Patriots Are Perfect No More

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The New England Patriots don't deserve perfection. They deserve exactly what they got Sunday evening: a Super Bowl loss that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

You only get one chance at 19-0. One. To think the 2008 version of the Patriots is going to duplicate what these 2007 Patriots did is sillier than that GoDaddy.com ad with Danica Patrick.

Perfection has too many moving parts. Too much luck required. No, this was it for them.

The Patriots' season is history, but not historic. They didn't choke, but they definitely suffered from a lack of oxygen. Pinching the air tube shut was a New York Giants team with just enough nerve, just enough composure to leave this Jiffy Pop-looking stadium with a 17-14 win and the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Anybody who tells you this was the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time has it wrong. But it was the greatest missed opportunity in NFL history.

"We conquered the regular season," said Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel. "We conquered the playoffs. What does it mean if you don't win the Super Bowl? It doesn't mean anything."

Eighteen-and-one means something. It means exactly what New England defensive end Richard Seymour said it does: "That you didn't win the Super Bowl. You don't get no trophy for second."

The Patriots won't be forgotten like most Super Bowl losers. They'll be remembered as the team that couldn't handle its own expectations, to say nothing of the Giants' pass rush.

"They were inviting us to their parties after the game," said Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer. "They showed us no respect."

If that's true, then the Patriots are dumber than ever thought possible. It's bad enough they couldn't block, couldn't run, couldn't throw, couldn't catch, couldn't tackle and couldn't even try a 49-yard field goal when it counted. But to treat the Giants as though their defeat was a foregone conclusion was football suicide.

I thought the Patriots were going to win. The Patriots thought they were going to win. Now they just hope Archie and Olivia Manning don't plan to have any more sons. Last year, it was Peyton who ended their season. This year, it was Eli. Both became Super Bowl MVPs.

David Cutcliffe, Eli's coach at Ole Miss, called this one earlier in the week. Said he had "no doubt" the Giants were going to win. What he also said -- but asked that it not be printed before the game -- is that he had talked to Eli a day or two earlier.

"You know what I liked best?" Cutcliffe said. "He sounded hungry."

"He thinks they're going to win?" I said.

"Absolutely," Cutcliffe said.

Manning made the plays that the formerly amazing Tom Brady had made all season for the Patriots. Brady wasn't awful (29-of-48 for 266 yards and one touchdown), but he wasn't Tom Terrific. More like Tom OK. Tom Pretty Decent.

Perfection demands more than OK. It demands moments of brilliance.

Manning had his moment on a third-and-5 from the Giants' 44 with 75 seconds left and New York trailing by four. He somehow muscled his way out of a sure sack and found wide receiver David Tyree for a 32-yard gain. Four plays later, he laid the ball in Plaxico Burress' hands for the winning touchdown. Burress wasn't open by more than, oh, 5 yards.

"The fact is when we needed to make plays, we were unable to do it," said New England linebacker Junior Seau.

The fact is the Patriots were out-everythinged by the Giants. Brady, the human grass stain, was sacked five times. And when he wasn't sacked, he was knocked to the ground. He spent more time on the turf than fertilizer.

Brady said his injured ankle wasn't a problem. He's right. The problem was that the New England offensive line had a meltdown on the worst possible night. Tom Petty could have pass protected better.

Asked whether this was the most times he'd been popped in a game this season, Brady tried to scramble away from the question. "I don't know," he said. "I've got to wait and see the film. I think we all could have done things better."

In other words, yes, he'd never been hit more. But Brady was right about the Patriots' collective failure. They had a list of screwups as long as the playlist on his oversized wristband.

Brady wasn't sharp. There were overthrows, underthrows, and just plain, inexplicable misses. Randy Moss was open on a slant-and-out in the end zone … and Brady threw wide. He found Moss for the TD -- and a brief lead -- but the NFL's MVP clearly was affected by the Giants' defensive scheme and pass rush.

Meanwhile, New England running back Laurence Maroney had a grand total of 36 yards. He had 11 at halftime. In short, the league's most prolific offense of all time played as though it had its cleats tied together.

The defense held the Giants to those 17 points, 18 fewer than the last time the teams played. But when perfection was on the line, the Patriots couldn't do what the 1972 Miami Dolphins had done decades earlier: do enough to win.

With 2:39 remaining in the game, Manning drove the Giants from his own 17-yard line to the Patriots end zone. It was only fitting that Burress, the guy who had guaranteed a New York win, caught the TD pass.

Give Manning and Burress and the rest of the Giants their props. The Patriots certainly did. But you can't ignore the obvious: The New England defense -- coach Bill Belichick's defense -- dropped would-be interceptions and couldn't hold on to would-be fumble recoveries. The Pats gave up a 16-play, nearly 10-minute drive to open the game.

As for Belichick, I'm still waiting to hear a logical reason why a fourth-and-13 attempt at the Giants' 31 makes more sense than a 49-yard field goal attempt. But that's what Belichick decided to do with 6:49 left in the third quarter and the Patriots ahead 7-3.

Brady's pass fell incomplete, so we'll never know whether Stephen Gostkowski could have made the 49-yarder. But this much is sure: Those three points would have been nice to have later in the game.

"We had an opportunity and we let it slip away," Seymour said. "We had an opportunity to be special."

Opportunity lost. And perfection with it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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