When you look past the complex layers of strategy that defined Super Bowl XLVI, it really comes down to a simple conclusion: Mario Manningham caught the ball and Wes Welker didn't.
We can debate the quality of Tom Brady's throw all day and all night. We might be debating it forever. Some say it was right on the money, while others say it was high and behind Welker. Where do you stand?
The throw looked great. Was it perfect? Well, no, but it still seemed extremely catchable. At least, that's how it looked on television.
Fairly or unfairly, the blame falls on guy who didn't make the defining play. The image of Welker hunched over on the ground after the drop is as iconic to Super Bowl XLVI as the image of David Tyree's helmet catch is to Super Bowl XLII.
Of course, on a rational level, we understand that a thousand little factors contribute to the final score of any game. It wasn't just Billy Cundiff's missed field goal that blew the AFC Championship for the Ravens, and it wasn't just Welker's missed catch that blew the Super Bowl for the Patriots.
Many things blew this game for New England.
The Giants' special teams played brilliantly and systematically buried the Patriots with horrible field position.
Brady's pick was damaging. His brilliance at nailing short passes was undercut by his inability to make the big play.
The ghost of his safety in the first quarter haunted the final five minutes of the game, and completely changed the team's approach to winning the game. Mistakes were made.
Brady played very well, but it still never looked like he was in control of his team or of the game in general. He dictated the flow of a few drives, but his team overwhelmingly played at the pace and tempo that favored the other team.
The Giants weren't always in control on the scoreboard, but they forced the Patriots to play on their terms; that was enough for them to swoop in for a final slice to the neck (again).
The list of damaging events for the Patriots was endless. Not recovering fumbles, a big turnover being negated by having too many players on the field, the guys on the sideline not communicating with each other and seeming deflated, Aaron Hernandez's missed catch, the lack of killer instinct in Brady's eyes for the last two weeks, it was all damaging.
You'll find a thousand reasons why the Patriots lost this game, but that image of Welker will live in infamy and will stand as the symbol for everything that went wrong.
There is no denying that Tom Brady has a "thing" with the Giants. I use the term "thing" to describe whatever mental blockage he's fighting (or perhaps, accepted). He briefly started developing a "thing" with the Jets, but he squashed that this season.
But the "thing" remains with Big Blue. More specifically, it remains with Eli Manning.
Manning improved dramatically this season, but there's no doubt that he has built his entire legacy on Tom Brady's failures.
In their last three meetings with the Giants, the Patriots scored 14, 20 and 17 points. In each of these losing efforts, the Patriots seemed entirely un-Patriot like. Tom Brady never looked like he was in the driver's seat. The tone and pace of all three games were dictated entirely by the Giants.
You could argue that Brady had a poor performance in the AFC championship against the Ravens, and you'd be correct. However, that performance felt like an aberration; it truly felt like a great quarterback having an off-day. Happens to everyone.
Did Super Bowl XLVI feel like an off-day to you? Did it feel like an off-day when they lost to the Giants earlier this season? Did it feel like an off-day when they lost Super Bowl XLII?
To me, it felt like there was something far more complex at play. In each of the three games against the Giants, it almost seemed like Brady didn't want to be playing. It wasn't that he seemed disinterested, it was that he seemed beaten from the start.
If I could ask Tom Brady one question, it would be this: Does he want to play the Giants next year in the Super Bowl? My wish is that he'd say "Yes." My fear is that, deep down, he might be saying "No."
This is the inherent problem that Brady's legacy faces. It's not so much the two lost Super Bowls, it's the issue of fear.
It's his body language around the Giants, and how it affects his entire team in a negative way. Welker should have caught that ball, but the drop was symptomatic of a larger infection.
When the Giants play the Patriots, the players gain their poise from Eli Manning. Manning gave Manningham the confidence to catch that ball, and he gave Tyree the confidence to catch the other ball, too.
When the Patriots play the Giants, who do they gain strength and poise from? The answer is: Nobody. Welker dropped that ball because there was a crisis of confidence, and it only could've happened against the Giants. Against any other team, Welker is absolutely catching that football.
I wish I could ask Brady that question, and I wish I could get an honest answer. Does he want to beat the Giants, yes or no?
Does he want a Super Bowl rematch next year? We all know he wants another crack at the Lombardi trophy, but does he want another crack at Eli Manning, yes or no?
If I asked him the Giants question, he'd probably say it doesn't matter who they play. And to a certain extent, that makes sense. A Super Bowl is a Super Bowl.
But there's still unfinished business here, and that unfinished business will remain a part of Patriots history until they smack the Giants and break their nose.
The Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI by four points. Amazingly, out of their five most recent Super Bowl appearances, this was their biggest point differential. Their four others were decided by three points each.
From that perspective, Brady's Super Bowl record makes sense. Going 5-0 seems unlikely when each game comes down to a few points. If you play with fire five times, you'll probably get burned twice.
By this rationale, you could argue the Patriots dropped two Super Bowls because they were bound to lose a few games that rested on such a slim margin.
Normally I'd accept that, but the game against the Giants earlier this season followed the exact same script as both Super Bowls. These games were basically carbon copies of each other. This, in effect, alters the trend; it's not a Super Bowl thing or a point-margin thing, it's a Giants thing.
I keep going back to that regular season game against the Giants. Brady was frazzled, and so was Bill Belichick. They were rattled, and that rattled the entire team. Never once in that game did I see a glimmer of killer instinct.
That regular season game against the Giants was extra important to me, but it didn't seem overly important or special to the Patriots. That makes sense when you consider that the Patriots treat every game and every opponent the same way.
But here's the problem with that logic: They're still human, and humans aren't that rigid. This game isn't played by robots, it's played by people.
People feel emotions like anger and frustration; they feel the need to settle old scores and reclaim that which they feel belongs to them. Ask Larry Bird. Ask Magic Johnson. Not every opponent is the same; some matter much more.
The Patriots abide by "the Patriot way." This means they treat every week and every opponent the same way, with the same preparation and the same mentality.
But here's where that logic takes a detour: In the first game of the 2003 season, the Patriots were shut out by the Bills by a score of 31-0. The Patriots were humiliated by that loss.
In their last game of the regular season, they played the Bills again. Bill Belichick told the team, "These guys got us pretty good, okay? You don't always get a chance to settle the score during the season, okay? We got this one."
During that rematch with the Bills, the Patriots were up 31-0 late in the fourth quarter. There was less than a minute left; it was garbage time and mostly second-stringers were playing. The Bills drove the ball up to the Patriots' goal, about to score.
So what did Bill Belichick do? He put the starting defensive unit back in the game to prevent the score. After they made the pick, the game ended at 31-0. As Rodney Harrison walked into the locker room, he kept on repeating the word "payback."
So any time someone tells you that the Patriots don't think about revenge, or don't treat certain teams differently, don't believe it.
The question is: Why can't they get their revenge on the Giants? Where's the fire and brimstone that we've been looking for?
In their last three meetings with the Patriots, the Giants put up 17, 24 and 21 points. Those are low numbers. They were consistently unable to rack up big points because the Patriots' defense came through and played beautifully.
The culprit has been the Patriots' offense; they haven't come through. Of course, it's difficult to get mad at the offense for blowing two Super Bowls when they're mostly the reason the Patriots played in the Super Bowls to begin with.
It’s the Welker situation all over again; how can you get mad at him for dropping one ball when he's caught 122 others during the season and 19 in the playoffs?
The receiver who arguably played the biggest role in getting you to the Super Bowl couldn't make the biggest catch of the game. Unbelievable.
It’s a long string of circular logic and contradictory events, and trying to understand it will fry your brain. The Giants have single-handedly altered all of the truths that Patriot Nation has come to understand. The facts just don't add up.
For the record, I can't wait to play the Giants again. I just hope Brady feels the same way.
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