THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

16 and oh, still some work to do

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / December 31, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - It's like finding out you won the lottery - then receiving strict orders not to cash in your ticket for another month.

It's like discovering you are about to be a grandparent but are forbidden to tell anyone until after the little one is born. It's like learning your son and daughter were accepted early into Harvard, but you can't announce it until they complete their first semester.

It's like finally scoring that coveted hole-in-one on New England's toughest golf course but being ordered not to brag about it until you reach the 19th hole.

The Patriots aren't at the 19th hole yet - there's a trio of playoff games still on their Pursuit of Perfection docket - but their coach finally authorized his players to release some of the pent-up excitement that has been bubbling since it became apparent their football team had an opportunity to run the table in the regular season.

There was no champagne uncorked after New England held off the gritty New York Giants, 38-35, Saturday night, since premature celebrations of that nature are viewed as heresy (take note, Red Sox officials). But the Patriots finally were able to admit that by going 16-0 they have just accomplished something truly memorable and gratifying.

"We're hoping to savor this for the next couple of days," said tight end Benjamin Watson, "but we've been trained so much not to, it might be kind of hard."

Although New England did an admirable job plowing through its schedule with the singular mind-set coach Bill Belichick demands, the anticipation of a win Saturday night did appear to leave the Patriots a little more emotional, even reckless, than previous games.

There were claims and counterclaims of unsportsmanlike behavior from both locker rooms. Giants receiver Plaxico Burress declared the Patriots were delivering low blows and Patriots safety Rodney Harrison charged Burress was targeting his knees. There were scrums in the middle of the field and on the sidelines, with teams trading shoves, barbs, and insults. Offensive lineman Matt Light, who called the smash-mouth battle "a dirty game," said he refrained from responding to the trash talking he described as rampant among the Giants.

"I'm not really into that kind of stuff," Light said. "It's like arguing with a third-grader. But when you win games like that, it's a lot more satisfying."

And yet, the Patriots hardly were innocent victims of the verbal and physical skirmishes.

Veteran linebacker Junior Seau was flagged for holding Brandon Jacobs down after the whistle had blown.

Wide receiver Randy Moss embarked on a celebration dance when he caught a touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone in the second quarter, for which the team was tagged with a 15-yard penalty.

That contributed to a short kick from Stephen Gostkowski and a 74-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by New York's Domenik Hixon.

Moss explained he had decided to come up with a new dance each week.

"I call that one the 'Tootsie Roll,' " he said. "Coach was on me about it, but I hope he'll look past it a little bit." (Maybe this time, Randy, but you might want to shelve the "Milky Way" until next summer's exhibition schedule).

Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs, no stranger to chirping, conceded the enormity of the game resulted in some uncharacteristic behavior.

"At times we got out of our game, physically and verbally," he acknowledged. "But it was wild out there, man. Guys in the stands were throwing hot dogs and coffee at us. We were in enemy territory, no question.

"But we love being the gladiators. Because when it's over and we've won everything, then they've got to throw roses at us."

The Giants deserve their share of platitudes for playing to win, with verve and conviction, even though it left them with three starters sidelined with injuries. The game was incredibly entertaining and hard-fought, in spite of the fact it had no playoff ramifications.

It was also well-played. Hobbs's fourth-quarter interception was the only turnover of the night.

While the Patriots enjoy a brief respite (they are off until Thursday), their coach will lock himself in the film room and compile a lowlight reel of all the things that went wrong along the path to perfection.

There will be a plethora of examples from this instant classic against the Giants, but nobody plans to dwell on that. The Patriots have grown accustomed to watching uneven teams rise to the occasion upon their arrival.

"We always got everyone's best shot," said defensive end Richard Seymour. "I think that is what makes this so special."

Their days of elation are numbered, naturally. It will be back to work soon, and 16-0 will be an albatross, a constant reminder that one false step and all those victories were for naught.

"This is something that no one can take away from us," said Hobbs, "but at the same time, this isn't where we want to be."

"Coach Belichick does a good job of keeping us in our own little bubble," said Watson.

In other words, no need to fret. The "perfect" Patriots will revert back to the team that "hasn't won anything" in no time.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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