Ruing the One That Got Away

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

GLENDALE, Ariz., Feb. 3 -- Four times during their 16-0 regular season, the New England Patriots trailed in the fourth quarter but dipped into their reserve tank of championship mettle to remain unbeaten. When quarterback Tom Brady threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Randy Moss with less than three minutes remaining in Sunday night's Super Bowl to give the Patriots a 14-10 lead, it looked like they'd done it again.

The Patriots, it seemed, were about to complete a 19-0 season. They were about to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only unbeaten teams in NFL history, and they were about to be acclaimed as the best club ever. Brady and Coach Bill Belichick would deliver the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title in a seven-year span and cement their places among the all-time greats.

But it didn't happen, as quarterback Eli Manning drove the New York Giants to a winning touchdown in the final minute and the Patriots were left settling for an 18-1 record.

"It's pretty special to be able to win as many games as we won," veteran safety Rodney Harrison said. "To come up short is very disappointing."

Said Belichick: "That was a tough game. It didn't go the way we expected. We're disappointed, obviously. . . . We played as hard as we could. We just couldn't make enough plays."

Belichick ran on the field to congratulate Giants Coach Tom Coughlin after a fourth-down incompletion by Brady in the final seconds. Belichick ran off the field and didn't return to the sideline after the officials ruled that there was one second remaining, requiring a final kneel-down by the Giants.

"It's disappointing," Belichick said. "They did a good job. They played well defensively. . . . They made some plays. We made some plays. In the end, they made more than we did."

The offense that set a single-season NFL scoring record never got revved up in this one. Brady was sacked five times and was hit on many other passing plays. Moss finished with five catches for 62 yards but was a nonfactor for much of the game.

"I had a feeling it was going to come down to us with a few plays," Brady said, "and we just didn't get it done. . . . We just couldn't get the ball in the end zone enough. You score 14 points -- that's our lowest total of the year and that got us beat."

The Patriots' defense nearly carried them to a win. But it couldn't stop Manning when it mattered. The key play came when Manning eluded a third-down sack on the final drive and lobbed a high pass in the middle of the field. Wide receiver David Tyree made a leaping catch for a 32-yard completion that set up the winning touchdown.

"The ball just didn't bounce our way," Harrison said. "We had the guy for a sack and he slips away and throws a Hail Mary up there, and David Tyree makes the catch. It's just unbelievable."

The Patriots had won each of their three Super Bowls by three points. They were on the other side of that equation in this one.

They crafted fourth-quarter comebacks during the regular season against the Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens and the Giants in the finale that gave them the first 16-0 regular season in league history. They didn't quite have another such comeback in them.

"It was a great journey," said Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, lured out of retirement by Belichick. "It really was. The key is executing and making plays when the opportunities present themselves, and we weren't able to do that."

The Patriots head into the offseason with Moss eligible for unrestricted free agency and linebacker Tedy Bruschi contemplating retirement. Belichick and front-office chief Scott Pioli have maneuvered their way through free agency and the salary cap better than anyone else in the league. But the Patriots' chance to make football history slipped away Sunday evening, and they could only hope it wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"They had the better team today," Moss said. "When things like that happen, all you can do is lick your wounds and try to come back next year."

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