THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

In the end, it was all for naught

With one second left, Bill Belichick cuts to the chase and jogs onto the field to congratulate Giants coach Tom Coughlin. With one second left, Bill Belichick cuts to the chase and jogs onto the field to congratulate Giants coach Tom Coughlin. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2008

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Nobody's perfect.

Not Tom Brady, not Bill Belichick. Not the New England Patriots.

Their unbeaten season, the subject of so many historic superlatives as they broke record after record and mowed down opponent after opponent, was shattered last night inside a dome with a fabric roof by a football team from New York that reached out and tore off their own chunk of history.

Tom Coughlin's Giants ripped the Lombardi Trophy away from the heavily favored Patriots with old-fashioned, disciplined, hard-hitting football, the kind of game plan Belichick loves. Brady was harried from goal post to goal post, reducing the league's MVP to mere mortal status. His touted offensive line, with three Pro Bowlers, was humbled by the frenzied pressure of Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora and Jay Alford, who together sacked Brady five times, more than any other team during the Patriots' pristine regular season.

And yet, even so, Brady and his boys regrouped to march 80 yards into the end zone for a 14-10 lead with 2:42 left in the game, as they have done so many times before. In the clutch, they looked and behaved like a veteran team that knew how to close the deal.

But just as New England fans began conjuring various ailments for when they called in sick to attend yet another championship parade, Giants quarterback Eli Manning and his team accomplished the unthinkable: They answered back.

Loudly. Definitively.

Like champions.

And so New England's 18-0 mark is for naught, just as each and every Patriot player warned it would be if they could not win the Super Bowl. This seemingly magical season has gone up in smoke. The quest for perfection turned out to be a hollow, meaningless pursuit.

How much did this 17-14 Super Bowl XLII loss sting? So much so that when Brady's last-gasp bomb in the final seconds ticked off the outstretched fingers of Randy Moss, Belichick ran to the center of the field, embraced his friend Coughlin, then jogged into the locker room. As it turned out, there was one second left on the game clock, but Belichick did not reemerge.

It was too painful to watch.

And so the New York Giants, not your New England Patriots, are the champions of the football world this morning, having engineered one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. They accomplished it on the wings of young Manning, who will never again be reduced to the moniker of Peyton's little brother.

"Eli is always being compared to someone," said New York center Sean O'Hara. "Whether it's his dad, his brother, or Phil Simms. Well, I think Eli built his own platform tonight."

Manning was positively Brady-esque during his team's final march, highlighted by a heady move to sidestep an oncoming Richard Seymour that resulted in a 32-yard heave to David Tyree, who hung onto the ball despite Rodney Harrison's best efforts to strip it. Manning culminated the winning drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the left corner of the end zone over the head of Ellis Hobbs. The Patriots were blitzing on the play, and, Hobbs said, he was hoping Manning would not have a clear shot at his receivers. He did, and Burress, who sobbed with joy when the clock ticked down to 0:00, easily hauled in the catch.

"I challenge anyone to get out there and [play my position]," said Hobbs after the game. "[Burress] made the play. I didn't. I've got to move on and try to understand it. But, it's tough."

New York's clutch score in those final minutes was a stunning, breathtaking turn of events. Four times during the season, New England had trailed in the fourth quarter, and four times it had come back.

It appeared the Patriots would follow their usual script when Brady got the ball back, down, 10-7, with 7:54 left, and went on to complete 8 of 11 passes for 71 yards, relying on his top accomplices, Randy Moss and Wes Welker (his incredible 11-catch performance last night will be forgotten amid the crushing result).

Who believed with 2:42 left, and 83 yards to go, that Manning would outfox a veteran Patriots defense whose hallmark has been to bend, but never completely break? But he did, with guile and improvisation and poise, trademarks he has been criticized for lacking.

No longer. He engineered one of the most improbable upsets in sports history.

"You set high expectations," said Hobbs. "But then you go down, and you're 18-1, and that's one big zit. It's one big blemish. We choked. We choked at the end."

You might recall Burress was the one who predicted a Giants victory by a 23-17 score. Brady had some fun mocking him for suggesting New England's offense would generate so few points, but ultimately the gritty receiver, who missed most of practice last week with a bum ankle and knee, proved to be prophetic.

The Patriots have a long, long offseason to ponder how it all went wrong, but you have to wonder if Brady's ankle, the subject of so much speculation leading up to this game, was worse than his team let on.

Although Brady appeared on the injury report in the usual fashion (probable, right shoulder), there was no mention of the high right ankle sprain that had propelled him into the tabloids' grill leading up to the Super Bowl.

In theory, that meant his ankle was no longer an issue.

Yet, it was obvious New England's franchise quarterback was laboring. Brady's gait was rigid, his mobility was limited, and, when he stepped back and was assaulted by New York's blitzing defenders, he was unable to sidestep the pressure. Brady said afterward he was 100 percent.

Moss, who was in search of his first championship ring, conceded the shock of what had just transpired was difficult to process.

"I don't really know what I'm feeling," he said. "They beat us. There's nothing else I can say."

"They made plays, we made plays," said a somber Belichick in a brief postgame press conference. "In the end, they made more than we did."

Yes, they did. The Giants proved, once again, this is why you play the game.

They also proved perfection is as elusive as we all thought it was, before this Patriots team dazzled us all and lulled us into believing they would never lose again.

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

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