For New England, It's the Perfect Ending

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Dec. 29 -- The New England Patriots' bid for an unbeaten season was put in the greatest jeopardy yet on a strange night at Giants Stadium that began with questions about how hard the New York Giants would try to win.

The Giants did play to win. They got four touchdown passes by quarterback Eli Manning. They played hard and they played well, and they had a 12-point lead in the second half. But it didn't matter because the Patriots once more summoned what was needed and rallied to beat the Giants, 38-35, here Saturday night to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history.

"Everyone's going to enjoy this one," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "This happens once every 35 years. We'll celebrate for a couple days and get ready to go back to work."

The Patriots rewrote the record book for offensive prowess and showed their championship mettle, just as they had done this season in fourth-quarter comebacks against the Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens. They trailed 28-16 in the third quarter of this one after Manning threw his third touchdown pass of the evening. It was the Patriots' largest deficit of the season. They still were behind 28-23 entering the fourth quarter.

But Brady threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Randy Moss, one play after Moss had dropped a deep pass when a Giants defender fell down and left him open. The Patriots never looked back, adding a two-point conversion and then following an interception by cornerback Ellis Hobbs with tailback Laurence Maroney's second touchdown run of the game.

Manning threw his second touchdown pass of the evening to wide receiver Plaxico Burress with just more than a minute to play, but the Patriots recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock. Coach Bill Belichick hugged his former offensive coordinator, Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis, on the sideline, then told his players they could savor this triumph for a few days before getting to work for the playoffs, in which they have a first-round bye.

"I'm happy," Belichick said. "You work all year to try to win every game. To win them all, that's great."

The Patriots remained in pursuit of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only undefeated team in NFL history. They surpassed the 1998 Minnesota Vikings as the highest-scoring club in league history. Brady and Moss teamed for two touchdowns, enabling Brady to reach 50 touchdown passes for the season and Moss to reach 23 touchdown catches. Brady broke Peyton Manning's NFL record of 49 touchdown passes, and Moss surpassed Jerry Rice's mark of 22 touchdown catches.

Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards. Moss had 100 receiving yards, and fellow wideout Wes Welker had 11 catches for 122 yards.

The Giants had four players, including starting center Shaun O'Hara, get hurt. But they didn't back off, even with nothing to be gained in the playoff seedings. Eli Manning had first-half touchdown passes to tailback Brandon Jacobs and tight end Kevin Boss, and found Burress for a third-quarter touchdown. The Giants (10-6) also scored on a first-half kickoff return by Domenik Hixon.

"We played a very, very difficult opponent," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said. "We played well. We have nothing to be ashamed of."

The Giants were facing a first-round NFC playoff game in Tampa against the Buccaneers next weekend whether they beat the Patriots or not. They didn't have the luxury, as the Patriots do, of using a bye for any players who might be injured in this game to heal. But Coughlin left his regulars on the field and the Giants pushed the Patriots to the limit before a national television audience in which both NBC and CBS were carrying the feed of the league-owned NFL Network.

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