HOUSTON — Michael Strahan fought perhaps the greatest sports culture ever created. The one birthed by the New England Patriots that has dominated football for almost two decades. And Strahan did something unusual against that culture: He beat it.
Strahan was a fearless pass-rusher for the New York Giants prior to becoming a television star and Hall of Famer. Before the team's 2007 NFC title game against Green Bay, he gave a remarkable speech to the team. It was unusual in that it addressed not only the Packers but also the team the Giants players would see in the Super Bowl. The same franchise now back in the big game and fortified with the support of a United States president.
Strahan ended the speech with these powerful words: "All you hear about is the history of the Patriots and Brady. Brady this, and Brady that. But the past is the past, and it's time for us to start our history. F--k the past."
"The Patriots have a culture built on anything less than a Super Bowl is a disappointment," Strahan says now in an interview with B/R, when asked what advice he'd give the Falcons.
"Just because they have a strong belief in winning doesn't mean that their belief in winning trumps yours. You have to have the mentality that they don't have a monopoly on winning. Don't get on the field and be enamored by the story of the team or names on the jerseys from someone like Brady. When they kick off, it's not the Super Bowl. It's football, and you deserve to be there and you deserve to win. Never let the game be bigger than you."
That Patriots' culture is even more formidable, entrenched and polarizing since Strahan and the Giants beat them in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls. The Patriots represent the best of the NFL but also, in many ways, their image stands in contrast to that of their opponents, the Falcons.
This year's Super Bowl between the Falcons and Patriots is viewed by many across football as a battle of cultures. On one end, some in the game see the Patriots as a conveyor belt of winning machinery, aligned with Donald Trump, but despised by a large swath of the American populace. On the other are the Falcons, a talented, less rigid team, supported by a city starving for a winner and viewed as the welcome alternative in this fight.
To many, this Sunday is about wanting to see the Patriots get crushed. According to a recent Public Policy poll, only 27 percent of football fans nationwide want New England to win Super Bowl 51, as opposed to the 53 percent pulling for the Falcons.
All of this makes for what one longtime veteran on an AFC team called "a clash of football civilizations."
In interviews with 10 NFL players, it's clear that many see this matchup as a proxy fight between Trump's America and anti-Trump America. Their feelings were strong, their remarks acerbic. All requested anonymity out of fear of repercussions from their teams and people on social media.
The Patriots' culture Strahan spoke of has grown, but the opposition to it also has, players say. One reason why, these players explain, is the presidency of Trump.
More players back the Falcons, those interviewed believe, because they are perceived as non-Trump backers playing in a mostly African-American city.
"I can appreciate them and hate them for their association with Trump," one NFC veteran said.
"They back a guy who represents everything bad about America," another NFC player said."
One Falcons player told B/R that a Super Bowl win for the Falcons would be "a win for everyone who is against Trump. Every immigrant, every Muslim, every Mexican, every black and brown person should be supporting us."
But this isn't so clear-cut. Some Patriots players expressed strong views about Trump this week in direct contradiction of their powerful, trifurcated leadership of owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Tight end Martellus Bennett said he would likely boycott the traditional White House visit of the Super Bowl winners. Defensive back Devin McCourty, speaking about Trump's Muslim ban, said, "I'm not for that...I don't think that's the best decision."
When asked if he would visit the White House, he added, "We'll see."
Other players interviewed said the dislike of the Patriots was strictly about jealousy and nothing else.
"Players that don't like them hate them because they win," an AFC player explained.
And they win, players told B/R, because they're smarter and have better players than other teams. It's that simple, they say.
Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch, a 10-year veteran who has played on four NFL teams, understands why the Patriots' culture is the most unique in football.
"It's an organization where they make you accountable for a lot," Branch said. "You have to be accountable for [yourself], getting on the field, making the tackle, coming to meetings on time or just paying attention. This is one of the strictest—game plan-wise—teams that I've been on. We have to know [what] the other team likes to eat for breakfast. We do a lot of homework for this team."
Receiver Chris Hogan added: "When you walk inside that building, you immediately buy into what the organization and what Bill is teaching us."
While no one can question the Patriots' success, their links to the new president have generated headlines, from questioning Brady's support of Trump to Kraft's enthusiastic proclamation that he is a friend of Trump.
When new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave his opening speech to the State Department on Thursday, he noted how the Patriots have the phrase "Do Your Job" posted throughout the team's facility and how he wanted State Department employees to abide by that belief.
"It's worked out pretty well for them," Tillerson said.
On the other hand, Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons, spoke about his concerns to Newsday's Bob Glauber over the president's ban on Muslims entering the United States.
"I'm troubled by anything directionally in our country that separates people," Blank said. "America started without any of us, other than Native American Indians. This country was built on inclusion and diversity, on celebration of those differences, supporting those differences, and everybody being the very best they can be in their own way. I'm opposed to anything that takes away from that.
"That's what makes America great, is the melting pot of what makes this country great and the abilities and capacities and commitments to all those people that came from around the world to settle here because they saw a dream and a vision."
One Falcons player told B/R this week that members of the team are incensed on behalf of Mohamed Sanu, who is Muslim. One speculated there might be some type of show of support for Sanu from teammates on the day of the game, though the player stressed "it was just talk for now among a few guys." Sanu declined to address his feelings on the ban.
Even the mild-mannered Russell Wilson, who gingerly avoids controversies of any kind, spoke about Trump this week in a Facebook Live post.
"This thing is getting out of hand," Wilson said of the Trump presidency.
B/R has told the story of how some players feel about Trump. But those feelings—both in support and against—seem to have only intensified since he became president. His controversial policies have emboldened supporters and entrenched opponents.
As one player put it: "The Falcons represent America and the Patriots represent Trump. I'm for America."
All six of the black players with whom B/R spoke said they were backing the Falcons specifically because of Trump. One white player said he was doing the same. The other players—all white—said they were backing neither team but picked the Patriots to win.
In the end, the politics won't decide who wins Sunday. Belief in each team's culture will.
As Michael Strahan said, it's time to start some history.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.