The Blue Eye: Super Bowl XLII

By A.F. Cook
Updated: February 5, 2008

VIRGINIA — Yes, America, the hyped NFL Dream Team known as the 2007-08 New England Patriots did NOT win the Super Bowl this past Sunday.

Those of us, like yours truly, who are longtime devotees of the Pats are going to have a weeklong emotional and psychological hangover after watching the greatest Patriots offense ever meet its defensive match in the now-Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

The great, sad poetry here is, of course, that the Giants were this season’s version of the 2001-02 New England Patriots, that year’s Great Underdog facing the heavily favored St. Louis Rams headed by QB Kurt Warner.

The awful truth is that what goes around often does come around — and so it went for this season’s most heroic, exemplary football team: a team that went undefeated in all of its battles except the final one.

As a story, the fall of the AFC Champions to an NFC rival widely considered an afterthought was epic — it was Icarus falling to earth after flying too close to the Sun; it was Achilles’ heel pierced by the arrow of a third-rate warrior whose arm was guided by God-assisted luck.

As the season progressed, the incessant hype surrounding the Patriots by a breathless and arguably obsessed pool of sports pundits made it increasingly difficult for the team to keep its feet on the ground and its head(s) out of the clouds.

By the time they arrived in Glendale, Arizona, their final battlefield of the season, they seemed dangerously close to buying into that hype. But as a real, earthbound, all-too-human work in progress — meaning as an evolving, largely new team whose members were in the process of learning to work together — the 2007-08 Patriots remain, and will always remain, remarkable.

They were a courageous, driven, focused and largely classy group of guys who took their season one game at a time and who knew full well that a playoff berth, much less a trip to the Super Bowl, was never a sure thing.

The delirious expectations placed on the team by a sports media eager for a Divine Event heaped what, in hindsight, may have ultimately been an unbearable burden to defy history on the shoulders of mere mortals.

Resentful former St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk — who was on the team that lost the Super Bowl to that 2001-02 Patriots squad and is a regular talking head for NFL Network — has predictably asserted that, because the Patriots lost the Super Bowl (by three points, a spread that has usually worked in their favor), they’re “a” great team” but not necessarily among “the greatest.”

Okay, Marshall, you and prideful 1972 Dolphins like Mercury Morris can gloat over the Big Defeat. But the truth of the matter is this: the Patriots this year set a whole new standard for how to play the game of football, for themselves and for the entire NFL.

The New York Giants may merely have been the quickest study in terms of absorbing and applying that standard to the quest shared by all 31 other teams to unseat the master of the game the New England Patriots were becoming.

The Patriots have nothing to be ashamed of. They were beaten fair and square because their offensive line couldn’t stand up to the Giants’ pass rush and their aging defenders couldn’t move quickly enough to pressure Eli Manning.

The Giants’ receivers largely burned the Patriots mobile, but physically unimposing, secondary. I’d bet my 2008-09 Patriots season tickets (if I could get them) that there WILL be changes in personnel at more than one of those positions.

Randy Moss told the press he thought the Giants had played with “more intensity” than his team yesterday. Tom Brady was gracious and humble in defeat, knowing full well the Giants had earned their victory.

Somewhere in his heart, Brady must have been remembering that 2001-02 season and how he earned his first Super Bowl ring — with an underdog Patriots team headed by an untested young quarterback who’d been pulled off the bench after the starter, Drew Bledsoe, went down.

The Patriots lost the most important game of the year after winning all the “other ones.” But there is a silver lining in that humbling reality: the pressure is off.

They are now back among the brotherhood of fellow top NFL contenders — the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts. They are no longer an entity isolated by relative perfection. They are special, yes, but not as special as they would have been at 19-0.

This simply means the Patriots have more work to do. They will have to fight to regain their confidence in the face of crushing humiliation, and for guidance on how to do that they need only look to what teams such as the Giants and others have gone through in recent years.

If the Patriots learn what they need to learn from this heartbreaking outcome — both in terms of their physical game and their mental game — they may yet have the chance to redeem themselves with another Super Bowl ring before the decade is through.

They may even get a bit of their underdog status back — which, if you ask the New York Giants, can be the gift that keeps on giving.