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The biggest sports upset of the year? Thought it occurred in early February, it has to be Super Bowl 42 (you don't really expect me to use Roman numerals, do you? When in Rome....).
I'm a lifelong Patriots fan. But I had a really bad feeling about the outcome before the game even started, and that feeling never quite let up. I'm not sure why, because I don't usually get feelings like that. So, it worried me.
Why would I have felt that way? Why would anyone?
The Patriots looked like an offensive and defensive juggernaut; they set scoring records, allowed the fourth fewest points, and posted the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Then they won their first two playoff games, totaling 18 consecutive wis in one season -- another first. The Giants were a Wild Card team, and the Pats had already beaten them in the season's final game. In fact, the Pats were 12-point favorites. The odds favored New England. But odds don't win games.
The game got off to a slow start, and it essentially stayed that way until the the final minutes. I'm not a fan of slow, plodding, defense-oriented football, so it was a pretty boring game (in my view) until the last half of the fourth quarter. The two teams combined for a mere 10 points in the first three quarters.
I got hopeful when Randy Moss grabbed that touchdown in the 4th. But then I gulped when I realized that the Giants still had 2:42 -- and three timeouts -- remaining. Yet, I certainly didn't envision Eli Manning orchestrating that miracle drive. Honestly, I don't even think Giants fans could have imagined that. They wanted him benched earlier in the season for his inconsistent play.
But the Giants defense just handcuffed the Pats and Tom Brady, who spent too much time on his back -- with defensive ends lying on top of him. The Patriots offensive line got smoked, man-handled, beaten up, out-hustled, and out-muscled. It was a very un-Patriot-like performance. That group was stellar all year long, and always gave Brady great protection and lots of time to pass. I can't figure out why they were so bad on that day. But the Giants' defensive ends were just terrific.
What's really amazing is that in light of the five sacks Brady endured, he never threw an interception. That's incredible. I blame the entire o-line, which consisted of three Pro Bowlers. And yes, the backs and/or tight ends should have picked up the blitz better.
The Patriots held the Giants to just three points in 3 1/2 quarters. They clearly weren't dominated. I'm not speaking as a fan, I'm just stating the obvious. I can accept the fact that the Patriots lost; it's over and behind me. If they'd never won before, I'd have been crushed. However, the three Super Bowl wins in this decade cushioned the blow quite nicely. Disappointed? Yes, indeed.
The Pats are still undeniably one of the greatest teams of all-time. But now there is room for argument over who is "the" greatest team. However, winning three Super Bowls in the free agency and salary cap eras is unprecedented, and a challenge no other dynasty had to face.
And winning 18 straight in one season, and 21 straight over the course of two previous seasons, are also amazing and unprecedented achievements. And again, both of those streaks were accomplished in the free agency and salary cap eras as well.
The '72 Dolphins didn't have a salary cap, free agency, or a 16-game season. They also faced far less sophisticated offenses and defenses than the Patriots did. Given these circumstances, I'd say that makes the Patriots better.
When the Pats beat the Rams in 2002, they weren't the better team. They got lucky. At best, they were better in one game, on one day. The same goes for the Giants.
The Patriots are absolutely, positively, not removed from the discussion of "greatest team ever". Only a hater, or a contrarian, would say so. In a seven-game series, the better team will almost always win. In a football game, that's not necessarily so.
Yes, I was disappointed by the Super Bowl upset. I like to see sports history made -- except when Barry Bonds is involved -- and a win would have cemented the Patriots' place as the best. But now they are just one of the best. The top teams in each decade can't play each other, so while it makes for interesting conversation, it's all moot. We'll never know who the best truly is. It's a futile, though fun, conversation. But the salary cap and free agency were supposed to prevent dynasties from rising, and the Patriots ruined that intention.
I always try to approach these things as objectively as possible. I try not to be a homer. So if it seems like I'm trying to defend the Patriots in a overly-loyal, provincial sort of way, that's not my intention.
Objectively speaking, the 2007 Pats were a historically great team -- among the very best. But there's no denying that they blew it. They choked. It was humiliating, and it will never, ever be forgotten. Most people don't remember Super Bowl losers. But that particular Patriots team, and that game, will never be forgotten. It will be remembered as one of the most epic losses in all of sports' history -- not just NFL history. That's one damn ugly distinction.
But I'm just a fan. I wasn't humiliated personally. I didn't play. I didn't feel nearly as bad as the Patriots players must have -- especially Junior Seau. That loss had to be devastating to him. As I said, I'm thankful for the three Super Bowl wins this decade -- something I never thought I'd live to see. I remember being a little kid in the late '70s, when my dad and I had season tickets for a few years. This kind of team was unimaginable back then.
With Brady and Belichick, the Pats will likely remain strong contenders for the next few years. They have great organizational strength. And that savvy trade with the Niners last year gave them the #7 pick this year (even though they lost their own first-rounder for cheating). The Patriots needed to get younger at linebacker, and they did. And, by the way, I get why people don't like Bill Belichick. I don't like him either; he's surly and devoid of any charm. But I'm sure glad he coaches the team I love.
The fact that the Patriots were such prohibitive favorites made this loss sting, as did the manner in which they lost. It was hard to believe. They lost in the final seconds, on a great drive, and facing a great defense --- exactly the way they won their three Super Bowls. They are a .500 team in the Big Game (3-3) and I've seen it all -- heartbreak and triumph. Some fans don't know the of joy winning. Others don't know the pain of losing the Big Game. I've seen and felt it all. I know the rainbow of emotions very well.
I'll choose to remember and relish the three Super Bowl wins in this decade and not dwell on the negative, or what could have been. But it was a historical upset and a huge meltdown for the Pats. The good news for us Pats fans is that Brady is only 30 and still in his prime.
Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.