They can picture the scene that would have, that should have, unfolded this Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And, man, what a scene it is.
Voices slow to a cryptic crawl as minds wander to what would have been. The crowd would have boomed as the players walked through the tunnel and hoisted their Super Bowl rings into the air. These wouldn't have been any old Super Bowl rings, either. No, they'd have been glistening 19-0 rings. The '85 Bears would have had no choice but to take a bow. Those '72 Dolphins, too.
There'd be no debate. From Vince Lombardi's Packers to the Steel Curtain to Joe Montana's Niners to the Cowboys of the '90s, everybody would have needed to pay homage to the '07 Patriots. On this night, 10 years later, they would have have been celebrated as the greatest team in NFL history.
Of course, there is no such pilgrimage planned to Minneapolis. There will be no Super Bowl party, no reminisces of glory up on the video board, no celebration at all. Rather, these '07 Patriots remain scattered around the country because some guy named David Tyree pinned a football against his head and ruined everything.
On 3rd-and-5 from his own 44, Eli Manning escaped a swarm of Patriots to heave a 32-yard prayer downfield to Tyree. The Giants scored a touchdown a few plays later, won 17-14, and the resulting trauma never completely subsided. These Patriots are forced to instead look back at that team, game and play with a bizarre mix of pride and regret. They're filled with a dash of joy and anger and enough exasperation to last a lifetime.
You can hear the lasting pain in their voices. Or in the refusal to relive the events of Feb. 3, 2008. Many of the players Bleacher Report contacted for this story turned down interviews. Many others ignored calls and texts. Seven players, however, were willing to look themselves in the mirror and dissect everything all over again…as painful as that may be.
Rodney Harrison: The intimidating three-time All-Pro safety who met David Tyree at midfield when the ball arrived.
Asante Samuel: The playmaking machine with 51 career interceptions who dropped a potential game-sealing pick the play before Tyree's catch.
Jarvis Green: The defensive end who enjoyed a career year in 2007 filling in for an injured Richard Seymour but also had an arm around Manning in the pocket that fateful play.
Adalius Thomas: The defensive end the Patriots signed to a five-year, $35 million contract that season and on that play had a shot at sacking Manning for a third time that night.
Kyle Brady: The 13-year veteran tight end who lost one AFC Championship Game each with the Jets (1998) and Jaguars (1999), signing with New England in 2007 to pursue one more shot at a ring.
Kevin Faulk: Boston's then-resident king of clutch, who made play after play through the team's first three Super Bowl titles and then caught eight passes for 82 yards in the AFC title game to reach a fourth.
Laurence Maroney: The starting running back who had 122 rushing yards and a touchdown in that AFC divisional playoff win, another 122 and a score in the AFC title game and scored the Super Bowl's first touchdown.
The sting still lingers. Maroney never forgot that New England abandoned him that night, ignoring its resurgent ground game. Samuel is still shook by his dropped interception. Green and Thomas thought the official was going to blow the whistle when Manning was tied up. Harrison is still dumbfounded how David Tyree—David Tyree!—hung onto that ball.
Everybody tries making sense of this all and cannot.
As much as they'd like to remember the good times (16-0! Brady to Moss! Belichick sticking it to the haters!) and suppress the bad times, a Twitter troll, a fan at a bar is always there to dust off the worst moment in their football lives.
A team this dominant—this damn perfect—had no business losing.
Here are their words, in roundtable format, edited for length and clarity.
The 2007 season began, new stars were aligned and controversy erupted. The Patriots were accused of videotaping the New York Jets' signals, and Belichick was fined $500,000—the largest in the NFL's 87-year history. Right then, in the eyes of millions, the Patriots became the "Evil Empire," a dynasty tainted by cheating. Those first three Super Bowls suddenly didn't appear so pure.
Right on cue, the rest of the NFL felt Belichick's wrath. He wasn't content merely winning in 2007. He wanted to win big.
Green: Everybody said, "The Patriots were cheating." It got very personal to the point where we had to prove to everyone that we were playing football and being honest.
K. Brady: There were a lot of haters. We had a target on our chest.
Faulk: Ignore all the noise. Don't listen to anything going on. We have a job to do. We signed up to play football. We didn't sign up to be spectators or listen to anybody report about us.
Thomas: Everybody's always against the team that wins the most.
Green: We walked in every morning pissed and said, "We're going to play ball. Lights-out. Every game." Let's show 'em. Let's go out there and prepare like we've never prepared before. One week at a time. We were killing people, man.
Harrison: It wasn't like we openly said it. But the whole thing was: "Finish. Let's finish." So "finishing" meant finishing drives and scoring points, and we didn't care if we were up by 30 points or down by 30 points. We're going to be aggressive. We're going to score points. We're going to defend. And that's exactly what we did.
K. Brady: There was talk of vindicating Bill and vindicating the reputation of the Patriots and showing people it's not a matter of stealing signals. It's a matter of physically beating you on the field, and that was all just idle talk.
As the season progressed, there was occasional talk. There's TVs in the locker room, so ['72 Dolphins running back] Mercury Morris would be up there talking on the TV. "Oh, they have a long way to go!" and all the different analogies he uses for how far a team has to go whenever there's a team pressing through the season with an undefeated record.
After a while, there was a sentiment amongst the guys of, "Why don't we shut this guy up and see if we can win out?"
Harrison: I'll tell you this about Bill. I don't remember the actual game—but after we won the game, the very next day he's yelling and screaming and showing all these negative plays on the screen. And you walk out of the meeting like "Dang, didn't we just win by 23 points? Twenty-plus points?" You're like, "This dude is crazy." He's ripping Tom Brady. That's the thing that sets him apart from every other coach.
Thomas: He started the humble pie. If you thought you did good, he would humble you very fast. I remember him saying "I'm out to get rid of all bad football." That was his thing: "I'm on a quest for bad football. And I'm getting rid of it." He's just a great coach. He leaves no stone unturned.
Green: Everybody's physically in shape. Everybody can run fast as lightning. Everybody could pick up a truck or pick up a tree. But fourth quarter, just being mentally ready and focused, I think that's the separation from playing under Coach Belichick.
The revenge tour was on. Practices were nearly flawless, and games were downright embarrassing, with everything and everyone standing in the Patriots' way eviscerated. Brady heaved touchdowns (50 in all) to Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker deep into fourth quarters.
The Patriots averaged 40 more yards and eight more points than any other offense in the league. The defense rang up 47 sacks and 19 interceptions. Hall of Fame talent was everywhere.
Samuel: We had some legendary people back there.
K. Brady: I'd come off the field in four wide receiver situations and enjoy it like a fan would. Just to see the way [Brady] would dissect defenses. These guys would make all these dynamic plays—Randy going up and high-pointing a ball over two defenders and Wes just making guys look foolish on the short-to-intermediate routes with his quickness out of cuts. And then there's other guys, too. Kevin Faulk and his ability as a receiver. Laurence Maroney.
Thomas: You're like, "Dang!" You can't double Wes Welker and double Randy. It was just very exciting to see the potential of it.
Harrison: You're so used to going through your career, fightin' and clawin' in a bunch of close games. ... Then, all of a sudden we're up three touchdowns and Bill is still cussing you out! He's saying, "Hey, you're going back in the game! I don't care what the score is. Be prepared to play four quarters. You're not coming out of the game!"
Samuel: Man, it was amazing. It was something I always thought could be done with a Tom Brady type of quarterback. This was the first time, in my opinion, he got some top, top elite receivers. You see what he did. He broke records. We went undefeated.
Thomas: We were playing against ourselves. We weren't worried about what the other team was going to do.
II. Speed bumps
As the season progressed, the Patriots won. And won. And won. But they also started to feel the pressure to keep up the perfect season.
K. Brady: I'll tell you a funny story. My dad—he's since passed—but at the time he was alive and following the season closely. He said to me a few times over the regular season, "I wish you guys would just lose a game." I was like, "What do you mean? This is amazing. What if we're able to do something that's never been done in the modern era?" He said, "I just think it'll take some of the pressure off, some of the edge off, and you guys would kind of regroup."
… When you're young and you're confident and you're around a bunch of confident guys who perform at a high level, there might be a tendency to not even acknowledge the buildup of pressure and also the physical and mental stress of carrying on that streak. Every game that we played, starting at the end of October through December, had playoff intensity.
Eventually the blowouts stopped coming so easily. After winning their first 10 games by an average of 25.4 points, they won by just three each in Weeks 12 and 13 against the Eagles and Ravens. A decade later, opinions differ on if the pressure to run the table was weighing on players' minds.
K. Brady: We played the Ravens that year in [December], in their place, and they were having a disappointing year when normally they're one of the rivals of the Patriots. It was an absolute dogfight. Physically speaking, we came out of that game thinking we were in a playoff game.
So when you're younger, you might underestimate how much that takes out of you. And it's cumulative. As the season progressed, that cumulative exhaustion—it gets you every season but especially a season like that.
Faulk: Nah, I didn't feel that. That's Kyle's opinion. I didn't feel that at all through the playoff run. You play 16 games every year. You're a professional. You get adapted to it.
Thomas: We never set any goals to go 16-0. The goal was to win the last game.
Then in Week 17, the streak nearly ended with a thrilling 38-35 win over the Giants. The Patriots took notice. And the week before the Super Bowl, before their chance to go 19-0, that fatigue appeared to set in. Even Belichick showed signs of concern.
Green: That was the toughest opponent we played all year, and we played all the way down to the wire.
Faulk: You knew what [the Super Bowl] was going to lead up to because of the season finale.
K. Brady: We went out there in Arizona, and there are two practices that are most important before a Sunday game: Wednesday and Thursday.
One of those days, we did not practice well. And we gathered together as a team after the practice was over, and Belichick looked us all in the eye and said, "You know what, fellas? They got ahead of you today. I'm telling you: They got ahead of you today. It's not about your record. It's not about any of that garbage. It's about who executes better that night."
I wonder if it was that cumulative exhaustion of carrying that type of intensity on throughout the entire season and playoff run.
Maroney: Regardless, you've got to be ready to play the game. We can sit here and say we had bad practices and all that. We still have 60 minutes to give it our best.
Samuel: The confidence was high. Everybody was motivated. Obviously it's the Super Bowl, so everybody can have their little distractions. But everybody was focused in, and we were ready to take on the Giants and win the Super Bowl.
K. Brady: I mean, Brady was completing 70 percent of his passes—in games. In practice, he was probably over 90 percent. It was something to see. But there wasn't the crispness and the extremely high level of execution that was occurring.
Samuel: It's a crazy situation, right? We go 18-0 and are named the best—no questions asked—the best team to ever play in the National Football League. And then, on the other hand, this guy makes this catch and ruins everything.
Super Bowl XLII should've never boiled down to one play. Not with this historic offense gunning for history. The Giants were justifiable 12-point underdogs, a team that shouldn't have even been in this game but stunned Dallas and Green Bay in back-to-back weeks.
Then, it became clear the Giants possessed the antidote. Their defensive line served as one collective heavyweight boxer. It pressured Tom Brady relentlessly, and hit after hit after hit took a toll.
Samuel: The Giants' front four was awesome that year. They were coming like bats out of hell. I think they had Tom a little frustrated.
Faulk: Everyone could rush the passer.
K. Brady: It's still the same formula to beat the Patriots. You have to get to Tom. You have to get to him early, and you have to get to him often. You have to hit him hard. You have to do everything you can to get him out of his rhythm and out of his game. … They did what everybody else did, but they did it better than anyone had all year long.
The speed and quickness in which they executed their defensive line games was better than what we had seen all year long. We scored 38 points on them the first game. So to hold that offense to 14 points? That's a ridiculous performance against one of the best offenses in history.
One reason Belichick is probably the best coach in NFL history is his precise mid-game adjustments. He stays three moves ahead of you. But this night, he waltzed right into the Giants' trap. Maroney had eclipsed 100 yards in four of the previous five games but received only 14 carries as the Patriots threw and threw and threw 48 times in all. Brady was rendered a pinata here.
Maroney: The running game really was open. They were a two-gapping type of defense. So they were either going to pin their ears back and come at you or they're going to create natural holes to where they jump around blocks. So that creates natural running lanes.
I felt like we should've ran the ball more. I was definitely in the mood. Definitely feeling it. I felt like we were going to come in here and run the ball a little bit more. But I'm not a coach. I don't call the plays. I run the plays that are given.
Still, after Moss caught a touchdown with two minutes and 45 seconds left, none of it seemed to matter. Moss took that game-winning ball with him to the sideline, proceeded to celebrate, and Tedy Bruschi held Junior Seau for a long embrace.
K. Brady: As badly as it was going, as much as we were being denied the end zone, which was very unusual for us, we still score and I look down the sideline and there's Warren Moon holding the Lombardi Trophy. I thought, "Man, we're a minute-and-a-half away from hoisting that thing up."
They needed one stop, one break, one play to finish the job and, wouldn't you know, an errant Eli Manning pass sailed into the hands of their No. 1 playmaker on defense.
Thomas: Asante dropped that interception on the sideline. If he catches that ball, the game is over.
Samuel: I wish I could've jumped higher and got my hands on the ball a little better. Who knows? I think gravity would've taken me out of bounds if I was able to jump higher. And if you watch when I'm coming down, I land one foot inbounds. So I knew I was close to the sidelines.
K. Brady: Asante Samuel, the ball went right through his hands. It probably would've been a pick-six or at least a pick with a 20-yard return, and the game would've been sealed at 14-10. Earlier in the year, he did the exact same thing against the Eagles.
Samuel: If I felt like I just dropped the ball and that's what it was, of course, I dropped the ball. That's my fault. But that wasn't the situation. But of course, I also look at it like, my life. ... My family, my mom, everybody felt like I was "Superman." I could accomplish anything.
So when you see Asante Samuel out here picking every ball, you know you can't throw his way. You throw his way three times, he's going to pick off the ball. So, obviously, you think "Asante Samuel should pick…this…ball…off."
K. Brady: From what I recall, it was a very catchable ball. That's not to pin the loss on him, but things like that were happening. There was another time where Manning was tackled from behind as he was scrambling and the ball went fumbling down the field. Bouncing all over. And it just happened to bounce to Ahmad Bradshaw where it easily could've bounced to us. We had a few players around it.
Samuel: If I could've done anything different, I guess I would've concentrated to jump a little higher—if I could've jumped higher. Or tried to back up a little more. If you look at it, it barely got to the tip of my fingers. Maybe go up with one hand?
I'm my worst critic, so I've got to make this play. I've got to come down with it. How do I not come down with this? That's what's going on in my head. I make all kinds of incredible picks. So how do I not come down with this one?
Green: That was our game but, hey, you have to keep playing until the fat lady sings, right?
IV. Eli Escapes
It's as if Samuel knew, right in the moment, a career-defining pick slipped through his fingers. He put both hands on his helmet, closed his eyes, tilted his head back and screamed. The perfect season was slipping away.
Seconds later, Eli Manning shouted a few pre-snap audibles, stepped back into shotgun and dropped back to pass with one minute and 15 seconds to go.
Samuel: The most amazing thing to me is not even the catch. It's how did Eli get out of there!? You know people talk about the catch. But a lot of people had their hands on him. Ahhhh! How does he get away from that?
Green: Coming out of the snap, that play had to be the longest play of my career. And everything was in slowwww motion. Coming off, making a move, I did a little head fake and tried to slap on his shoulder—I forgot who was in front of me—and then me and Richard [Seymour] got discombobulated in the group, and I think I got on the corner and kind of got through.
It was just a pile-up. Everybody on top of each other. I think [Shaun O'Hara] choked Richard [Seymour]. I'm reaching through, and Richard kind of hit my hand. Hit his hand. One or the other. Somebody getting choked around the neck, I think [Mike] Vrabel.
There was so much going on, and then the pile came all together and we squeezed the pocket like Coach teaches us to do. Eli ducked down in the back and just pulled out of the back.
K. Brady: I was under the impression for a moment that they were going to blow the play dead. Which the referee has said he was a split-second from doing that. And somehow, he escaped from it.
Maroney: Rules change all the time. I thought it was a sack. Manning was tied up. They had him for a while. They let it play out and he broke loose. … How long do they have to hold him? Ten seconds? If it was Brady, they would've called him down. They had him wrapped up!
Thomas: I came all the way around, and it appeared he gave himself up. Kind of bogged up and gave himself up. And then everybody kind of relaxed—like, he's giving himself up. With all the rules on hitting the quarterback, you can't really do anything. If he's giving himself up, you can't really go hit him.
Green: That would've been a sack in the regular season, but then he backed out and closed his eyes and threw the ball.
Thomas: You know. The rest is history.
Samuel: It's one of those things that's just meant to be, like there's nothing you can do to stop this.
Green: And you know what's funny for me? I look back and laugh and say, I would've gotten that sack, I had a sack already, a couple good tackles, I would've had that sign "I'm Going to Disney World!" So I crack jokes about it with my family. That sack would've changed the entire game.
Thomas: You'll never forget it. It's part of history. There are so many different ramifications. Your life is totally different going forward. If I make that sack there, that's three sacks in the Super Bowl, and I probably get the MVP.
Green: It was so slow, man. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. David Tyree caught the ball in his helmet, and him and Rodney Harrison are on the ground. First down, New York Giants. We were like, "What in the hell just happened?"
V. The Helmet Catch
Rodney Harrison was the most feared safety in the NFL. David Tyree had no business even being on the field after having just four receptions, total, in the regular season. Despite the Patriots ignoring Maroney, despite all the bad bounces, despite Samuel's drop, despite Green and Thomas whiffing, this is a matchup the Patriots would take with a Super Bowl on the line 100 out of 100 times.
So what in the hell did happen?
Samuel: If I remember correctly, we were in Cover 3. Everybody had a third. I got my third. I think Tyree was lined up on my side. I'm in my third and then everybody's grabbing, grabbing and Eli's scrambling around.
K. Brady: He threw the ball up there, on a prayer, and it just seemed to float forever. The way it came down—from a sideline perspective—I couldn't tell at all if it was complete. It looked like it could've even been intercepted by Rodney.
Harrison: There's the ball in the air, and I look in the middle of the field and see a wide receiver wide-open. I just hustled as hard as I could and tried to find the ball and time it at the same time. So I jumped and swatted with my right hand, and I thought it was an incomplete pass. I heard little Steve Smith come in and say, "Get off of him! Get off of him! Good catch! Good catch!" And I say, "Good catch?"
Samuel: I don't want to call anybody's name out, but Rodney Harrison—the strongest guy, the most fearless safety I ever played with—this guy will rip helmets off, and his forearms are as big as two of my forearms. For Tyree to still have the ball on his head, it just has to be meant to be. How does Rodney's fists, knuckles, fingertips, nothing tip the ball a little bit just to nudge the ball off his helmet?
Maroney: Rodney, you had two choices: You could've played to knock the ball loose or go for the pick. He chose to go for the pick. So everything could've been a lot different. He could've just hit him and knocked the ball loose. But he went for the pick.
Harrison: Dude, I've done that play 100, 200, 300 times in my career, and I've knocked him down over and over again. You get Rodney Harrison—a big, strong, physical safety that's coming with bad intentions—and come on, man.
K. Brady: If you look at it over and over again, the way we all have now, you see Rodney—who's one of the best interceptors in the history of the NFL postseason—he actually was just trying to rake it away from him. But he actually aided in the catch to some degree. He pushed the ball down into his helmet and kind of pressed it there and put pressure into Tyree's helmet.
It's so strange how things had to align just perfectly. Because if that pressure had been applied backward on the ball, Tyree wouldn't have been able to hold onto it. Obviously, it's one of the strangest plays in NFL history.
Harrison: If you're a believer in God and spirituality, hey, this is what the Lord wanted. No matter what I tried to do, the ball stayed right there. It happened.
Thomas: His ability to hold onto that ball…I don't know.
Maroney: Just hit him! That's what you're known for, that's what you do. I'm not saying he can't get interceptions. He's definitely that caliber of player. But do what you're known for: Make the big hit and knock the ball loose. We'll take an incomplete. I'll take an incomplete.
Harrison: Why can't people understand that maybe it wasn't about me? No matter what I try to do, if something's meant to be it's going to happen.
Faulk: Sometimes you can't stop what's destined for you.
Thomas: I don't even know if David Tyree caught a ball after that. But nobody really cares.
Samuel: He probably prayed for that moment all his life, and God delivers.
K. Brady: Of all people to have a career game. Tyree. He had a touchdown earlier in the night and then that catch. How many catches did he have all year? Some seasons, he'd have no catches. He was a special teams player. All of a sudden, he's this huge weapon in the Super Bowl.
Samuel: It makes no sense. At all.
Faulk: He still has that one memory, though.
Thomas: That's his claim to fame. It'll always be that way.
Four plays later, Manning hit Plaxico Burress with ease for a touchdown. Then Brady threw an incomplete pass on first down, was sacked on second down after Ellis Hobbs was burned on a double-move, and watched two heaves to Moss fall incomplete.
Harrison: You could tell our defensive line was already disheartened because they missed Eli. To top it off with that play took all the wind and confidence out of us. We got to a point where we couldn't truly believe as a defense that we could stop them.
Samuel: After the catch, I'm still confident that we're going to do what we've got to do. Even after the touchdown! Me personally, I have so much faith and confidence in Tom Brady, and now he has Randy Moss; something still can be done. But obviously we lost. It was crazy.
Faulk: We could've done something that no other team has done in NFL history. … Nothing could've changed. It went the way it was supposed to happen. We did everything we could, and they just played better than us to win the game.
All 19-0 dreams evaporated, and nobody said much of anything in the locker room afterward...not that Brady ever forgot. He still watches that game as motivation and is still playing in more Super Bowls. This weekend, he can win his sixth ring and further cement himself as the greatest player of all time.
As for this crew? Life goes on.
When Green retired, he was "miserable" in pain. He couldn't even walk up his own staircase. Or sit in his car for more than five minutes without standing up. On airplanes, he'd walk up and down the aisles constantly. Stem-cell therapy at Regenexx in Denver healed everything, and now he's the owner of "Oceans 97," a shrimp distributor that feeds 730 supermarkets.
Harrison is of course the blunt, razor-sharp NFL analyst for NBC.
Maroney works in real estate back in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
Kyle Brady is an attorney in Jacksonville, Florida.
Faulk, last week, was hired as LSU's director of player development.
Samuel is back in Broward County, Florida, where he owns a record label/clothing line called "80s Nation."
Thomas is doing well, too, though knows his career should've lasted another five years.
They all remain proud of that '07 season, though they cannot help but think about how they'd all be remembered if it had ended in a win. All of their lives would've changed if that football hadn't stuck to the helmet of one David Tyree.
Harrison: When I think about that team, I just think about the closeness, the tightness, the friendships, the growth outside of the football field. To be the first team ever to go 16-0? Hey, that's awesome.
Green: We broke a lot of records that year. We played with adversity. People said we were cheaters. Whatever. When we played somebody, we kicked everybody's butt. We let the performance speak on the field. We can't hang our head low. We did a lot that year. And did a lot for New England. That will be remembered because we did go 16-0, well, 18-0. And then 18-1.
Harrison: We would've smashed the '72 Dolphins, too.
Thomas: Everything changes. Your life, here on out, you're part of history. So when they do Super Bowl 50, they say Super Bowl MVP from Super Bowl whatever it was, and they call your name. Your appearance fee is this, and you get a chance to do this. You do commercials. You do media stuff. You get a chance to do TV stuff. Everything changes.
Maroney: Maybe I'd still be in the league. Maybe I'd still be playing. Maybe I'd still be playing for the Patriots. Just to have that title with your name puts you in the books. No matter how you feel about Laurence Maroney or how his career could've went or should've went, with that "Super Bowl Champion" behind it, that's something you'd have to say regardless of how you feel about the guy. Just to have that title is great.
K. Brady: There will always be a sense of disappointment because that's the only time I played in the Super Bowl. It was the last game I ever played. Usually you leave that last game but have that "There's always next year."
There's always that camaraderie to rejoin in March. It was just such an abrupt end. That was 13 years [for me in the NFL], three different teams—suddenly completely over, never to be rekindled or thought of again.
Samuel: I think it's obvious we were the best team ever to play. But it's just hard to say it with that last-game situation. I don't think there's a debate. I don't think there's a debate. Of course, the numbers don't lie. The facts are the facts. But it is what it is…
Thomas: You're one play away from breaking history.
Green: Besides that loss, that one loss, yeah. Best team ever. That one loss, you can put an asterisk by that one loss.
Thomas: It would've been a 10-year reunion for the 19-0 team. If you want to be remembered, make history.
Faulk: One of the greatest teams that could have been.