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Jackie MacMullan

Pass and fail

Game was up for grabs but slipped through Patriots' grasp

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2008

GLENDALE, Ariz. - One day later, the overwhelming sentiment remains disbelief.

The New England Patriots, who demonstrated that they could win in just about every conceivable fashion throughout what suddenly has become a shockingly unfulfilling season, were not denied their fourth Super Bowl championship in seven seasons because of a major gaffe, a critical injury, or a coaching blunder.

They did not beat themselves. The Giants beat them, and that might be the most remarkable component of New York's 17-14 victory.

The difference between the timeless champion and the forgotten loser is so often a matter of inches. If Scott Norwood's field goal sails a few more inches toward the goalpost, then he is Adam Vinatieri, not a notorious Super Bowl goat, and Marv Levy is the sage warrior who finally won one, not the symbol of postseason coaching futility.

Nothing that dramatic unfolded in Super Bowl XLII, but there were moments, particularly during New York's final drive - which covered 83 yards in 2:07 and accounted for the winning touchdown - that will no doubt cause the Patriots repeated angst during their long offseason.

If Asante Samuel can hang on to Eli Manning's errant throw with 1:15 left, then he is a hero, the Patriots are perfect, and Manning is another family member doomed to be haunted by the team controlled by the man in the hoodie.

Instead, the ball hits the turf, Samuel grabs his head in disbelief, and Manning and the Giants are alive.

"As soon as Asante dropped that pick, I was like, 'You know what? We have a shot, because that's how they usually finish teams off,' " said Giants receiver Amani Toomer. "They dropped the ball today, and we picked it up."

What happened next was the defining play of the game. Manning, looking to throw, saw Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour coming for him. He turned, trying to twist away. Green was so close he actually grasped Manning's jersey. Seymour said later he was a second away from flattening him.

"We had three guys that had a hand on him," confirmed linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

But Manning wriggled free and threw a jump ball toward receiver David Tyree. The pass traveled 32 yards, with both Tyree and safety Rodney Harrison leaping for it. Tyree grabbed it, while Harrison, one of the toughest, most physical (and, some would say, dirtiest) players in the league, tried to wrestle it away. The two fell to the turf, wrangling for possession. Tyree hung on, and the Giants had a first down at the New England 24-yard line.

"That ball was challenged," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "You had two people ripping at the ball, and David brings it down. That might be one of the great plays of all time in the Super Bowl."

With the clock whittled to 59 seconds, the Patriots still had the opportunity to hold the Giants. But with 35 seconds to play, and the Patriots blitzing, Plaxico Burress faked a slant, Ellis Hobbs bought it, and Burress stepped to the left corner of the end zone, alone, while Manning lofted him the ball.

"They were basically double-teaming me all night, playing a man press, playing a guy over the top," Burress said. "We were just waiting for the one time we could get him over there in single coverage."

Hobbs said the Patriots had done a solid job of disguising coverages all night.

"I had to play him inside," Hobbs said. "What you hope in that situation is we can get to the quarterback so he doesn't have any time to throw it."

Manning's throw sealed his status as MVP of Super Bowl XLII, although he should share his hardware with a defense that dominated Tom Brady and the New England offensive line.

Conversely, New England's bend-but-don't-break defense finally snapped when the team needed a stop the most. The shock on the faces of their leaders told the story. They couldn't believe it, either.

"It never entered my mind it would end this way," said the veteran Seymour. "We could have made some of those plays. We should have.

"Asante almost had that pick. I almost had him sacked . . . but woulda shoulda coulda means nothing. You've got to take it like a man."

Toomer claimed the Patriots showed little respect to the Giants throughout the game, even taunting them about the location of New England's celebratory bashes.

You can be sure none of those parties were held. The Giants were the ones drinking champagne and throwing confetti.

And, of course, enjoying their new status at the top of the heap.

"We dominated the whole game," Toomer declared. "I don't care what they say. They were holding on and expecting us to crack. They beat us the first time because we cracked, but this time, the Giants came through."

And this time, the Patriots are left to wonder why they couldn't close the deal on what would have been the most amazing NFL season of all time.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail is macmullan@globe.com.

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