Just Another February
Issue   |   Wed, 02/08/2012 - 01:11

Feb. 3, 2008. As America watched, the New York Giants accomplished the unthinkable. Making the vaunted Patriots offense — the same offense that had put together the best season in NFL history — look decidedly average, the Giants defense gave Eli Manning, then regarded as overrated, a chance late in the fourth quarter. The rest is history. The biggest pro sports upset in recent memory left quite a psychological mark on a — dare I admit it? — entitled Boston fan base fresh off three championships in four years. We swore that we would avenge our collective humiliation should we meet the Giants again in February.

Fast forward four years: the favored Patriots were riding another all-world campaign from Brady and took for granted that he would find a way to compensate for their defensive shortcomings. Though the Giants struck first, just as they had in Super Bowl XLII, Brady did exactly that for a while, amassing 16 straight completions on two ruthlessly efficient touchdown drives to give the Pats a nine-point lead. Somehow, though, it all broke down again. The offense faltered late, culminating in a very conspicuous drop by a wide-open Wes Welker. The ball was more than a little underthrown; had it been properly placed, it might have won the Pats the game. Instead, Manning got the ball with a chance to make a game-winning march down the field. Again, he delivered. And again, he was aided by an inexplicably spectacular catch, this time a 38-yard, double-coverage-defying grab by Mario Manningham. By the end of the night, the NFL’s Manning-Coughlin era had begun.

But should this loss also signal the end of the Brady-Belichick era? Sure, the Giants have cemented their place as the Patriots’ big-game nemesis, taking over as Boston’s 21st-century equivalent of the hated Yankees. Still, at some point we have to swallow our pride and ask ourselves whether Belichick and Brady deserve credit for what they accomplished in 2011-12.

Frankly, the Patriots were lucky even to be in the Super Bowl. They squeaked by the Ravens in a subpar AFC Championship effort, helped by Billy Cundiff’s shank of a would-be game-tying kick. Their most complete receiving threat all season, Rob Gronkowski, was crippled by an ankle sprain and reduced to near-zero mobility. Of course, there was also the small matter of the defense, the worst-ranked in the AFC. Eventually, this ragtag secondary would need to stop the wily Manning when it counted, and it couldn’t. Is it fair that, under these circumstances, we should question the legacy of an elite quarterback and coach, even taking into account what happened four years ago?

With regard to Belichick, Patriot-haters often callously take to throwing around their favorite buzzword, “Spygate,” when the topic turns to New England’s recent Super Bowl failures. They also refuse to acknowledge Belichick’s role in crafting yet another top team out of once-unknowns such as Welker, Gronkowski and tight end Aaron Hernandez. As for Brady: despite the missed connection with Welker, “Tom Terrific” still went 27-for-41 with 276 yards and two touchdowns — a decent effort by most standards.

Even so, there are and always will be those who claim Brady somehow choked in 2012. Because of Brady’s star status and the two teams’ regular season records — the Patriots were 13-3, the Giants a mere 9-7 — they classify this as a game the Pats should have won. Blame for the loss, they say, should fall on Brady and his lack of grace under pressure.

Oddly enough, I will dispel this line of reasoning by making a case for the 2011 Giants as an underrated football team and the 2011 Patriots as an overrated one. For starters, I contend that the regular season means nothing come playoff time. It is no secret in any sport that the hot team, rather than the statistically superior team, has the edge when it comes to a single, deciding game. Two important factors play into the results of a 16-game season. Injuries are one; the other is the fact that some very good teams simply need a while to hit their stride in a lower-pressure atmosphere. The Giants fell victim to both of these during the regular season, but once they gelled, they became close to unstoppable. While the Patriots played at a consistently solid level all year, compiling an impressive record, their fatal flaws were apparent from day one. Last Friday, I even watched a discussion on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” proposing that the higher-seeded Patriots should actually be rated as the underdogs. We can even extrapolate this principle to 2008: that year, the difference between the Giants and Patriots come February was not nearly as great as the difference between 17-0 and 10-6 seemed to indicate.

My other point should come as no surprise, either: having a big-name quarterback does not automatically make a team dangerous in clutch situations. Just ask the Green Bay Packers, who, after coasting to a 16-1 finish, were annihilated by the tougher, more cohesive Giants. Despite all the media attention showered on Aaron Rodgers, the Pack, like the Patriots, had more than its fair share of woes — defensive ones. In the pressure-packed playoff setting, their weakness was magnified, while the high-powered offense sputtered, as offenses invariably do. No wonder that the old adage goes, “defense wins championships.” So, can a team with a very questionable defense ever be rightfully considered an unquestioned Super Bowl favorite? More to the point: can a quarterback really be a choker if his opponent actually outmaches him?

I have probably once again let my native pessimism get the better of me, but anyone will tell you that I sheepishly maintained all along, “The Giants are probably better.” This was no 2008, and even 2008, though it was certainly quite the upset, was not exactly what most fans took it for. Meanwhile, Brady and Belichick are not going anywhere. Any team that consistently matches up against the league’s elite must lose sometimes: the law of averages will eventually work its magic. Having turned a potential .500 team into a scrappy unit that hung in there until the 11th hour, the duo certainly has nothing to prove. They are still three-for-five in February, and, by all accounts, they are in a good position to get yet another shot next year. Eli Manning is on top of the world, as he should be, but the NFL has room for more than one top playoff quarterback.
Oh, by the way, Eli: Tom still has one more ring than you do.