THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

It comes down to this

To a man, Patriots realize 18-0 won't matter if there isn't one more

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008

PHOENIX - One way or the other the Patriots will make history tonight in Super Bowl XLII.

With a win over the New York Giants at University of Phoenix Stadium, they will secure football immortality and the first 19-0 season in NFL history. With a loss, immortality will be swapped for ignominy and the knowledge that 18 straight wins were all for naught.

It's all or nothing for the Patriots, a perfect ending and a place alongside the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in NFL history or an 18-1 record that doesn't have the same (Super Bowl) ring to it.

"I think it's the biggest game of all of our lives - my life, the entire team, our coaches," said quarterback Tom Brady. "We're going to be remembering this game for as long as we live, win or lose.

"We're going to have great memories of this experience or we're going to look at it truly as a missed opportunity. There's not too many teams in the history of the NFL, none in fact, that have been 18-0 going into this game."

The Patriots already have made history once this season against the Giants, defeating them, 38-35, at Giants Stadium Dec. 29 in the regular-season finale to author the first 16-0 season in league history - the league switched to a 16-game slate in 1978.

New York (13-6) may have lost that Saturday night, but the confidence it gained in going toe to toe with the Patriots - the Giants had a 28-16 lead in the third quarter - put it on the path to Arizona. Led by suddenly economical Eli Manning, who has emerged as an elite quarterback in the playoffs, the Giants became just the third team to reach the postseason by winning three playoff road games, joining the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and 1985 Patriots.

Unlike in the regular-season meeting, the Giants will have spark-plug running back Ahmad Bradshaw at their disposal. The Patriots will have right guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Nick Kaczur, both of whom sat out the Dec. 29 game with injuries.

"If we don't play better than we did in that game, then we'll lose because they're a better football team than they were in December," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "They've gotten better every week. They've won games on the road. They've gotten better every week."

The Giants have been supremely confident for a team that is facing an opponent that hasn't lost all season. They wore black suits on their plane ride here and then implied it was because they'd come to bury the Patriots' perfect season. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress predicted a New York victory and even gave a score, 23-17.

New York has acted as if it has nothing to lose.

"There's no pressure on us," said Burress. "The goal is to go out and compete, try to win a game for our organization, for our teammates. Nobody's giving us a shot anyway, so that's the way we look at it. We know what we have to do. We played those guys well, but we didn't win the football game. We left a few plays out there. As a whole, we know exactly what we have to do."

So do the Patriots. They just have to do what they've done since opening day against the New York Jets Sept. 9 - win.

"It's a one-game season. We hope to go undefeated for one more game," said safety Rodney Harrison. "That's what we're looking at. It's not about if they're wearing [black] suits or what they're talking about. It's all about executing, preparing this week, and getting ready to play. That's what it's about. It's not about lip service or anything of that sort. We have to go out there, and we should handle business."

Bill Belichick, who can join Chuck Noll as the only coaches to win four Super Bowls, agreed with Harrison and Brady. His team must take care of business in the biggest game they've played to date.

"I think it is the biggest game of all for our football team because it is the next game," said Belichick. "It is the next game and it is the Super Bowl. It is for the championship, so I can't think of a bigger game than that. We are here and that is what we are here for.

"We have worked all year for this game. We are happy to be a participant in it and it is a privilege to be in it. Of course it is a big game - it is a huge game. It is a year's worth of work to get here."

For the Patriots, the ultimate moment has met the ultimate game of the season and after all the hype and headlines, only one thing is certain about the result of Super Bowl XLII - it will be historic.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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