The moment had been detailed so meticulously, just as any other athletic march to history might be, that its inevitability seemed never in question.
Such is not the case with 19-0. No asterisk needed, New York.
The New England Patriots are no longer perfect.
Never has 18-1 looked so lame a mark.
Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress predicted a 23-17 win for New York earlier this week, prompting Tom Brady to exclaim, "We're only going to score 17 points?"
Not even. The Giants confused the New England offense all evening long, using a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive by Eli Manning as the catalyst to a 17-14 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
New England's bid for history went from controversial to meaningless, all within the seconds it took Ellis Hobbs to blow his coverage on Burress in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. The 18-game winning streak means nothing now. The 2007 season, poised to go down as the greatest in NFL history, now will forever be known as a monumental disappointment.
Perfect is no longer up for debate.
Despite its very meaning -- being entirely without fault -- no other word can be as subjective for the masses: The perfect meal at your favorite Back Bay eatery, the perfect Chatham sunset, the perfect rendition of “Lay Lady Lay,” are all a matter of opinion, differing views for varied tastes of society.
Had these Patriots won Super Bowl XLII, the jury still would have been out on them as well, spygate still an overwhelming factor in the public perception of perfection. Perhaps now that they're not Super Bowl champs, Arlen Specter and everybody else looking to share the spotlight will mercifully fade into the distance, not willing to take their fights as far for a loser.
As low as last year's AFC title loss to the Colts was, this one trumps it in every way possible tenfold. It is New England's first Super Bowl loss in 11 years, and it could be argued, based on what was at stake, that it is the worst loss in franchise history. Those who have been around longer than the time it takes to get both feet onto the bandwagon understand what that is saying.
The massacre in Super Bowl XX was nothing compared to this. In 1997, the Patriots again lost to a superior team in the Packers. But the wild card Giants? For a franchise that has established itself as the model for the rest of the NFL, this wasn't just a disappointing development, it was a major step backward.
Eli Manning joins his brother as Super Bowl MVP. Brady comes up short. The Patriots lose. Bill Belichick's genius takes a hit. All in the matter of a few ticks of the clock in Arizona.
Despite the feeling that pervades New England tonight, there is joy in the rest of the country, where NFL fans had had enough of the winning, enough of pretty boy Brady and gruff Belichick. Perfection or not, the Pats were hated across the land, the team everybody wanted to see somebody - anybody - take down.
More than ever now, the Patriots are the Yankees, an aging team annually stocking up to re-live past glories and coming up short.
Don Shula, Mercury Morris, and the rest of those '72 Dolphins aren't going away. Maybe they never will, a perpetual annoyance that lives to be the Patriots' purgatory. The Patriots have gone from NFL elite to NFL punchlines, the team that could not close the job on history.
They finish the 2007 season 18-1. No Lombardi. No history books.
No rings. No parade.
No 19-0 books, and no trips to Letterman this week.
No asterisk either. None needed.
The inevitable never came, and perfection was not to be.