It's not how you start in the NFL, or anywhere else. Those last five months mattered for about five months -- today, and forever, they won't.
If we learned anything Feb. 3, just in case we ever doubted, it's all about the finish. Every bit of it is the finish.
Thus, in about a minute of Super Bowl XLII, the New England Patriots lost five months of acclaim, the highest status in football history and, almost as an afterthought, this year's NFL championship. If the Patriots had lost their only game in September, we would praise their greatness. But by losing their only game in February they go into the books as history's most frustrated runner-up.
Seldom do we lament the championship loser so much as we celebrate the championship winner. But the championship loser didn't merely lose this year's championship.
Never has an NFL team entered the Super Bowl with so much to gain as the Patriots, so heavily favored (12 points) that their failure amounts to a catastrophic loss. The Patriots lined up for Super Bowl XLII seeking, in effect, the single-season championship of all time, the only 19-0 record in pro football history.
As it turns out, maybe no one is that good. Maybe no one can be that champion. Maybe we learned that, too.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins can uncork all the champagne they want, but the league let them quit after 17-0. Since then, we've seen three 18-1 teams, none more disappointing than the Patriots.
Too much can go wrong in two additional games. Maybe New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning will duck out of a three-way sack, spin around, lob a prayer into the middle of the field and David Tyree will leap up against tight coverage, pinning the ball against his head as he falls backwards for a miracle catch, bailing out third-and-5 with 59 seconds left. Maybe Manning will follow with a touchdown pass as only 35 seconds remain, leaving even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with too little time.
Celebrated for their 17-14 Super Bowl win, the Giants brought the NFL an unlikely champion.
To this day, though, the Giants had more losses after two weeks of the season than the Patriots have right now.
And the Patriots still lost more. A victory would have added up to four Super Bowl championships in seven years, to say nothing of 19-0. Now even those three Super Bowl wins are up for debate. During the week, new allegations of electronic spying emerged against the Patriots with an unconfirmed report that they videotaped the St. Louis Rams' final walk-through before Super Bowl XXXV.
The Patriots, heavy underdogs at the start of their great decade, upset the powerful Rams 20-17. The new suspicion going back to the beginning and the upset loss at the end bookends this era in a least flattering light, at least raising questions about New England's place in history.
The Patriots' loss Sunday diminished them just a little bit more, even if they didn't really lose the game and the Giants really won it. In the end, the Patriots couldn't prevail against an opponent playing its best game. The final yard was just a little too long.
Fox's Super Bowl telecast gave us an early glimpse of how this game might play out, though only in the form of a question. There's Manning in a fine mood, grinning on the field as he greets Brady, who returns an icy stare. What did it mean?
Was that Manning, just happy to be there, against Brady's steely resolve? Or was it Manning, loose and relaxed, against Brady, feeling tense?
If Brady felt no tension before the game, he felt it throughout, for the Giants accomplished what no other team did all year. They took him out of the game, sacking him five times and putting him on his back about 20 more. Without Brady, there is no Randy Moss, there is no hand at the helm and, more directly, there is no sign of the offense that set the NFL single-season record with 589 points.
The Patriots scored a touchdown on their first possession and their last, but nothing in between. Brady's not a hero to millions without five heroes in front of him. The Giants were more heroic on the line of scrimmage, and that's always where football boils down, whether played by high school kids next to a cornfield or millionaire athletes decked out in smoke and mirrors.
Try as the NFL might to dress its Super Bowl for red carpets and caviar, football is, at bottom, an ugly game won by ugly means, and we needed an ugly team beating a beautiful team to remind us of that. The Giants weren't going to win this game by outshining the Patriots. The Giants were going to win by dragging the Patriots down to their level and stealing it in the end.
The Giants began their season with ugly media back stories, continued with ugly losses, ended up winning ugly and, heaven knows, they even dress ugly. But they're a solid team that knows how to grind it out. They did what everyone knew they had to do -- pressure Brady and avoid mistakes by their own quarterback.
July embroiled the Giants in one of the NFL's most humorous folk traditions. A veteran player sat out training camp, telling the media he needed time to consider retirement. Everyone knew defensive end Michael Strahan really just wanted to skip training camp. While commentators remarked that Strahan sold out his teammates, cooler heads knew that 36-year-old defensive ends can't cook themselves in July practice. After all, Strahan would need his legs in February.
Sometime during the 2006 season, Giants running back Tiki Barber came out with a retirement announcement. As 2007 began, we heard again from Barber, something of a media opportunist, who said Manning isn't a leader. Manning laughed it off.
The Giants opened with losses of 45-35 to the Dallas Cowboys and 35-13 to the Green Bay Packers. The Giants' defense was a punchline without a punch. We later understood that the Cowboys and Packers are good offensive teams, but we never came around on the Giants.
The Giants finally won admirers in Week 17, when they lined up against the Patriots and made a serious bid to end that historic bid for a 16-0 regular season. The Patriots won 38-35, but the Giants learned that week they could play with anyone.
So many thought the Giants really stood to gain nothing in that game, since their playoff position was set. But the Giants reached a new level with that performance.
Along came the playoffs. The wild card Giants beat three division winners on the road. First they won at Tampa Bay, then they beat the Cowboys, then the Packers in the chill. The Giants did it the hard, ugly way and, in so doing, set themselves up as perfection's foil in the Super Bowl.
Perfection and beauty in 19 NFL games -- maybe that's too much to ask. Cold, efficient brutality -- that's what football is about, in the beginning and the end. That's our champion today, a worthy champion for all that.
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