GLENDALE, Ariz. - They had but one mandate: to get off the field.
However, it proved easier said than done for the Patriots' defense in last night's shocking 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
After the Patriots had held San Diego to four field goals in a 21-12 victory in the AFC Championship game, prompting linebacker Tedy Bruschi to proclaim, "This is what we consider Patriot football," the defense failed to live up to that standard in their bid for a perfect 19-0 season, struggling to get off the field against the Giants at the beginning of the game and, when it mattered most, with 2:39 remaining and the Patriots in control of a 14-10 lead.
"[It's] very disappointing to come this far and lose the biggest game of the year," Bruschi said after Giants quarterback Eli Manning engineered a 12-play, 83-yard march that took 2 minutes 7 seconds and culminated in a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress to give the Giants the victory.
The defense, which had held the Giants to a Lawrence Tynes 32-yard field goal before giving up a pair of fourth-quarter Manning TD passes, was left to humbly absorb responsibility for this blown save opportunity.
"You prepare, you have two weeks to prepare for this game and think you're going to put a good showing out there and both teams think they're going to win the game," Bruschi said. "But congratulations to the New York Giants."
After winning the opening coin toss, the Giants went on the offensive and put together a methodical 16-play, 63-yard drive that consumed 9:59. Manning sustained the drive by completing third-down passes of 14, 8, and 9 yards.
"They came out early in the game and it was a ball-control game," said defensive end Richard Seymour. "We couldn't get off the field on third down. It kind of had a cumulative effect later in the game."
That much was evident when the Patriots had taken a 14-10 lead on Tom Brady's 6-yard TD pass to Randy Moss, completing a 12-play, 80-yard drive that took 5:12, leaving the defense to preserve the lead with 2:39 to go.
"At that point, we thought we pretty much had it wrapped and we just needed to make some plays and get off the field, but they were never going to go away," Seymour said. "That's the sign of a champion. That's the heart that they showed and that's what we're used to doing."
His team 83 yards from paydirt and from spoiling the Patriots' bid for perfection, Manning, the game MVP, directed a drive that will go down in Super Bowl lore.
"They had a great two-minute drive at the end of the game, Eli was taking his shots, and I think it was [David] Tyree making a great catch," Bruschi said of Tyree's acrobatic 32-yard grab. "Those were the great plays and the plays you need to make to become world champions and they did it."
Asante Samuel had a chance to deliver the Patriots their fourth Super Bowl title in seven years when he nearly intercepted Manning on second and 5, but failed to come down with the ball. "I don't know if Eli was trying to throw it away or something," Samuel said. "But it was a bad play on my part. I could have ended the game. It was one of the plays that we left on the field and that is why they are the champions."
Perhaps the biggest, though, occurred when Manning pulled a Houdini act by escaping the clutches of no less than three Patriots who seemed to have him corralled for a huge loss on third and 5 from the Giants 44.
Inexplicably, Manning spun out of the crowd and fired a 32-yard strike downfield to Tyree, who had to wrestle the ball from veteran safety Rodney Harrison.
"The ball just didn't bounce our way," Harrison said. "We had the guy for a sack and he slips us and he throws a Hail Mary up and the guy comes down with the ball and the ball is falling out of hands. It was just incredible."
After getting dropped for a 1-yard loss by Adalius Thomas, Manning converted on third and 11 with an 11-yard toss to Steve Smith, setting up the winning 13-yard TD to Burress that beat Ellis Hobbs, leaving the Patriots to rue the one that got away from them in this 18-1 season.
Asked what coach Bill Belichick said to them in the locker room, Bruschi said, "He summarized the year a little bit, said we worked very hard this year, and that it was too bad we couldn't finish. But he also told us he wished he could have done a better job and we were saying we as players wished we could have done a better job.
"It's a tough way to finish," Bruschi added. "It's the Super Bowl. The winner is the world champion and the loser is just grouped in [with] 31 other teams."