Monday, February 04, 2008

The Greatest Game Ever Played, Part III

18-1. Usually it’s the mark of a great season, but for the New England Patriots, it was only the mark of failure.

Coming into the game at 18-0, the Patriots had a chance to become the first National Football League team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to complete an entire season- encompassing the regular season and playoffs- without a single loss or tie. Instead, the Patriots join the only other two teams to complete the regular season perfect- the 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears- who also lost in the NFL title game, although those Bears teams came before the Super Bowl era began in 1967. However, not even that tells the whole story about the gravity of the Patriots’ loss (17-14 to the New York Giants)- for two weeks before the game, many figured New England would romp all over New York, considering the Patriots had the best offence in NFL history, they looked unbeatable all season long (even coming up with wins when all seemed lost) the game would be played in warm weather (and thus would allow the Patriots’ vaunted passing attack to shine) and the fact New England had already defeated New York in the regular season, albeit 38-35 in the final game when the Giants had a chance to end the Patriots’ charge to perfection in both teams’ final regular season game.

Once the game began, it seemed to go according to plan. After the Giants’ rushing attack (led by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw) chewed up almost ten minutes from the start of the first quarter to set up a Lawrence Tynes field goal, the Patriots stormed back with Tom Brady continuing to use dump-off passes to Wes Welker and running back Laurence Maroney (as he had in his previous post-season wins), the latter whose one-yard touchdown run in the first two seconds of the second quarter put the Patriots up 7-3. The drive was textbook Patriots: no matter how many times their opponents took the lead, New England always seemed to storm right back into the game and set the score the “right” way.

From then, one might have expected New England to pile on the points on the hapless Giants, since the score should have settled some nerves and all year once New England got their feet on the accelerator they kept it there. Instead, what transpired was a defensive game that kept the score at 7-3 until the fourth quarter, although it wouldn’t come without controversy- late in the third quarter, the Patriots faced 4th down and 13 from the Giants’ 32, but instead of sending out Stephen Gostkowski to kick a field goal, the Patriots ran a play that misfired badly. The Giants took over on downs, and although they didn’t capitalize on their ensuing drive, the fact that they created a near red-zone turnover served to buoy the team in the fourth quarter.

Then the fireworks came: in the Giants’ first play of the quarter, quarterback Eli Manning- who had been effective all game long in leading decent drives derailed by the Patriots’ defence- found tight end Kevin Boss (All-Pro Jeremy Shockey’s injury replacement) for a 45-yard gain to the New England 35. After two Bradshaw runs Manning found Steve Smith for 17 yards, and a seven-yard Bradshaw dash set up a five-yard touchdown pass to David Tyree to give New York an unthinkable 10-7 lead.

Still, the Patriots had ten minutes to conjure up the tying field goal or, better yet, the winning touchdown, and New England did come back several times to win games in 2007 (including a twelve-point hole against those very Giants). The teams traded punts before Brady finally engineered what appeared to be New England’s game-winning drive. Passing primarily to Welker (who would wind up setting a Super Bowl record with eleven catches) and Randy Moss (a non-factor all day up to that point), the Patriots chewed the clock down to 2:45 for a six-yard TD pass to Moss to go up 14-10. Although the Giants still had all their timeouts, with the Patriots’ experienced defence and Manning’s tendencies to fold under pressure, very few would have figured that with 2:45 to go that New York had much of a chance.

Indeed, the Giants’ next drive appeared to be headed that way when one of the most unbelievable plays in Super Bowl history occurred. Facing third and five, Manning was flushed out of the pocket by the Patriots’ pass rush and appeared to be headed for a sack. Instead, on the run he fired a 32-yard pass to Tyree who caught the ball by holding the ball against his helmet and bringing it down just as Rodney Harrison was about to corral him. Another third down completion to Smith gave the Giants a first down at the New England 13 with 45 seconds to go in the game. The next play would confound everyone: Plaxico Burress, who predicted before the game that the Giants would win 23-17, slipped by the usually reliable Ellis Hobbs to make an unchallenged catch in the end zone to put the Giants up 17-14 with 39 seconds left in the game.

The Giants’ score was the latest anyone had forced the Patriots into a game-winning drive, with the previous high being in Week 13 when the Baltimore Ravens clung to a 24-20 lead with 3:30 remaining. Still, with Brady at the helm and three timeouts left, one would have figured New England to at least force overtime, especially considering that in previous Super Bowl appearances the Patriots needed late field goals. Instead, Brady and the Patriots heaved desperation lobs up field for four straight plays (including a fingertip drop by Moss when he would have cleared the Giants’ secondary and a ten-yard sack just as Brady was stepping into a long throw), forcing a turnover on downs (at 4th and 20, no less) sending the Patriots to an improbable loss. After Brady’s last throw both benches cleared to meet in the post-game handshakes, but referee Mike Carey decreed there was still one second left and a play had to be run. Manning- later to be named the deserved MVP (a year after his brother Peyton did the same thing)- would kneel to seal the win and the handshakes resumed, although notably absent was New England coach Bill Belichick, who completed his handshakes in the first go around and fled to the comfort of the dressing room, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong.

When he looks at the tapes, it won’t be hard to figure out. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20-20, and no bigger mistake was made than to not kick a field goal late in the third quarter facing fourth down on the Giants’ 32. New England had a chance to go up 10-3 at the time, perhaps eventually forcing overtime given how the game itself actually transpired, but Belichick’s pride got the better of him. Like the video gamer (not an inappropriate analogy given how great the Patriots’ offence was) who saw a previously potent offence get derailed dead in its tracks, Belichick refused to abide by common sense and take the points, thinking that all his offence needed to get kick-started was one more play. However, this wasn’t “Madden 08” but Super XLII, and no matter how good New England was, winning would have to come with decisions grounded in reality. The decision was uncharacteristic for the Patriots, who would continue to make more blunders as the game progressed, most notably on their final drive when Brady insisted on completing one last bomb instead of completing first downs on out routes considering he had 30 seconds and a full compliment of timeouts (not to mention only needing a field goal to force overtime). The moves wreaked of a team used to completing “the big play” trying to force it to happen instead of keeping it simple, forgetting that the big plays work themselves out of the simple ones. That is ultimately why they lost, and credit for that goes to the Giants who took away New England’s big play capabilities and forced the Patriots into the simple plays they were just unwilling to do (but New York was). It should be no surprise that it was the Giants winning the day and spoiling what would have been New England’s greatest achievement- instead, with an aging team (especially on defence) and a snail’s chance this pinnacle can ever be breached again- it will amount to New England’s greatest loss.


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