THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Once again, Giants spoil the Patriots' season

The Patriots' season came crashing to an end when Tom Brady's Hail Mary pass on the final play landed on the turf in the end zone, out of the grasp of Rob Gronkowski or Wes Welker. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff) The Patriots' season came crashing to an end when Tom Brady's Hail Mary pass on the final play landed on the turf in the end zone, out of the grasp of Rob Gronkowski or Wes Welker.
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS — Heartache in the heartland.

It was there. Everything was in place. The Patriots were favored in Super Bowl XLVI and we were ready to anoint Bill Belichick the best coach ever, while boosting Tom Brady to the top of the all-time quarterback list.

But then it all came apart under the man-made sky of Lucas Oil Stadium, 6 miles from the magic gym where "Hoosiers" was shot.

Four years after watching their perfect season implode in the desert of Glendale, Ariz., the Patriots were again beaten in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants, this time by a score of 21-17.

It was excruciating. The Patriots led, 17-15, with 3:46 remaining when Eli Manning took over on his 12-yard line. After a season of bending-but-not breaking, the Patriot defense finally succumbed. Jump-started by a sensational 38-yard catch by Mario Manningham (this year’s David Tyree), Manning moved the Giants 88 yards in nine plays. Playing the odds, and the clock, the Patriots laid down and waved Ahmad Bradshaw into the end zone on second-and-goal from the 6-yard line with less than a minute to play.

How’s that for irony? The Patriots intentionally allowed the Giants to score the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

So instead of a fourth Super Bowl victory since 2001, the Patriots have two straight losses to the Giants.

Instead of Tom Brady winning his third Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning won his second.

It was Goober over Glamour.

Again.

Tom Coughlin beat Bill Belichick.

Again.

New York beat Boston.

Again.

Curses. Is this some sort of cosmic payback for what the Red Sox did to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series?

In 2008 we saw a sure game-clinching interception sail through the hands of Asante Samuel. Last night it was Wes Welker dropping a badly-thrown Brady pass that would have effectively guaranteed victory for the Patriots.

In 2008, we saw Tyree make his ridiculous velcro-helmet catch when all seemed lost for the Giants. This time it was Manningham reeling in a 38-yard home-run ball Manning threw to start the winning drive.

So close. So many times. The Patriots were inches from a clean getaway in two consecutive Super Bowls and have nothing to show for it.

When the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins visited the White House, President Obama said, "The Bruins, the Sox, the Celtics, now the Patriots. Enough already, Boston. What’s going on?"

Nothing, Mr. President. Nothing at all. After a decade of dominance, New England seems to be shifting back toward the Big Middle. The Bruins are in a midseason slump. The Celtics are calcifying before our eyes. The Red Sox are pinching pennies, falling further behind their rivals in the American League. And the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2005. Belichick and Brady have lost four of their last six playoff games, including two straight Super Bowls in which they were favored.

Two straight to the New York Football Giants.

Belichick is not a man given to hyperbole, but this 2010-11 team had a chance to be his masterpiece. Short on talent, particularly on defense, these Patriots were a raft of street free agents and marginal talents that came within one minute of winning the Super Bowl.

Brady was on a mission. He was unhappy with his play in the AFC Championship game and had not gotten over the last Super Bowl loss, which stripped the 2007-08 Patriots of immortality.

At the start of the night, Patriot fans took comfort at the sight of Belichick wearing his time-tested gray-hooded sweatshirt. Belichick wore red in Arizona four years ago and switched back to gray for the rematch.

The Patriots wore their blue shirt tops, just as in 2008. The Giants, designated as the visitors, wore white.

The Patriots won the coin toss (naturally) and deferred (naturally). The last time the Patriots asked for the ball to start a game was in their opener in 2008. It’s the "double score" theory, patented by Belichick. Works just about every time. You give the other guy the ball to start the game, maneuver the first half so you score with seconds left before intermission, then you score at the start of the second half and take away your opponents’ will to live.

The Patriots fell behind, 9-0. An intentional grounding penalty on Brady (he threw the ball away while under pressure in his own end zone) gave the Giants a 2-0 lead, then Manning drove the Giants 78 yards on nine plays, connecting with Victor Cruz on a 2-yard touchdown pass to take a 9-0 lead. Manning completed his first nine passes. The Patriots possessed the football for eight seconds of the first 11:36. New England had one offensive play to New York’s 19. It looked like it might be a Giant blowout.

No.

The Patriots got off the schneid, drove to the Giants’ 11 and settled for a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

The Patriots you have grown to know and love finally showed up at the end of the first half. Just as they always do. Taking over on his 4, Brady completed 10 straight passes, moving the Patriots 96 yards in 3:55, capping the backbreaking drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead. Rob Gronkowski’s only catch of the half came during the drive: a 20-yard beauty over the middle.

Madonna’s halftime show was all smoke and mirrors, but effective; a perfect metaphor for the Patriots’ first half.

After the interminable break, the Patriots came out and drove 79 yards in eight plays, taking a 17-9 lead on Brady’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. During the drive, Brady completed 5 of 5 passes, giving him 16 consecutive completions, erasing his idol Joe Montana’s Super Bowl record of 13.

The Giants stopped the surge with a pair of field goals (38, then 33 yards) by Lawrence Tynes to cut New England’s lead to 17-15 at the end of the third quarter.

It was Game On for Super Bowl XLVI.

Brady did not have a good fourth quarter. He was intercepted once, and threw a couple of passes to the wrong side of his receivers, most notably the second-and-11 pass that Welker dropped with four minutes to play. A completion would have changed everything. But the ball was not on target. And the normally sure-handed Welker couldn’t make the catch.

Still, the Patriots were looking good after a punt when Manning took over on his 12-yard line with 3:46 left.

That’s when the season-long suspect Patriot defense reared its ugly head.

Manning went for a home run on the first play and connected with Manningham on a sensational 38-yard sideline pass play. The Patriots reviewed the completion, but the catch was upheld.

Two minutes later, the Patriots fell down on purpose and let the Giants score a touchdown. It was their only chance.

The final drive saw the Patriots get to midfield. There was almost a miracle on the final play, but three Giant defenders lined up in front of Hernandez on the Hail Mary and the ball fell to the ground, inches from Gronkowski’s outstretched arms.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy9@globe.com.

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