Editor's note: This article appears in the January 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
When my beloved Pats squandered a chance in Denver to win three straight Super Bowls, all the talk centered on one theme: So long to the Patriots' dynasty. Of course, if they capture next season's Super Bowl, giving them four in six years, everyone will call them a dynasty again, but that's not the point.
This isn't the Bulls imploding after MJ and Pippen left, or even "The Brady Bunch" falling apart after Oliver joined the cast. The Patriots have as much talent as anyone, as well as the best coach and a franchise QB, and you can argue that this year's team endured too many injuries and played one god-awful game at the worst possible time.
Here's the bigger issue: Why were we calling them a dynasty in the first place? Bill Russell's Celtics won 11 titles in 13 seasons -- now that was a dynasty. We live in a sports world where hyperbole rules, so it's easy to forget that Webster's defines a dynasty as "a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time." Four years is not a considerable time. This Patriots run seemed significant because they were aiming to control the NFL for a considerable time and because the league has been carefully constructed to prevent this from happening. They weren't a dynasty. Not yet.
Still, something happened in Denver. When great teams lose their invincibility, it rarely happens because they self-destruct in every possible way. There's usually a finality to it. For instance, I've rooted for two truly great teams -- the Brady-Belichick Pats and Larry Bird's Celtics. The Celtics' day of reckoning came in 1988 at the hands of a younger, hungrier Pistons team. The torch was passed in Game 6 at the Silverdome, and I can still see Kevin McHale seeking out Isiah Thomas afterward, offering words of encouragement and wishing him well. It was vaguely reminiscent of Duke's "When Apollo died, part of me died, but now you're the one" speech in Rocky IV.
There was no moment like that in the Pats-Broncos game. Looking back, it wasn't just the turnovers as much as the players who screwed up. Did you ever imagine Brady forcing third-and-goal passes like, say, Jake Plummer, or missing wide-open receivers? What about Troy Brown muffing a punt, or Adam Vinatieri missing a crucial field goal, or even the great Willie McGinest getting duped by a play-action handoff for a killer first down? Since when has Willie ever fallen for that crap? It was downright startling for Pats fans to watch our usually unflappable boys collapse like that, kind of like Springsteen diehards watching the "Dancing in the Dark" video for the first time.
I think we need a word that helps us describe the moment when it all changes. When Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, it was momentous not just because Tyson lost, but because Douglas introduced the possibility that Tyson could lose. When Mariano Rivera blew Game 7 of the 2001 World Series ... well, in retrospect, it's clear the Yankees have never been the same. From that point on, any Yankee opponent remained alive in the ninth. When Clint Eastwood cried in "Million Dollar Baby," it might have had the desired dramatic effect, but he sold out a carefully crafted persona as the unflinching movie hero who always kept his cool.
On the flip side, MJ and the Bulls remained dominant until the end, heroically fending off the Pacers in the 1998 playoffs, and following that with Jordan's famous jumper to clinch No. 6. They kept their swagger through the last moment. That's what made them special.
Because no word exists to cover these scenarios, I'm tapping into my inner Don King and proposing "swaggerability," a cross between swagger and invincibility. Over the past three seasons, the beautiful thing about the Patriots wasn't how they kept winning, but how their fans remained absolutely convinced they would win. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how many injuries piled up, we believed Belichick would unearth the perfect plan, Brady would come through, and so would Willie, Brown, Vinatieri and everyone else. The reason we believed this was because it kept happening. In other words, they gave us no reason not to believe it.
More important, they believed it, and carried themselves like they did ... right up until the Broncos game, when their swaggerability disappeared into thin air. I find this infinitely more depressing than the thought of losing a dynasty that didn't really exist in the first place. Even if the Patriots win easily and often again next season, there will always be a small part of me that wonders if the wheels might come off. It happened in Denver, which means it could happen again.
That's the thing about swaggerability: You can lose it only once.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.