By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Jan. 20 -- After a cold and blustery afternoon during which they gave a far from perfect performance, the New England Patriots stand where no NFL team has been before. They won their 18th game of the season without a loss, beating the San Diego Chargers in the AFC championship game and moving within one victory of being anointed the greatest football team in history.
And all that stands between them and that accomplishment is the team that very nearly beat them in the final regular season game. The New York Giants, playing on an even colder night in Green Bay, Wis., beat the Packers, 23-20, in overtime to advance to Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3 in Glendale, Ariz.
A victory would give the Patriots their fourth NFL championship in seven seasons and would enable them to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated teams in league history. "There was history on the line," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after the Patriots' 21-12 victory over the Chargers on a 23-degree afternoon. "We recognize it, we acknowledge it."
Those Dolphins went 17-0; the Patriots would be 19-0 with a Super Bowl win, and they have trounced their opponents far more convincingly than the '72 Dolphins did. "It's been one week at a time for us all year," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "It really has. I think there will be a time and place to sit back and reflect on it all. For right now, I'm just proud of our team for winning this game and having a chance to go play for the NFL title."
This game wasn't a classic for the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady threw three interceptions and wide receiver Randy Moss wasn't a factor. But the defense toughened at the right times, limiting the Chargers to four field goals.
"We had a few letdowns or times where we didn't play our best," Brady said. "But we overcame them; 18-0 is a great feeling."
The Patriots may have drawn their toughest opponent, even though they were installed as 14-point favorites by oddsmakers. The Giants, who beat Brett Favre and the Packers on a night when the wind-chill was minus-23 at kickoff, also happen to be on a roll behind the quarterbacking of 27-year-old Eli Manning. They have won 10 games in a row on the road and, on Dec. 29, lost 38-35 to the Patriots in the regular season finale. The emergence of Manning as a leader means that, for the second year in a row, a Manning will be quarterbacking a Super Bowl team. Eli's older brother, Peyton, led the Indianapolis Colts to victory last year.
The Giants, who finished 10-6 and advanced to the playoffs with a wild card, beat the Packers in an emotional ending on a 47-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes, who had missed two fourth-quarter attempts, 2 minutes 35 seconds into overtime. "I started running right after I hit it," Tynes said in a televised postgame interview. "I screwed it up twice and thank God we got another opportunity."
Gillette Stadium was a contrast to Lambeau. Confetti littered the field, but the Patriots kept their locker room celebration fairly modest and even fans were relatively restrained. Winning has become the pro sports norm in these parts. The Boston Red Sox are baseball's reigning World Series champions, and the Celtics have returned to pro basketball's elite this season.
But while the two World Series wins by the Red Sox in recent years after their long drought and the return to prominence by the Celtics have been, for the most part, feel-good stories, the Patriots' latest championship run has had a more sinister feel to it.
They have become the NFL team that fans in other cities love to hate. In September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 and stripped a first-round draft choice from the franchise next spring after the team was found to be videotaping the play signals of the New York Jets' coaches in the opening game of the season at Giants Stadium, in violation of league rules. The Patriots were decried as cheaters and analysts raised the issue of how much the accomplishments of Belichick and the team had been tainted. The New York Post took to putting an asterisk alongside the Patriots in its NFL standings, with the explanation "caught cheating."
Belichick kept his head down and simply worked and no-commented his way through the scandal, and his players closed ranks around him and defended their coach -- and the team's legacy. The Patriots took out their anger and frustration on opponents, winning by margins such as 52-7 against the Washington Redskins and 56-10 against the Buffalo Bills. That led to charges that they were unnecessarily running up the score to embarrass foes. The Patriots simply shrugged it off and kept winning.
With the most imposing offense in NFL history this season, the Patriots set the all-time scoring record. Brady broke the single-season mark for touchdown passes; Moss set the record for touchdown catches. The Patriots were challenged in four games but dusted off their championship resolve to win with fourth-quarter comebacks. On Sunday, they leaned on their defense and that old big-game toughness.
"To me, 52-7 wasn't something I was used to," Bruschi said. "These are the games we're used to."
Bruschi said the pressure of chasing an unbeaten record was alleviated after the regular season, since every team faces the same win-or-go-home predicament in the playoffs. Linebacker Mike Vrabel agreed.
"We left that back in the regular season," Vrabel said. "We've won two games in the playoffs. . . . We're going to try to just continue to do this thing and not get all carried away with the undefeated season. . . . I know guys are excited to be here, to be AFC champions, but we've still got work to do and we've still got a game to win."
Manning and the Giants feel the same. For four seasons, every Manning step forward has seemingly been matched by a step backward. Acquired from San Diego in a draft-day trade, he has often been a tabloid target, remaining implacable even when the team's former running back, Tiki Barber, questioned his leadership on national TV early last fall. "We weren't given a shot very often," said Manning, who completed 21 0f 40 passes for 254 yards and didn't have a turnover against the Packers. "I might be a hard guy to read, but right now I'm excited as I can be."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.