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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