PHOENIX - There are several hallmarks of the Patriots' remarkable success since 2001: the acumen of coach Bill Belichick, the unflappable presence of quarterback Tom Brady, the team-over-individual ethos. But if there's one statistical staple that speaks to the Patriots' greatness, it's their ability to close out games better than Jonathan Papelbon.
Call them the anti-comeback kids. If the Patriots have the lead heading into the fourth quarter, it's almost a lock that the opponent is going to lose. Since 2001, the Patriots are an astonishing 80-2 in games in which they've led entering the final frame, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That's a .976 winning percentage. The next-best record belongs to the Steelers, who are 65-5-1 (.915).
If New England has the lead tomorrow entering the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII against the Giants and history follows suit, then history in the form of a 19-0 season is all but a certainty and the Lombardi Trophy will be paraded down Boylston Street for the fourth time in seven seasons.
"They're finishers," said Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. "They realize what's at stake and everybody on that team has the ability to rise up in the fourth quarter and do whatever it takes to win and that's why they've been successful.
"If you don't win the fourth quarter then you're not going to win many games in this league. That's why they're 18-0, because in the fourth quarter they rise up and they do whatever it takes to win. Everybody on that team, offensively, defensively, special teams, coaches, has an equal understanding of what level they need to reach to be successful."
There are a few factors in the Patriots' fourth-quarter efficacy - preparation, confidence, conditioning, and Brady.
Belichick puts a strong emphasis on situational football. If the Patriots have to stop an opponent on third down, like in the fourth quarter against the Chargers in the AFC Championship game, or come up with a key third-down stop in the red zone, like they did in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars in the divisional round, they can because they've faced those situations and scenarios in practice.
"Absolutely, because we've done it before," said defensive end Richard Seymour, one of 10 players who have been with the Patriots since 2001. "That's the confidence where we feel like we can get it done because we've done it before and that just breeds confidence. We don't know how it's going to get done, but we're confident in knowing that it will get done. From that standpoint, it always helps to have that type of edge going into a big game."
Belichick has said the only stat he looks at with a quarterback is wins, and while Brady never had gaudy passing numbers until this season, he has been the consummate winner since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001.
Seeing Brady make a mistake that costs his team the game in a tight situation is akin to catching Haley's Comet - the Patriots' only regular-season loss when leading after three quarters, a 29-28 defeat at Miami in 2004 happened after Brady literally threw the game away, tossing an interception that set up the winning points while trying to avoid a sack.
Brady's presence in the huddle gives his teammates a sense of belief.
"I think through the course of the season and through the course of the game, players start to panic," said wide receiver Randy Moss. "When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, nail-biting time, Tom has been a great player and he's been able to show that much poise and really not show a lot of emotion. You have to respect that every time you see it."
The Patriots' other fall-from-ahead defeat was in last season's AFC Championship game, a 38-34 loss to the Colts. That heart-rending defeat inspired one theme of this year's team, "60 minutes." But it's one thing to play 60 minutes; it's another to have the conditioning to do it. After tiring inside the sweltering RCA Dome in Indy, the Patriots have worked assiduously to avoid a repeat.
"You have to be able to finish the deal," said safety Rodney Harrison. "Offenses are so good nowadays, teams are so good nowadays that you can't take anything for granted. I think Belichick does a good job of doing that. Even if we're up it's, 'Go finish the deal. Finish, finish, finish, 60 minutes of play.' That's what we've been able to do."
Teams often tense up when the game is on the line. It happened to the Giants in their first meeting with the Patriots, as New York blew a 5-point fourth-quarter lead.
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said learning how to close out an opponent takes time. He pointed to the 2000 season, Belichick's first in New England, when the team went 5-11 and just 2-3 when leading entering the fourth quarter.
Bruschi said sometimes the key to winning the fourth quarter is playing as if it's the first quarter.
"I think you can get a little bit more intense or more tight knowing it's the fourth quarter, but what you have to realize is what wins in the fourth quarter are the same things that helped you win those previous three," said Bruschi. "So, if you try to do too much in the fourth quarter, you can possibly get lost in that moment. Just keep doing what you were doing, but realize there is a little bit less time on the clock."