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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