Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sleep through the static

I know, it's hardly practical to attempt a media blackout when you work in the sports department of a newspaper. But trust me when I say I did my damnedest. Save for Dave D'Onofrio's thoughtful postgame autopsy and the clear-eyed dispatches of Mike Reiss and Chris Gasper, pretty much everything I read in the past week I read only because I was being paid to.

My clicker never settled on ESPN, not for one shouted, hyperbolic, ill-informed word. No "Sports Illustrated championship pack" commercials for me, or, I suspect, you. No Peter King-Favre, and definitely no Kissing Suzy Kolber. No WEEI or WFAN (my usual late-night choice on the trip home from Boston). Just the new Jack Johnson CD, my own mental NFL Films reel, and ever so gradually, some peace of mind regarding the agonizing way it all played out. Yes, I may need to make a habit of tuning out.

So . . . eight days later, here we are, slowly moving on, trying to make sense of the fact that the quest for perfection was derailed by the likes of Eli Manning and David Freakin' Tyree. Not that we'd ever begrudge the Giants their epic victory; they were clutch, smart, well-prepared, aggressive, resourceful, and damn lucky, a formula that should be familiar to and appreciated by any Patriots fan with a shred of self-awareness.

But I don't think it's bad form to admit the Giants deserved to win while also bemoaning that fact that they Patriots had, what, four or five chances on the final drive to clinch the victory for themselves? It just goes to show that football, not baseball, is the ultimate game of inches. If Samuel holds on to the pick . . . if someone in that sea of hands hauls down Manning . . . if Harrison can just pull Tyree's hand free . . .

If, if, if.

Bleeping if.

Hey, like I said, we're returning from the underground slowly. It ain't easy. The hardest part to accept, other than the actual outcome itself, is this: the Patriots needed one play to secure a legacy as the greatest team in history of the NFL, and players who have consistently delivered those big plays in big moments had their chances . . . and shockingly, they let them slip through their hands, literally so in Samuel's case. And because of this out-of-character failure to make the one play they need, their legacy is not one of greatness or immortalily or dominance, but one of almost . . . I don't know, mockery or pity or as a cautionary tale or something. They seem to be regarded now like the marathoner on a record pace who tripped and fell right on his face before the finish line, except on a grander scale, because no one gives a *%&$ about marathoning. They're laughing at us, not with us, and I fear, with good reason, that 18-1 is the new 1918. I hate this feeling.

Odd how the pendulum swings. One play gets made, one play, and this team's relegates the '72 Dolphins to the obscurity they deserve. But one play didn't get made, and now we're left to wonder if the loss was an all-too-appropriate bookend to the Super Bowl victory over the Rams, the completion of the circle. Removing emotion from the equation, I honestly don't believe that we saw an era's conclusion last Sunday; a smart, talent-rich team with Bill Belichick on its sideline and Tom Brady as its quarterback is not going to fade from perennial championship contention because of one soul-crushing loss. We must concede, however, that the coach and the QB no longer have the air of invincibility in the postseason that they once did. This is three seasons without a championship, and the last two season-ending losses have come, excruciatingly, in the game's final moments. The Super Bowl victory over the Eagles is starting to feel like a long time ago.

In a sense, I wish next season would begin tomorrow, just to dull the memory of their last play. As much as I love baseball, this is not a wound that can be healed by another sport, and it's downright silly to suggest the arrival of pitchers and catchers, while a traditional sign that brighter days are coming, can do anything to ease the disappointment of what happened in Arizona.

Further, anyone who suggests this loss was less significant because the indignity was suffered by the Pats instead of the Sox is simply allowing personal opinion to overwhelm logic. Boston is not solely a Baseball Town, not now, and maybe never again; it is a Pro Sports Town now, as evidenced by the current swirling moods: the genuine grief of the Patriots' demise and the giddiness surrounding the Celtics' resurgence. Hell, I'm convinced that if Jeremy Jacobs ever spent some of his beer-and-wiener loot on his neglected hockey team, the marginalized Bruins could again become as beloved as they were in the Neely/Bourque years, if not the golden days of the Gallery Gods in the '70s. It's easy to forget now, but Boston was once a Hockey Town above all else.

We New Englanders are, however, the only ones who have any affection this Patriots team. Everyone besides you and me - to borrow a word from Tom Jackson - hates them, and you bet I believe the whispers that the press box erupted in cheers when the football settled gently into Plaxico Burress's hands.

While some - okay, a lot - of the public disdain is self-inflicted, and I think it would be hugely beneficial if Belichick would permit himself to always be as charming as he was during Super Bowl week, all the ancillary white noise shouldn't sap the fun out of being a fan. Yet it did; turns out it sucks being Goliath.

You'd think the journey to 18-0 would have been joyful, but between SpyGate, RunningUpTheScoreGate, ConsensualHorseplayGate, BradyInABootOnTMZGate, and all the other saturation b.s. "coverage" on ESPN and elsewhere, it turned out that the only fun in following this team came during the actual games . . . that is, until the last game.

Right now, I find myself looking forward to the day the Patriots are treated like just another very good football team again. If that's even possible.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Yeah? Something tells me He loves you more, pal.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

The loneliest number

Never would have thought before this season that 18-1 could feel so empty.

Almost perfect? C'mon, that counts for absolutely nothing at this hour. There is no solace to be found. So much more than a single football game was lost tonight. The Patriots were 60 well-played minutes from sporting immortality. They would have stood alone as the greatest team in the history of the sport.

Now? Now they will now be lumped with the '68 Colts, the '90 Bills, the '01 Rams as pumped-up favorites who did not live up to their billing. Those who prematurely reveled in their superiority will be left eating a heaping helping of our own words. (Hello there.) The '72 Dolphins will raise their glasses. The ESPN airbags will smirk. Your Patriots be called chokers. New Yawkers will gloat, loudly, for the first time since Oct, '04. We will have no choice but to endure it all.

I'm in no mood to compare and contrast my favorite teams' most devastating defeats, but I'll admit, the pain of this one won't equal the spirit-crushing sadness I felt after the 2003 ALCS loss; I guess baseball just owns a bigger piece of my heart. But it does leave me aching, and a little bit shellshocked. We've been so blessed as New England sports fans in recent seasons that you'd think disappointment wouldn't hit us so hard anymore. It does. The more you think about what happened tonight, the more depressing it gets. It almost doesn't seem real.

So we're left to search for an explanation for What Went Wrong, and we can't resist the temptation to distribute the blame. Scapegoats can be found without much of a search. The offensive line was a five-man homage to Max Lane; they helped make Justin Tuck a star tonight. Ellis Hobbs, a weak link exposed, still has no idea where the hell Plaxico Burress went. Benjamin Watson (one penalty, one false start, zero catches) would have helped the cause more by remaining behind in Foxboro. And that's just the starter list.

Even the two men who always gave us the confidence - sure, arrogance - to believe the Patriots would coast to their fourth championship in seven seasons were not their usual infallible selves tonight. Belichick's decision to go for a fourth and 13 in the first half rather than have Stephen Gostkowski attempt a 49-yard field goal was curious at the time, and in hindsight it looks like a strategic blunder that will linger. Worse, he now has something in common with Mike Martz. He was outcoached on the biggest stage, and those right there are words I never thought I'd write.

As for the quarterback, I imagine he never thought Plaxico Namath's 23-17 prediction would actually be generous to the Pats' offense. It's fair to say Brady was underwhelming for the second straight playoff game, playing sluggishly until the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. Brady, like his coach, no longer owns that invincible aura in the postseason - that happens when you lose to a Manning in the final minute two straight seasons. I would not be surprised to learn the infamous ankle was injured more than anyone outside of the Patriots' locker room knew; he did not step into his deep throws all night, and he was unusually scattershot on numerous passes longer than a dozen or so yards. The New York pass rush battered him like he was an honorary Bledsoe. The only way his day could have been more disappointing is if Gisele went home with Eli Manning.

While the Patriots contributed to their own demise, let's be clear. They didn't lose the game; the Giants went out and won the damn thing, and while that is absolutely no consolation whatsoever, it's a fact. Manning out-Bradyed Brady, throwing a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes and emerging confidently from big brother Peyton's enormous shadow, and it must have been easy for anyone without a New England allegiance to root for him tonight. I'm not sure I've seen a career-defining moment take place for two teammates on the same play, but Manning's escape-and-heave to David Tyree for the one-handed catch against his helmet . . . well, Steve Sabol IV will be showing that one on NFL Films reels decades from now. It will endure as The Play from this game, a Montana-to-Clark for this generation. I'd just as soon never see it again.

The cruelest twist, of coure, is that the Giants beat the Patriots with what was once their signature style - fierce and unrelenting defense, an opportunistic, efficient offense, and just the right amount of pure friggin' luck. (Tell me again how Pierre Woods failed to come up with that loose ball in the second quarter.) Watching the Giants play so admirably, you can't help but wonder if, during this high-flying, record-setting season, the Patriots have somehow lost their way, the essence of what they once were and what they should be. I do not need to remind you that his makes three straight years the Patriots have had to walk off the field with their heads bowed. While they remain the sport's model organization and surely will be in the postseason mix again a season from now, the dynasty talk for now belongs in the past tense.

We can't help but recall what Brady said often in the days leading up to the game. We will remember this game all our lives. Sadly, now it will be for all the wrong reasons. The coronation turned into a funeral. Those damn Giants, they were right all along.

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