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Perfectly Imperfect Finish to Patriots' Flawed Dream

Dec 30, 2009 – 12:00 PM
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Thomas George

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Tom Brady
Over the remainder of the year, FanHouse will be covering the top sports stories of the decade. In this installment, Thomas George looks at the most memorable NFL game of the decade.

The National Football League story of the decade developed on a warm night on Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz. Its origin was in a 2007 season-opener when the New England Patriots defeated the New York Jets in the Meadowlands. Soon afterward, the Jets accused the Patriots of illegally taping their signals.

The charge, simply, was cheating.

So, the Patriots' fury formed from that ugly incident, combined with their awesome talent, set them on a scorching course. They would win all 16 of their regular-season games. They would win both of their playoff games. They were an 18-0 team that served as a symbol for perfection. Yet, they also stirred in-house league emphasis on integrity of its game. Already in the decade, player conduct and stiffer penalties for boorish behavior was becoming a focus.

The Patriots believed that winning Super Bowl XLII on that warm Arizona night would serve as salve as much as elixir. That it would provide redemption and retribution and revenge for those that considered them cheaters.

The franchise even trademarked the phrase "19-0."

A day before the game, however, another taping charge against the Patriots was levied by a media outlet, this one accusing them of illegally taping the St. Louis Rams' walk-through prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. It was proved false, but the damage was done.

"No one will know the effect something like that had coming up 24 hours before the game,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "You should not be spending that time defending yourselves against false charges. We did. And we'll never know how that affected our team.''

The Patriots were found guilty by the league in the Jets taping scandal and were fined $750,000 and lost a 2008 first-round draft selection. Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000.

The Patriots used an entire season -- a perfect season -- to respond.

This time, though the charges had no merit; New England needed a quick turnaround to win the biggest game of all.

The Patriots had scored an NFL-record 589 points. Quarterback Tom Brady had thrown 50 touchdown passes. New England was favored by 14 points.

The story of this NFL decade is the perfect season that went poof! How the New York Giants, like a stone flung from a slingshot, dropped the Patriots.

Super Bowl XLII ended this way: Giants 17, Patriots 14.

More than 71,000 saw it in person, more than 148 million in the United States watched on TV and another 114 million around the world witnessed this colossal upset. Jordin Sparks sang the National Anthem and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at halftime.

Heartbreakers.

The Patriots learned the feeling.

"I kind of pride myself in staying in the middle, not too up or down when things are good or bad,'' Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "It was a big game, but it was still a game. And we looked at the battle up front. We believed our offensive line and defensive line could win this game. And the opening drive we take it for 10 minutes and get a field goal. Their first offensive play, the quarterback got hit hard. And he got hit harder after that. No matter who you are at quarterback, you get hit like that, you are going to let some balls go early.''

And then Reese added: "You know, you've got to have a little luck to win a championship."

David TyreePart of that "luck'' came in the game's signature play. Though quarterback Eli Manning and receiver David Tyree and the entire Giants offense do not think of it as luck as much as determination and persistence.

It was Tyree's 32-yard catch on the Giants' winning drive in the game's final seconds that helped crush the Patriots. The Manning swing-and-swirl escape from the pass rush, the Tyree catch of the ball with it pressed against his helmet while Patriots safety Rodney Harrison tried unsuccessfully to pry it loose.

That play put the ball at the New England 24. Four plays later, Manning to Plaxico Burress for a touchdown pass and the Giants were champions. The upset was real.

The Patriots were 18-and-uh-oh.

The Giants -- the first NFC wild-card team to win the Super Bowl -- proved to be a 14-6 team that could. The Giants had lost 38-35 at home to New England in both teams' regular-season finale. That game gave the Giants confidence that they could, at least, hang with the Patriots.

Few expected more.

"In that situation,'' Tyree said of his historical catch, "I was just holding on, making sure my fingers had strong contact with the ball. I was not going to let that ball get away. It was a fight for survival.''

The miraculous catch mirrored the NFL slogan for that playoff season -- "Who Wants It More?''

The fallout was that the Patriots were denied their "19-0'' and a championship. The taping charges after their first game that season and just before their last one forced the league to bolster its education and penalties for taping aggressions. And it helped intensify the spotlight on not only integrity of the game but on player conduct. The league formed stronger player development programs and has reinforced to players that their conduct matters. And penalties for player conduct have become more swift with more punch

That game, the taping scandal and player conduct colored this NFL decade.

"We have a great game with great people in it,'' NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "With that comes the responsibility of all involved to reach for higher standards, and I believe we are doing that."
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