THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

They're history, all right

Achievements vanish in a New York minute

Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2008

PHOENIX - They were always about history, these 2007-08 Patriots. Most points in history. Most touchdowns in history. First 18-0 team in history. But when it was all over, Bill Belichick's History Boys were a failure. They did not accomplish their goal. They lost the Super Bowl. They blew a lead in the final minute.

In the end, the new Patriots reminded us of the old Red Sox. Ouch.

Now there will be no more talk about "greatest ever." No making fun of Mercury Morris and the still-one-and-only undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. No more comparisons to the dynasties of Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco. The muscle-flexing 18-1 Patriots don't even go down as the best New England team of all time.

"Tonight doesn't take away from anything we have done over the course of the season," Tom Brady said late Sunday.

Yes, it does. Take all your pinball victories (remember those long-ago days of 52-7 and 56-10?) and lock them away. The Patriots shredded the NFL record book (and the league rulebook, if you believe Senator Arlen Specter), but they did not accomplish their goal. They did not win the Super Bowl. By their own standards of excellence, this season is a failure - same as 2005, when they were eliminated by the Broncos, and 2006, when the Colts bounced them in the AFC Championship.

It's pretty clear that the Patriots peaked too early - very unBelichickian. The rout of the Bills Nov. 18 was the pinnacle. In that game, Randy Moss caught four touchdown passes in the first half. It was 35-7 at intermission and the Patriots kept piling on the points all the way to 56-10. A week later, the Eagles came to Foxborough and went facemask-to-facemask with the Patriots for four quarters. The Patriots were never truly dominant after the Philadelphia game. In the eight games before the Super Bowl, their best showing was a 34-13 rout of the Steelers.

So they were ripe for an upset, and the Giants were just the team to do it. Despite losing six games during the regular season, including a 41-17 beating at home against the non-playoff Vikings Nov. 25, the Giants were well-positioned to match New England in the Super Bowl.

There was a playoff atmosphere in the "meaningless" regular-season finale between the Pats and G-Men in late December and that game served the Giants well Sunday night in Glendale. The Giants were not afraid of the Patriots. They knew the only way to stop New England was to get to Brady. And they had guys who could do it.

New York also had a coach who was not intimidated by the legend of Belichick. Week after week, arrogant Patriots fans came to assume that the guy on the other sideline was a stooge. Not so with Tom Coughlin. He's 61 years old. He's not afraid to fail. And he outcoached Belichick in the Super Bowl. "The Giants just had a better game plan," said Moss.

It's hard not to come back to New England's decision to go for a first down on a fourth-and-13 from the Giants 31 midway through the third quarter. Clearly not trusting kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots went for broke and Brady's heave to Jabar Gaffney was incomplete.

"It was a 50-yard field goal," reasoned Belichick.

Probably more like 48. But the kicking conditions were ideal. We're pretty sure Belichick would have gone for the 3 points if he'd had a vintage Adam Vinatieri on the sideline.

Another call that backfired was the decision to blitz on Eli Manning's game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. It was a first-and-10 play from the 13 and the Giants had to have a touchdown, not a field goal. The play was over once Manning read the blitz (I think brother Peyton prepared him for this). Eyes as big as satellite dishes, Eli had Plaxico Burress isolated on the overmatched, chest-thumping Ellis Hobbs ("sorriest corner in the league," according to Philip Rivers), and the TD was embarrassingly easy.

A few words about Belichick's comportment at the finish: When the Patriots gave up the ball on downs and were officially set to lose, Belichick walked across the field and shook Coughlin's hand even though there was still one second remaining on the clock. Then Belichick left the field before Manning and the Giants took over for the final kneel-down.

There was still one play to go and Belichick was already gone. He looked like a spoilsport - like the Detroit Pistons walking off the floor at the Palace of Auburn Hills when they finally yielded the Eastern Conference title to the Chicago Bulls. Bill Parcells was flogged for not flying home with his team when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Packers in New Orleans. What about this?

In fairness, it's possible Belichick thought the officials were going to waive the final play. There was only one second on the clock and the field was already littered with celebrating Giants. But we don't know what Belichick was thinking because he shifted into combat mode in a remarkably brief postgame interview. I expected him to conclude his terse interview with, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

It was a bad ending all around. It had a distinct 2003 ALCS feel. Grady Little. Aaron Boone. You name it. And it's not going to be much fun to be around your New York friends for a while. This time the New Yorkers have the embraceable winners - like Joe Namath's Jets, Willis Reed's Knicks, and the 1969 Mets.

Back in New England, we are stuck with perfectus interruptus, more rumors of cheating, an embattled coach who looks like a sore loser, and the first 18-1 losing season in the history of sports.

Humble pie was delicious as an abstract motivational tool. But when you have to actually take a bite, it tastes terrible.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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