of the schlubs down on the factory floor ran amok.

Whenever an NFL player makes the news cycle these days, it is for something terrible.

One of them could take hostages in a Salvation Army barracks and these days the public response would be, "Could've been a lot worse."

Even Brady, America's fully functioning Buzz Lightyear action figure, is beginning to seem like a flim-flam man.

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Whenever his career ends in thirty or forty years' time, his last words before he enters the cryo-tube to be deep frozen will be: "My advice to the entire human race is that if you come back from a 25-point deficit in the third quarter of a Super Bowl, that's a pretty good time to call it quits."

Never before have the games themselves seemed to matter less (which may help to explain why so many fewer people watched them). As apathy spread, the NFL hoped for some competitive continuity from its biggest brands, both teams and players.

Instead, they got sea change. As per usual, the Patriots were grim and overwhelming. So were the Steelers. (This is where broadcasters get down on their knees, link hands and pray that that is the AFC Championship match-up.)

Behind them, it was a free-for-all.

Green Bay was supposed to be good. They were not. This was important because that's an establishment team neutrals are already invested in. The NFL does not need to sell people on the idea of the Green Bay Packers.

To a lesser extent, that was also true of Seattle, Atlanta, the New York Giants and even the Oakland Raiders. Continuity matters in playoff football because it orients people who don't watch other teams all that often, and have only the one game to figure things out.

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Instead, the NFL postseason will have to press forward with some new aspirants, such as the Philadelphia Eagles ("Sorry?"), Jacksonville Jaguars ("What?"), Los Angeles Rams ("I don't think this mic is working properly,") and Buffalo Bills ("That cannot possibly be right.")

Yes, the Buffalo Bills are in the playoffs. It's gotten that weird.

You know what the problem is with the Philadelphia Eagles as the NFC's standard bearer? The team is in Philadelphia.

They're not going to unite the United States, unless it's being united in not liking Philadelphia. And the country doesn't need the NFL's help in that regard.

All things being equal, every major league would prefer a New York-Los Angeles championship every single year. Doesn't matter what the sport is, or who's on the teams. That's the tilt that guarantees the most interest, the most eyeballs and the most revenue.

The NFL in the 2018 has a different goal for its big game – get New England there. No matter what.

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The Super Bowl's U.S. TV audience is huge, but it's been flat for the past several years. Outside North America, the only thing anybody's ever been interested in is the half-time act. This year, I wish them good luck with Justin Timberlake, a performer so out of touch with the changing times he may as well be Bob Hope.

This would be a very bad time for the Super Bowl to take its first ratings dive in, well, ever. That would turn a hapless year into a genuine crisis.

The best way to ensure that doesn't happen? Belichick, Brady and the Patriots.

You may not be cheering from them. By definition, those who do are New Englanders, front-runners or both.

But you know who they are, and you'd probably be willing to take a few hours out of a Sunday five weeks from now to watch them lose. More than probably.

That's the psychology on which the NFL is resting its hopes to salvage the year.

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