As Tom Brady's Hail Mary pass fell harmlessly in the end zone during the final seconds of Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, his reputation as a clutch player fell with it.
This begs the question—have Brady and the Pats lost the playoff magic?
Yes, they have. Indeed, the Patriots empire no longer resembles its past glorious self.
Like all great empires, to explain the fall, we must understand the rise.
Back in 2001, the Patriots were a team that scared no one and, therefore, had zero expectations placed upon them by the NFL world. Yet, they did the improbable that year by beating the St. Louis Rams in a Super Bowl that only about six people outside of the Pats organization expected them to win.
You see, there was magical karma in Foxboro, Massachusetts in '01. The Pats danced with Lady Luck and stood on the shoulders of genius that year. From an obscure "tuck" rule that propelled them to a win against the Oakland Raiders to Bill Belichick's perfect game plan of neutralizing Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl, the Pats had the "it" factor.
For the next few years, the team built upon that success and created a culture and an atmosphere that was simply defined as the "Patriot Way." It was a mindset that focused on team, preparation and desire. Brady embodied that mindset.
Other players and teams may have been flashier and more marketable than Brady and the Pats, but no team worked harder or prepared more than them.
And it paid off, with Super Bowl wins after the '03 and '04 seasons. During that run, it was a matter of fact that the Patriots were going to win. They would find a way to exploit your weakness and taunt you with it the entire game.
If a team was fortunate enough to keep the game close at the end, Brady would calmly move the ball down the field for either a touchdown or get it close enough for Adam Vinatieri to kick the game-winning field goal.
The predictability of it all was getting a bit annoying for the rest of the league, especially for Bill Polian and Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts general manager and owner, respectively. They whined and complained enough about the Pats "mauling" of the Colts receiver that the league finally started calling things tighter in the defensive backfield.
The final culmination of all of this came in the AFC championship game after the '06 season. Depleted defensively, the Pats were unable to prevent Peyton Manning and the Colts from pulling out a come-from-behind victory.
It was then that Pats organization would begin a transformation. Perhaps Belichick saw some type of writing on the wall with the tighter officiating and his aging defense. Whatever the reason, however, the Patriots decided to become more like the team that they had bested throughout the first part of the decade—the Indianapolis Colts.
In 2007, the Pats loaded for bear, bringing in Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Brady and company ran roughshod through the league, setting records and embarrassing their opponents. No longer could people say that Manning was statistically the better quarterback; Brady had just torn up the record books in a way that Manning hadn't.
Who is more clutch?
The '07 Patriots took an organization that was once admired and turned it into one that was despised. Cheating allegations and cries of running up the score haunted them all season long.
By the time the Pats played the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, they had accomplished two nearly impossible things—finishing the regular season undefeated and making the entire nation outside of New England actually root for a team from New York.
And then they lost. A perfect season and a chance for immortality were gone. But so was something else. The Pats became the team that everyone loved to hate. Their karma was no longer magical.
And neither was Brady's.
In fact, once Brady and the Patriots started playing like Peyton Manning and the Colts, they started, well, playing like Manning and the Colts—gaudy offensive stats, shaky defense and playoff disappointment.
Maybe now, Brady and the Patriots should start modeling themselves after a team that is led by a different Manning, the one named Eli. You know, the team that has beaten them twice in the Super Bowl, the New York Giants.
The Giants aren't flashy and don't put up the a lot of awe-inspiring numbers, but they work hard and are well prepared.
And they have a quarterback that is mega-clutch.