I was in a bar in Manhattan watching the Patriots and Chargers duke it out for the AFC Championship. Under the big screen on the other side of a passageway were a bunch of Patriots fans hooting and hollering and carrying on. During commercial breaks they went into the usual song and dance about how Tom Brady is the best quarterback who ever lived, that Bill Belichik is better than even Vince Lombardi, and that this version of the Pats was not only the greatest single-season team ever, but that this dynasty trumped all others in the history of football, if not sports. They were loud, obnoxious and saying that it didn’t even matter who won the NFC Championship Game.
When the Giants ended up winning a classic game played in arctic conditions in Green Bay by stopping Brett Favre in the last minutes and with Lawrence Tynes redeeming himself in overtime, Vegas rolled out an astounding and incomprehensible 14-point spread before Tynes could even finish his post-game interviews. After coming this close to knocking off the Pats just three weeks before, the Giants won three playoff games on the road behind an increasingly confident and efficient Eli Manning, a stifling pass rush, and a collective energy that just oozed that special something that doesn’t come from discipline and whip cracking, but from talent congealing into focused action. This wasn’t the 1985 Patriots lucking their way through three road games in the playoffs into a chance to get slaughtered by the Bears; this was an extremely talented and skilled team peaking at just the right moment, and it was shocking that they got so little respect from not only the odds makers, but the so-called professionals who talk so much shit about football.
But to be fair, during the pre- and post-game analysis that Sunday, everyone, including me, ceded the Super Bowl to New England weeks before. While some were calling for a huge blowout, privately I figured the Giants would come out on fire and score the first 17 points. But I also assumed Tom Brady would lead a storybook comeback and win a shootout with Eli 34-31 on a last-minute drive, immortalizing him in various children’s’ books for all eternity. But during their post-game interviews after the Chargers game, Belichik, Brady, and the rest of the Patriots seemed a little too happy. They got cocky, drank a little too much champagne, and actually started talking about the possibility of a perfect season and their subsequent place in history, and after 20 weeks of focusing on the here and now, they publicly looked past an opponent and didn’t take the Giants seriously. Mike Vrabel offered this nugget to Mike Reiss of The Boston Globe: “Not to have anyone take this the wrong way, but you’re away from your kids for a few days, so it’s a dad’s vacation. It’s not a golf trip; we have business to do at the end of the week, and we will prepare for that, but you can play cards, play dominoes, go to dinner, and really enjoy what you’ve done all year” — a statement that should have tipped everyone off that the Patriots were fucked before they even got on the plane to Phoenix.
Early on I privately chuckled at the fans and prognosticators who predicted a huge blowout. Publicly I called for a blowout up until the Wednesday before the game, but I wondered to myself what everyone had been watching for the last 10 weeks. Yes, the Patriots were dominant. Against Washington, Buffalo, the Jets, Miami, (whom Belichik cynically said still had a chance when they were down by more than 20 back in Week Seven) and Pittsburgh they were otherworldly. But for all the juggernaut talk, teams had been bringing their A game to the Patriots for weeks and had been hitting them in the mouth, coming close to beating them, and exposing huge chinks in their armor along the way.
First, Philadelphia proved what a lot of people secretly suspected all along: The Patriots were vulnerable at offensive tackle and shitty — I mean really shitty — at picking up outside pressure, especially on blitzes. Matt Light and Nick Kaczur are great players and incredibly efficient in drive blocking, but they can be beaten outside by superior defensive ends. And I don’t mean just someone like Dwight Freeney who can beat pretty much anyone you line up against him; I mean guys like Trent Cole and Jevon Kearse or Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs, combinations that are really good, but not out of sight, which must have had Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora drooling. Combine that with outside blitzers or safeties striking on the inside, and the Patriots had a glaring deficiency that people avoided talking about. It was as if it were taboo to criticize Brady’s vaunted offensive line, or his running backs’ glaring inability to pick up blitzers, or Bill Belichik’s amazing devolvement into Mike Martz when it came to protecting his All World quarterback.
Second, the Patriots’ linebackers are not just skilled, but experienced and very capable of stuffing opposing running games given the right circumstances. However, aside from Adalius Thomas, they are also old, increasingly terrible in pass coverage, and subsequently wear down as games progress. All year long I wondered why no one went right at those guys by throwing a double team at Thomas and just making Tedi Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Junior Seau haul those old bodies all over the field to make plays and hit people over and over again. The popular notion that this was a collection of venerable perennial All Pros still excelling at a high level was a season-long mirage. They benefited from the offense’s scoring so many points that it took away the other side’s running game. Hit those old men again and again and make them chase down people, and you can beat that defense down. Easier said than done, of course, but you have to try.
Third, Rodney Harrison is the most overrated safety in football. Most folks like to describe him as a stylized version of Jack Tatum, a hard-hitting strong safety capable of changing games with his energy and ability to separate a receiver from the ball. The only problem is that Harrison is just a dirty player, a football version of Bruce Bowen who has a tendency to get called for a lot of dumb personal fouls, goes for his opponents’ legs (hello, Trent Green) and tries to get away with shit (including blatant headhunting) that should get him thrown out of games. And that’s before we even get into his use of HGH. Go at Harrison and make him actually play football, and you can pierce that defensive backfield. He’s a weak link and can be exploited like a pimp picking up a teenage runaway at the Port Authority.
And lastly, Randy Moss needed to be physically challenged. All year long he did whatever he wanted. He galloped through secondaries, made spectacular catches, just fucking ate up defenders, and broke Jerry Rice’s single-season touchdown mark before nonchalantly saying it was no big deal even though Rice set the record in only 12 games. All the while I kept asking myself if anyone had looked at game film from the 2000 NFC Championship Game, when the Giants hit him in the mouth, shut his ass down with double teams, and reduced him to a whimpering, whining bitch before the first quarter was over, pacing the sidelines and blaming everyone else for the Vikings’ getting blown out. Leaving the most physically gifted and smartest receiver in football in single coverage, free to run through soft zones, is suicide.
You have to put a hat on him every play. During the playoffs, everyone caught on and made a concerted effort to take him away from Brady. Antonio Cromartie of the Chargers spelled it out to Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe: “I think everybody knows you can’t let Randy Moss get down the field. That’s a big part of his game and with a free release, he’s that much better,” Cromartie said. “Going into [the AFC Championship Game], we felt like we could jam him and beat him up down the field, with the idea that it would make [Tom] Brady throw the other way once he sees him jammed up.”
Moss had two catches for 32 yards and zero touchdowns against San Diego and Jacksonville. It got so bad that Wes Welker became Brady’s go-to guy. The omens were not good for Moss against New York — even though he did torch them in Week 17 — because he had not made a meaningful play in over a month. Yes, you could say he was due for a breakout, but there was no reason for the Giants to not continue the trend of doubling him until it was to their advantage not to.
What’s more, each of those weaknesses were exposed at one time or another by, in succession, Dallas, who threw the ball all over the place before Brady, Welker, and Moss just outscored them; Indianapolis, who shredded their linebackers and showed everyone you could outrun those old men; Philly and Baltimore, who blitzed the Patriots mercilessly from the edge and put Brady on the turf; the Giants, who did all three in Week 17; the Jaguars, who took Moss out of a game for the first time all year; and the Chargers, who got in Brady’s face and picked him off three times, took away Moss, and if they had been fully healthy, probably would have avenged the terrible loss they suffered in San Diego last year. Instead, the focus all year was on Tom Terrific’s uncanny ability to destroy lesser teams by tossing alley-oops to Randy Moss over 5’9” corners, killing defenses underneath by going to Wes Welker, and looking good in milk ads that made it look like he took a money shot on the mouth. It got so bad that no one wanted to even discuss what that team’s actual weaknesses were, because it would break from the storyline. It was all about making history, matching the 1972 Dolphins, breaking offensive records, Randy Moss’s incredible comeback from irrelevancy, Tom Brady’s joining Joe Montana on top of the quarterback mountain, and Bill Belichik’s surpassing Lombardi, Shula, Walsh, and Noll before the Super Bowl was even played. For weeks, no one even gave a shit that the NFC might produce a credible opponent. And now, the Giants’ winning is some huge shocker, when in fact, it was all right in front of us all along if we had just been paying attention.
In the two weeks before the Super Bowl it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Patriots showed up unprepared, cocky, and more concerned about their post-game party plans than actually winning the game. Yes, it’s been widely reported that the Giants showed up in black suits to celebrate the Patriots’ funeral, but Amani Toomer went on the record to ESPN that players from the Pats came up to him and derisively said he could come to their victory party after the game. Even if it was just a little good-natured ribbing, that’s far beyond Plaxico Burress’ or Steve Tisch’s guaranteeing a victory. That’s truly calling someone out, and not one media outlet reported it before the game. Imagine what probably went through Michael Strahan’s mind after Toomer mentioned that little nugget to him. Brady, the untouchable Queen of New England, was photographed in New York bringing flowers to Giselle after Tony Romo got shanked by the press for having the nerve to go to Mexico for a couple of days with Jessica Simpson. Brady was framed as a man in love with this lame “awww, isn’t that cute” moment while everyone took photographs of the walking cast on his foot and speculated about whether it was just gamesmanship on Belichik’s part. During press interviews the week before the game, the Pats seemed a little tight, but oddly arrogant and condescending, acting as if the Giants didn’t even exist. It was as if they truly believed all the bullshit the press was writing about them and felt that greatness was already theirs. Meanwhile, Burress was getting shit on for his prediction of a 23-17 win and reminding everyone that there was another team in Arizona. Brady then sarcastically wondered to the press, “We’re only going to score 17 points? OK. Is Plax playing defense?” Yeah, Tom, in this case Plax overestimated you.
For anyone who saw the Giants’ first drive, those illusions of easy greatness were shattered very quickly. It was obvious that not only were the Patriots getting blown off the ball at the line of scrimmage, but also that absolutely nothing was going to rattle Eli Manning. Deftly moving downfield with an almost 50/50 split of running and passing plays while converting a Super Bowl record four consecutive third downs, picking up every blitz the Pats threw at them, and chewing 10 minutes off the game clock, the Giants marched to the most dominating three points I have ever seen. As the special-teams units jogged onto the field, I saw exactly what I had been waiting for all year: Junior Seau, Mike Vrabel, and Tedi Bruschi with stick marks from the Giants’ offensive line in their ear holes and sucking wind like they just received a marathon buttfucking. After Lawrence Tynes drilled the field goal, there was Bill Belichik personally coaching his linebackers, and those three old men sat on the bench, helmets strewn about their feet, elbows on knees, torsos bent over, heads dipped down with sweat pouring off of them, and all of them visibly, unmistakably exhausted.
The Patriots quickly regrouped on offense and drove downfield for the game’s first touchdown, but nothing seemed right about it. The Giants were flying around the ball, and interestingly, Michael Strahan looked about eight years younger. It also became evident that Brady was not on his game. He missed open receivers, was ignoring Moss, and was getting an enormous amount of pressure from — you guessed it — the edges. For the first time in a very long time, Brady looked perplexed and confused as if he were thinking, “What the fuck are they doing out there?” Moss was seemingly double-teamed on every play and the pass coverage looked like a swarm of hornets. Brady, who is one of the best ever when it comes to checking down receivers and hitting the open man, looked like he was processing shit that had taken him completely by surprise. I mean, how often do you really see Strahan drop into coverage so TWO safeties can blitz your ass? But he was still moving the ball, and on a third down deep in Giants territory, Brady got nailed by Strahan, but unleashed a perfectly thrown ball that bounced off of Ben Watson’s helmet as Antonio Pierce was called for pass interference, putting the Pats on the one. Two plays later, Lawrence Maroney fell into the end zone and the Pats were up 7-3 two plays into the second quarter, but the die had been cast. The Pats were in for a very long night.
Around this time, I sat on my barstool and was hit with a vision: Joe Gibbs sitting in his living room with a glass of milk quietly watching the game with a small smile creasing his God-fearing face just soaking in the sights. Back in week eight the Patriots demolished the Redskins 52-7, but what was unique about that game was that the Patriots kept pressing the Redskins well after the game was out of hand. Here they were in the fourth quarter, already up 38-0, and Tom Brady was still winging the ball all over the field. In a show of supreme arrogance and cruelty, Belichik kept sending Brady out and kept calling midrange and deep balls in a humiliating and unnecessary show of ultimate power. You know, the sort of shit people don’t forget, especially when you perpetrate it against one of the most respected coaches in all of football. Afterward, while Gibbs publicly praised Belichik, Redskins linebacker Randall Godfrey lost his composure and told NBCSports.com, “I said something to [Belichick] after the game. I told him, ‘You need to show some respect for the game.’ You just don’t do that. I don’t care how bad it is. You’re up 35 points and you’re still throwing deep? That’s no respect.” Belichik’s response to a reporter’s query afterwards was, “What do you want us to do, kick a field goal?”
Now, in front of 97 million people, it was Belichik’s turn to eat a shit sandwich. And everyone’s champion this day, from San Francisco to Miami to Buffalo to Washington to Miami to St. Louis to Los Angeles to New York to Detroit, seemed to be Giants defensive coordinator John Spagnuolo. Putting together the pieces that Monte Kiffin, Rex Ryan, and Ted Cottrell had laid out, he blitzed relentlessly, mixed up his coverage packages on every down, double-teamed Moss, and never, ever showed the same look twice. After he established a pattern of having no pattern, he even had the balls to just leave Moss alone at random times, daring Brady to try and find his favorite target. Instead, Wes Welker became the primary receiver making 11 catches.
Late in the second quarter, Brady began to move the Patriots downfield, but on first and 10 from the Giants’ 44 with 22 seconds left, Brady dropped back, avoided the rush and stepped up to heave a deep ball. However, Justin Tuck came from behind and slapped the ball from his hand as he cocked the throw. With no tuck rule to save him, and no backside blocking to speak of, Osi Umenyiora was there to pounce on the loose ball, ending the threat. Off the opening kickoff of the second half, Brady drove the Patriots down to the Giants’ 44. On a fourth down punt, Belichik noticed that a Giants player did not make it off the field before the snap and challenged the play. The booth officials looked, and lo and behold, there was a 12th man on the field after the snap. And just like that, it looked like the Pats got the break they desperately needed. But the drive stalled, and on third down from the Giants’ 25, Strahan sacked Brady setting up a potential 49-yard field goal attempt. However, instead of taking a chance on Gotkowski, Belichik inexplicably went for it on fourth and 13 and watched Brady’s pass to Jabar Gaffney fall incomplete. After the game Belichik told the gathered reporters that he went for it at this critical juncture because Gotkowksi had never hit a 50-yarder before. Ah, the genius speaks.
Now his quarterback — as people had wondered openly about after the Washington game — was beginning to pay the price. After piling on points, running up scores, arrogantly dismissing questions about his sense of sportsmanship, and generally acting like a dick, many wondered if teams would begin taking cheap shots at Brady in retaliation for Belichik’s behavior. Instead, the Giants became all of football’s avenging angels and got all up in Brady’s shit fair and square, making him pay for the Patriots’ arrogant sense of entitlement. Knocking him down or just laying hands on him seemingly every time he dropped back to pass, Brady looked scared for the first time in his career. All through the second and third quarters the Giants harassed him endlessly in ways he has never seen before. Brady was sacked just 20 times this season. On Sunday night he was sacked five times and knocked down another 14, pressured constantly, and spent most of the game trying to avoid blitzers before ending up on his back gauging the crowd’s reaction to find out the result of his pass.
When the fourth quarter started, even though the Giants were outplaying the Pats on both sides of the ball, and the score still standing at 7-3, the popular sentiment — including mine — was that the Patriots would somehow find a way to win, no matter what happened. But I’d like to attribute what happened instead to the Furies deciding to punish the Patriots without regard for leniency or mercy, reminding them that hubris, arrogance and contempt are answered with cold retribution when the books are balanced.
Eli took over at his own 20 and out-Bradyed the All American Super Model Fucker. The key play being a 45-yard catch and run by Kevin Boss on the first play of the drive beating, you guessed it, Rodney Harrison. Then, on third and four from the New England 29, Manning found Steve Smith for a 17-yard gain, and before anyone knew it, Eli found David Tyree in the end zone to put the Giants up 10-7.
But with 7:54 left in the fourth, the Patriots took over from their 20 and started what looked like their inevitable march to immortality. With Moss no longer flying down the field, but rather cutting over the middle, Brady’s options opened up and once again he looked like the best quarterback in football. The Pats had finally figured the Giants out, and for the first time all night, the Giants pass rush was neutralized, giving Brady time to pick them apart one play at a time. Throwing passes on all but one snap, Brady spread the ball around to four different receivers on the 12-play drive. Here it was Wes Welker for 10 yards underneath, there it was Kevin Faulk on a swing pass, and, holy shit, Moss going over the middle for 10. On third and goal from the Giants six, Randy Moss shed his defender — who slipped on the turf — and caught an easy touchdown pass from Brady to put the Patriots up 14-10 for what seemed like the capper to their claim as the best team ever with just 2:47 left in the game.
The Giants’ fans groaned. My roommate looked up at the television and said, “Eli, here’s your chance to be the toast of this town,” but there wasn’t much conviction in his voice. As I looked around the bar the mood was one of dejection, as everyone seemed to accept the cold, hard reality that the Patriots were going to win, yet again. The bartender just leaned on the bar with his head hung and ignored drink orders, the owners of the place sat quietly by the door and one of them said, “They came so fucking close,” while a small bank of Boston fans were in the corner laughing and giving each other high fives. There was nothing anyone could say, so everyone just let him or her have his or her fun. And, damn it, if I didn’t hear a faint mock chant of “Eli, Eli, Eli,” come up out of the crowd in Phoenix over the television set.
So, there was Eli. Taking over on his own 17 with 2:39 to play, Richard Seymour licking his chops, Adalius Thomas staring him in the face, Rodney Harrison taunting him, Bill Belichik glaring at him, and 97 million people just waiting to see him fail. Right away he completed a first down pass to Amani Toomer for 11 yards, then on third down found Toomer again in front of Harrison who stopped him short of the first. With the game on the line, facing a fourth and one, the Giants completed their first clutch play of the drive when Brandon Jacobs banged into the left side of the line and picked up two yards for the first. But no could have predicted what happened next.
On third and five from his own 44, Manning dropped back to pass and faced a vicious rush. Seemingly surrounded with nowhere to go, no less than three Patriots got their hands on Manning’s jersey, clawing at him, trying to pull him down, but also wrestling with the Giants’ offensive linemen in the process. Somehow, Eli broke free of the scrum and scrambled a couple steps back before unleashing a prayer of a pass downfield. Streaking up the middle of the field was David Tyree with Rodney Harrison right on his ass. As the ball came down, both of them went up in the air. Tyree got his right hand on the ball and began to pull it down while Harrison cleanly tried to break up the pass. Somehow Tyree pinned the ball against the top of his helmet, holding it there as he and Harrison fell to the ground. When they collapsed on the turf, Tyree’s back was arched over the body of Harrison, and there was the ball, still somehow stuck his helmet as if someone had Krazy Glued it there.
Anyone who wasn’t a Patriots fans went absolutely berserk. Even casual observers — like girlfriends and wives who never give a shit about football and only sit through it to be polite — leapt off their barstools and chairs and started throwing bar napkins in the air. The sound was deafening, and even with the televisions turned all the way up, it sounded like a 747 landing on top of my head as Joe Buck’s voice was reduced to a whisper in a wind tunnel. I turned around to find the bank of Patriots fans and saw masks of utter horror and shock on their faces as if they were thinking, “fuck, that’s only supposed to happen for us, not to us.”
After that, it became almost academic. With 39 seconds left, Manning found Plaxico Burress — who played all season on a torn up ankle and tore a medial collateral ligament in practice the week before the Super Bowl — wide open in the end zone on a perfectly executed fade route where he caught the ball in perfect juxtaposition against the Patriots’ living-room-sized logo. As the Giants celebrated and the fans leapt for joy, the camera cut to a shot that sent chills up my spine: Tom Brady warming up, then Randy Moss putting on his helmet. In that instant I saw Brady somehow finding Moss down the sideline and catching a jump ball between two defenders to set up a game-winning or game-tying play that would take the wind out of the Giants’ sails and set all right within New England’s universe.
Starting from his own 26 with only 29 seconds left on the clock, Brady started off with an incomplete pass to Jabar Gaffney. On second down, just as he was cocking to pass, Jay Alford drilled him in the midsection for a sack and a loss of 10 yards. Now, with 19 seconds on the clock from his own 16, and with no other choice, Brady went for broke. As he dropped back, everyone held their breath because they knew what was coming. And there he was, Moss streaking up the left side of the field with a step on the two defenders who were covering him. Brady’s pass went up and it seemed like the whole world went silent. As the ball came down, Moss put his hands out to catch the pass in stride, but somehow a defender got his hand on the ball knocking it away from Moss. On fourth down, Brady took one more shot at getting the ball to Moss and he launched another missile downfield where the ball fell harmlessly incomplete.
Bedlam ensued, and even though there was still one second left on the clock, Bill Belichik and Tom Coughlin met at midfield for one of Belichik’s famously brief handshakes. Completely outclassed, and outplayed, the Patriots had to be called back to the field to run out the final second on the clock before the celebration could begin, and when it did, everyone knew who was going to get the MVP. Though the entire Giants defense deserved the award, it was given to Manning in what seemed like poetic justice considering all the shit he’s had to put up with these past four years.
Afterwards, Belichik was especially curt. Looking harried, depressed, angry, and ready to commit violence, Belichik was as graceless in defeat as he’s ever been in victory. Delivering his answers in his signature monotone tinged with petulance, he came across as not only a poor sportsman, but also an even bigger asshole than anyone could have imagined. However, back on the field, the celebration was surreal.
Eli Manning is the MVP of the Super Bowl? The Giants just won? Is this real? Did that just happen? That was what was hanging in the air, and as the Patriots walked off the field with their heads hung, their loyal fans stood there with their hands on their heads in utter disbelief. Practically no one predicted this. A few people here and there said it would be close, but I think I found only one Giant fan that would even venture to say the Giants would win. Regardless, it happened.
Afterwards, the Patriots themselves were less than magnanimous. Understandably, most of them talked about the opportunity that they missed out on and how disappointed they were. But everywhere one looked, and everywhere one listened, there was this lingering sense of arrogance that permeated their behavior after the game. If I’m a Patriots fan, I’m thrilled, because it means they’ll come back hard next year. If I’m not a Patriots fan, I’m in hysterics at how blind they are to how complete this ass whipping really was.
It’s going to be a potentially ugly off-season in the greater New England area. If it turns out that former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh is telling the truth and the Patriots spied on the Rams before their Super Bowl, this will turn into a full-blown scandal tainting the reputation of the entire franchise and calling into question the team’s legitimacy and its accomplishments. What’s more, with everything that’s happened this year, including the outrageous scoring and petulant attitude, the Patriots devalued themselves by acting with very little class in the first place. Every team generally takes its cues from the head coach, and while Belechik has been very successful at winning games, he has also been very successful at alienating his franchise from everyone else in football. Looking back on all the other dynasties in pro football, I cannot think of another one that has been more reviled league and nationwide than the Patriots. It’s not because they win; it’s how they win, and how they seemed to behave as world-beaters even though their margin of victory in championship games was smaller than Belichik’s dick.
However, Sunday proved Belichik right in one tangible way: When it came down to it, it really was everyone else against the Patriots.