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Third Time’s the Charm for the Amazins

To say the Mets fan base has been struggling the last two seasons is like saying it hurts breaking your collar bone. Both are ridiculous understatements.

If Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS forced Mets faithful into a transitory comatose state, the last three weeks of the 2007 season turned them permanently despondent. In the weeks and months following The Collapse, I had one friend who may or may not have burned all of his Mets attire (I was too scared to inquire whether or not he had followed through on his pledge). I had another buddy who quit on sports all together, assuming a “f— baseball, f— sports, f— it all” state of mind for longer than I care to remember. And one more still who would literally lose the color in his face when any Mets-related topic was raised.

It was that bad.

It was as if in October of ’06, Metropolitan nation had collectively proposed to the woman they loved, only to be rejected in the most heart wrenching of fashions. Then, the next April she changed her mind, said yes, spent five and a half months making wedding preparations only to bail from the altar on the big day. That’s despondent. That was the state of the Mets.

That was all before Johan.

Before Johan, Mets fans were dreading the 2008 season more than a root canal. There’s the difference between 2007 and pre-Johan 2008. In ’07 the Mets–while still wounded from Game 7–began spring training with a cold sense of determination; a purpose of finishing what they had started the October before. After establishing themselves as the team to beat in the National League, that silent confidence slowly started to turn into a careless swagger. And yadda yadda yadda. Seven games up with 17 to play became dust, and just like that 2007, the year of Mets redemption, was bygones.

It was the proverbial knockout blow, and no one–not even Pedro–could pull the Mets off the mat. For once, the offseason couldn’t be long enough. To add insult to injury, when the Twins made it known they were trying to trade Johan Santana, the Yankees-Red Sox arms race reconstituted itself, which to the rest of baseball meant either the Yankees or Red Sox would land the best pitcher on the planet, if they so chose.

Then came a play even more implausible than Yadier Molina’s mind-boggling home run in Game 7: both superpowers abstained from pulling the trigger on Johan. That opened the door for the Mets to enter stage left and steal Santana from a Twins organization beginning to fear that in a year they would lose Johan and have nothing to show for him except an empty locker.

And poof! For the world according to Flushing, tempestuous night had at last given way to sunny day.

Suddenly Mets gear was popping up around New York again. Many shirts read “Santana” on the backs, but that was as much a slap in the face to hated-Yankees fans as it was a revival of Mets-fandom. The real indicator of the awakening was in each “Reyes”, “Wright” and “Beltran” jersey that started to reappear. They had all been on long hiatus in the back of the closet.

Now the jerseys are back in rotation, and the players whose names grace the fabric have been given new life as well. Wright is ready to assume more of a vocal leadership role. Reyes has vowed to be more disciplined and mature on the base paths. Pedro says he feels better than he has in years. And that guy named Johan should be able to pitch in his two cents.

Needless to say, apprehension remains a product of Mets-syndrome, newfound confidence or not. Santana started his first game as a Met on February 29, and promptly gave up a first inning three-run blast to Juan Gonzalez (yes, the same former MVP, “Juan Gone”, who has been long gone from baseball the last half decade). Simultaneously, Metsblog.com, the haven for Met-chatter, started filling up with ominous postings:

“Ah Spring!! Where the dreams of all Mets fans go to die!” (Sheahey81)

“Some start…did the Wilpons ask for their money back yet?” (jtcuse44)

“We can trade him to the Yankees with the contract for Hughes and Kennedy.” (FBones24)

“The sky is clearly falling.” (ginsengbomb)

Humor can be a remedy for pain. It can also serve as a mechanism to prevent serious attachment to something. Mets fans are dealing with elements of both. However, there’s a reason they’re even able to joke about their team again without wincing. It’s because they know in the back of their heads that they already had a good team before it self-destructed last year. Now they have the best pitcher of the generation paired with one of the greatest of all-time. Whether Pedro starts 18 games or 30, he will bring out the best in Johan, and he will bring out the best in the Mets. The guy does know a thing or two about saving lost franchises in the last year of his contract.

Pedro could be back next year, but Shea Stadium will not. The final bell will toll on the hideous hunk of steel at the end of this season, and the Mets will move to newly-constructed Citi Field in 2009. With Johan now aboard, the team and its fans can finally stop looking at the move as an escape from misery, and instead concentrate on making Shea’s swan song a tune to remember.

Five Red Sox Topics to Discuss

Spring Training has barely gotten under way for the world champs in Fort Myers and there are already many questions coming to the forefront. Among them…

Coco vs. Ellsbury?

Jacoby Ellsbury will be patrolling the Fenway triangle for the next ten years. You can take that to the bank. If the Sox brass ultimately wouldn’t package him for Johan Santana, he’s not going anywhere for a long time. The question now becomes what to do with Coco Crisp. For a guy who inspired very little confidence at the plate last year, Crisp was nothing short of mesmerizing as the Red Sox center fielder in 2007. The catch he made to formally clinch the pennant and ease an otherwise rough ALCS was a fitting summation of his ’07 season: almost nothing offensively but a savior in center. Ideally for Coco and the Red Sox, both he and Ellsbury start hot this spring. That will enable Ellsbury to ensure Terry Francona and Theo Epstein that he is ready to be the man at the top of the order (as if hitting .353 down the stretch and .438 in the World Series without even qualifying as a rookie wasn’t enough). Coco will be able to earn the starting job he wants (and deserves). And Theo will be in good selling position. Dealing Coco and a mid-level prospect of his choice would probably be enough to get a number two or three starter (Joe Blanton?) in return.

Extension for Francona?

He took over for a guy who had made the most egregious managerial blunder in Red Sox history. He arrived in a historically wounded baseball city that was at the time stuck in a collective coma. He entered a baseball atmosphere where he wasn’t being counted on to win, he wasn’t expected to win, he absolutely, positively had to win. The livelihood of a Nation was at stake. And he did it. He managed the first team to ever climb out of an 0-3 hole. He led the first group of world champion Red Sox in 86 years. Then he did it all over again two seasons later. Tito will get his extension and it will be a significant pay raise from the $1.65 million he was paid in 2007. Theo and the Trio know it’s a small price to pay to the man who has struck the right notes with his players and delivered the goods.

Manny being Manny?

Manny was the first to admit that he wasn’t Manny all last season. However, he figured things out in the playoffs. He hasn’t forgotten about his very ordinary ’07 regular season though, which broke a streak of nine-consecutive 30+ home run/100+ RBI campaigns. In response to the first average season of his career, he changed his offseason workout regimen, opting to train at the Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona. He reported for spring training on time (no sideshows or car shows). And when he volunteered his time to reporters in Fort Myers, he professed his love for Boston and desire to end his career as a Red Sox. Is it a coincidence that Manny’s eight-year, $160 million contract expires after this season? Or that he has two exercisable option years at $20 million a pop? Is anything a coincidence with Manny? He said he would gladly trade his stats from last year for the ring he won, but don’t interpret that as his being content with a sub par output in 2007. As for 2008? “I’m just gonna go play the game, man,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.” That’s probably as close to a verbal forewarning as we’ll ever receive from Manuel.

Will Dice-K turn it up?

This time last year was Dice-mania. All of the focus was on catering to Dice-K and trying to do everything possible to make a monumental transition manageable. All and all the cultural adjustment was ameliorated by the dogged efforts of the Red Sox front office. They brought in specialized trainers, translators and chefs for Dice-K. They expanded the clubhouse to accommodate the Japanese beat writer contingent. John Farrell, the Red Sox pitching coach, studied Japanese. Jason Varitek put in countless hours getting to know the tendencies and intricacies of his new battery mate. And that’s only scratching the surface. Dice-K’s first season in America ended up reflecting that period of adjustment. He showed an ability to overwhelm MLB hitters with his array of stuff and biting fastball. But his control was a major issue and prevented him from consistently going deep into ballgames. Too often his inability to find the strike zone forced him to go away from his secondary pitches. This year he will have the chance to concentrate more on working with Varitek and less on assimilating to daily life half a world away from his home.

Drew year two?

Two things are certain. 1) J.D. Drew grossly underachieved in his first year as a Red Sox; he was a $14 million mess for five months, and 2) He made up for it all with a single swing of the bat. There is no player in my lifetime who endured more scrutiny only to end up being heralded as a hero. Until J.D. Drew. So what should we expect in his second season? More of the Drew we saw last September and October. It’s apparent he had difficulty making the transition to the most critical sports town in the country. He also dealt with an illness to his son throughout the ’07 season. But he came through when it mattered and he has that, in addition to the worst possible first year in a Sox uniform, under his belt. If he can avoid significant injury, expect a nice bounce-back year in 2008 for the guy who struck the $14 million grand slam.

NBA Midseason Report

The NBA needed this. If the league was ever going to recover from the crippling blow it took as a result of the Tim Donaghy betting scandal last summer, it needed nothing short of an intriguing, unpredictable, and continually entertaining regular season in 2008. It has gotten that, and more. Right now its only nagging problem is the lack of depth in the East. Only five teams are over .500 (although the two best teams in the East are also the top two teams in the NBA). The West, by comparison, has ten teams over .500, with a staggering nine of those squads currently on pace to win 50 games. That means it’s entirely possible that a 50-win team could be left out of the playoffs in the West while a few 38 and 40-win teams could be playing postseason ball in the East. Yikes. But don’t think about tuning out the playoffs just yet. The seemingly polarized NBA is in reality completely the opposite. There is parity among title-contenders, which is to say not only are there more than a few teams that could win it all (nine, by my count), but for once there is no clear cut favorite. The combination of the Spurs again snoozing through a title-defense and a fistful of really good teams around them is the explanation. Overall, four things have stuck out to me that have contributed to the resuscitation of a league that was teetering on the edge of implosion a few months ago. Let’s examine them.

1) A Cinderella Story: the New Orleans Hornets What more can be said of the city of New Orleans and its sports teams? The Saints, historically a perennial football joke throughout the state of Louisiana, reentered the Superdome two years ago and rattled off the best season in franchise history, finishing a few plays short of the Super Bowl. And now the Hornets, after two years spent shuttling between Oklahoma City and venues in Louisiana, have returned home exclusively in 2008. They too are in the process of rewriting N’Awlins sports history. In addition to hosting All-Star festivities this weekend, the Hornets have the best mark in the West (36-15), are on pace to break the franchise record of 54 wins, and have a legitimate MVP candidate running the show. Just how good is Chris Paul? He has dished out 15+ assists in a game eight times this year. He has also dropped 40+ points on three occasions. He’s already the best point guard of the next generation. And though it may be too much to expect the Hornets to maintain the top spot in the West, this is a team that has shown it can win on the road (a conference-best 19-7). Plus, if the fans of New Orleans have anything to say about it, their Hornets will be hard to knock off at home come playoff time (if the fans decide to show up, that is). Cinderella is usually reserved for the college ranks, but the story of this team fits the script.

2) A Resurgence: the Boston Celtics The biggest knock on the Celtics going into this season had nothing to do with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It was all about the guys around them. Where were those necessary 35-40 nightly points going to come from in order for the Celtics to win ballgames? How would the team respond when Ray inevitably went down for a period of time? Could the young guys handle the requisite mystique that went hand in hand with a basketball resurgence in Boston? All of those questions were slowly being answered all year through consistent play and gritty defense from role players like Rajon Rondo, Leon Powe, James Posey, Tony Allen and Eddie House. Then the imminent injury happened, except it wasn’t Ray that went down. It was KG. The cynics eagerly awaited the impending swoon, but it never came. The team only got stronger. First they beat Dallas on national television. Then on a Sunday afternoon game against the defending champion-Spurs, it all came together. They played with swagger, with purpose. Against a team full of bling, a team that Paul had never beaten in his own house, the Celtics played like they were the champs. They did it on Red Auerbach’s court without their best player. It took a guy like Glen Davis ferociously manning up Tim Duncan on a national stage to finally open some eyes. Suffice to say they’re opened now. The Celtics went 7-2 without the league’s MVP and proved to everyone who was skeptical that they are more than the “Boston Three Party”. A good deal more.

3) Big Trades: The Lakers and Suns Shaq is back in the West and Kobe has a front court. Enough said. Okay, I’ll say more. Shaq is a man who likes to undertake missions. He handled business in Miami, and his presence brought the city sustained joy and a ring. Now he’s in Phoenix, trying to be the final piece on a team that has already been on the brink of a championship the last three years. As a keen auxiliary to Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, Shaq should be able to provide the Suns with what they need: a big man with championship experience who can guard the paint on defense, haul in rebounds and outlet the ball to Nash and the runnin’ Suns. In his ripening age Shaq has recognized he’s best suited as a facilitator for the stars around him, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost an ounce of his incomparable competitive edge.

As for Kobe, well he should at last be sufficiently sold on the intent of the Lakers to win now. By adding Pau Gasol to a front court that already featured an established veteran in Lamar Odom and a rising big man in Andrew Bynum (who has been under the tutelage of one Kareem Abdul Jabbar for some time), Kobe has what he’s wanted since he ran Shaq out of town four years ago. That’s three guys at or around seven feet, each possessing distinct low post capabilities. However, the Lakers have serious health issues to cope with. Kobe has torn ligaments in his pinkie finger, which mean either surgery (and 6-8 weeks on the sideline) or playing through pain. If Kobe can fight through it and Bynum comes back healthy, the Lakers will be a bona fide contender. I still see them a year removed that status. Regardless, Suns-Lakers in round two this year would definitely be must-see television.

4) Contenders! As I wrote above, there are nine legitimate contenders this year, or about seven and half more than usual. In the East, the Celtics have the pieces and chemistry to win it all. The Pistons have a nucleus that has done it before. In the West, the Spurs remain the team to beat. The Lakers have been a thorn in the side of San Antonio, preventing them from reaching true-dynasty status. The Suns are the hungriest team in the West, and with a little diesel power they could be motoring towards a championship. The cohabitation (which is an understatement) of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony has the Nuggets straight chillin’ and waiting for their shot. The Mavericks might have wasted their opportunity two years ago, but after last year’s debacle, I wouldn’t count Dirk out just yet. The Hornets are onto something down in the Big Easy. And the Jazz, led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, showed they were on their way to the next level by making a run to the Western Finals last year.

So there it is. The NBA is back. The NBA is fun again. The NBA cares.

(And David Stern didn’t even have to break out the mind control device.)

18-1

Football has a knack for defining its most indefinable in the simplest of fashions. The Catch. The Drive. The Fumble. The Tackle. Minus the article, each exists merely as a single inherent, fundamental aspect of the game. Add the article and you get four of the of the most miraculous happenings in NFL history. The Catch propelled the 49ers to the first of their four Super Bowls led by Joe Montana. The Drive and The Fumble, endured by the Browns at the hands of the Broncos in successive AFC Championships, still haunt the city of Cleveland. And The Tackle of Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line by Rams linebacker Mike Jones, solidified “The Greatest Show on Turf”. Other than The Immaculate Reception, I can’t think of one history-changing play that stands out both in significance and formal historic title.

I guess what I’m trying to say is before this week I’d never really understood why football always seemed to qualify its most cherished and improbable moments in such a nuts and bolts kind of way. Then, in the five days following Super Bowl XLII, I found myself waking up everyday thinking about one thing–That Play. I would see Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour with Eli Manning in their mitts, see Eli yank himself away, cock back and throw–knowing that with all that time the Giants receivers must have gotten behind the Patriots secondary–then see Rodney Harrison actually there. There to make a play that he makes, almost snapping the back bone of David Tyree as he wrestles him to the ground. Yet somehow the ball rests between Tyree’s hand and his helmet; the only part of his person not in violent contortion as a result of Harrison’s hit. Everything hits the ground. Except the ball. The catch has been made. That Play has happened. Except it doesn’t strike me. It doesn’t compute. Everything we’ve been through. Everything they’ve been through. It all vanishes with one epic play.

Only when I was able to comprehend That Play itself did I finally realize why football needs no poetry to capture its greatest happenings. They capture themselves. That’s the beauty of the NFL Playoffs, of the game of football: It’s simplicity. One chunk of sixty minutes will determine a winner and a loser. There is no championship series; no losing home field but still having a shot on the road; no regrouping after a total brain fart. In football, tomorrow exists not as another opportunity but as a finality. It’s hard to believe that on the first “tomorrow” after the 2007 NFL season, the perfect-Patriots were suddenly the defeated-Patriots. It took them 18 games and five months to gain monolithic status, something that could only be substantiated by their unprecedented 18-0 record. And it took sixty minutes to wipe it all away.

The writing was on the wall. Books by the Boston Herald and Boston Globe chronicling the historic 19-0 Patriots. A victory parade in the works for Super Tuesday (Boston.com story). A celebrity girlfriend in attendance. An ankle injury dismissed as another insignificant speed bump in the slow but sure trek to immortality. By the time the confetti was falling in Glendale, all had become terrible omens. When the confetti arrived, the book disappeared. So too did the map of the parade route. And while we won’t ever know for sure just how ominous Gisele’s presence was, or more importantly, how severe Brady’s ankle injury was, we fell into the trap. Might as well call it the perfect trap.

I remember hearing about the book and the parade sometime during Super Bowl week, and how briefly, a chill ran down the back of my spine. I recalled how during the Patriots first Super Bowl run, the Steelers were handing out Super Bowl tickets before the AFC Championship and St. Louis was planning championship festivities before they had even lined up against New England. I remember how I scoffed at the time. The parallels between the 2001 Patriots and 2007 Giants (not to mention the teams they were facing as well as the grandeur of their fan bases) had already been well established. You know where the parallels ended? At Brady and Belichick’s perfect 3-0 record in Super Bowls as the platform on which 18-0 stood. Thus the trap had been set.

There was to be no wavering. The outcome, although most critical, seemed most obvious. It was obvious because of 3-0 and 18-0, because of the swagger that went along with those unblemished marks, because of the bitter feelings of resentment that had stemmed from CameraGate, because of the fact that anyone tied to the Patriots was up against everyone else. In Week 2 a line was drawn in the sand. On one side were the Patriots, led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, followed by their supporters. On the other side was everyone else, led by Eric Mangini, Mercury Morris and (evidently) Arlen Specter. As time passed and wins mounted, the divide only grew wider; the respective feelings only became harsher.

Like it often does in football, it all became personal. It still is. Will always be. However, That Play happened. That Play threw history off its axis. At this moment past and future mean nothing. Right now, the Giants are champions and the ’72 Dolphins are the only perfect team in football history.

As for everyone on the “enemy side” of that line in the sand–coaches, players, fans, writers alike–it is now bitingly clear that for all of us, pride came before the fall. The 2007 Patriots finished 18-1 and will be remembered as the greatest failure in football history.

Super Bowl Thoughts and THE XLII PICK

I rarely moan and groan, and when I choose to do so it is always about one thing. Access. Or my general lack thereof. Regrettably, being founder, editor, and sole writer of Ballgamespoints.com doesn’t qualify me for access to Super Bowl Week. There were approximately 5,000 media credentials issued for Media Day XLII, going to everyone ranging from a 9-year-old kid probably skipping a test on the times-tables to a striking Mexican TV reporter sporting a wedding gown and using the platform to propose to Tom Brady. And every other conceivable character in between. Nothing for me though. Bollocks. So here I am again, digesting the buildup to the big game from my cove in Brooklyn. But don’t stop reading; I’m not about to unleash a thousand fuming words illustrating my displeasure. I’ll spare you the tirade awash in vitriol and sulk. Just know it’s in there, festering. That makes me feel better.

What I will use this column as is a way of figuring out what exactly I’m going to do for the game, which I haven’t yet decided. The field has been narrowed to two choices. I can either A) go to Boston, watch the Pats with my Boston friends on a 62-incher, and pour into the streets of Beantown after the rebirth of a dynasty, or B) go to Staten Island, watch the game on a TV of comparable girth with my New York crew, and run the risk of being maimed. True, the answer seems obvious enough, but don’t jump to premature conclusions. There are pros and cons that go with each scenario.

Boston first. No doubt, being in Boston for a championship is wicked awesome. I was there for the Patriots’ second Super Bowl triumph. The venue was my buddy’s apartment at BU. After Vinatieri kicked the game-winner, we joined a couple thousand BU kids in a march down Comm Ave toward Kenmore Square, the de facto centre of celebration post-Boston championships. When we got there we were met by tens of thousands more, who we joined forces with to turn the gateway of Fenway into a massive rave of champions. Small fires produced pockets of primitive light, surrounded by boozed-up Bostonians and college kids. Lamp posts were climbed and conquered by the boldest; these revelers relished their moment above the masses by firing up cigars and belting out unintelligible cries of victory. Chants of “Let’s Go Red Sox” echoed from North Station to Copley Square. But the real party raged in the shadows of the edifice that had left Boston feeling hollow every autumn for 86 years. With the Red Sox (at the time…) continuing to tear the hearts out of their faithful, watching the Patriots had become a therapeutic practice for all us starving New England sports fans. They helped us channel our passion and anguish. In the almost-four months subsequent to the Grady Little-Pedro-Game 7 debacle, the Patriots didn’t lose once. Hence the culmination in Kenmore.

So how can I possibly find a “con” in that scenario? For better or worse, the sports fervor in Boston undoubtedly boils over when a team wins a title. And the night I’m referencing pretty much started that trend. By the time the waves of SWAT personnel occupied the bridge over the Massachusetts Turnpike (which separates Fenway from Kenmore), it was clear that dispersing the masses of people in the square, all full of bravado and cheap beer, would be a challenge. The cops, clad in their riot control gear, stood at attention. The masses continued to taunt the law until our collective sinuses informed us that a huge cloud of pepper spray (or some irritant of the kind) was hanging overhead. Then the SWAT line started its advance. Move or be moved. Most moved. Some were moved. I woke up the next day feeling exhilarated and relieved. Exhilarated that my Patriots were again world champs; relieved that I wasn’t one of the few hundred to spend a bruised-up night in the clink. Wild times. Times that I relived the next year when the Sox finally won the World Series. So you see? I’ve been there, done that, and at the time had that cloak of invincibility better known as college student-status.

Now I’m knee deep in the “real world”, attempting to make it in the field of sportswriting. And I’ll tell you something. The only thing better than having been in Boston for those two defining moments was being in New York for the 2004 ALCS (Games 4-7 that is). I gained an immense amount of perspective into the psyches of the sports fans in this city, because for once, they revealed something other than obtuse superiority (yes, I’m speaking to you, Yankee fans). Even better is the fact that with multiple teams in each sport, cross-sport affiliations aren’t set in stone. I have one buddy who is a Yankees/Giants fan; another who supports the Mets/Jets combo; another yet who bleeds Mets and Giants; and rounding out the bunch, one guy who has undying love for the Yankees and whichever team Michael Vick will be on come Madden 2010. An eccentric bunch, these New Yorkers.

Which brings us full circle, back to “Super Bowl Scenario B”. All of the previously mentioned characters will be at Cotter’s (aka Mr. Mets/Giants) domicile on Staten Island, where a fully stocked bar and an assortment of Chinese appetizers are promised. Not to mention a sporting experience that will clearly shape the near future. If the Giants win, I will never, ever, ehhhhhhhhver hear the end of it, so I might as well be there for the beginning. And if the Patriots win, after dusting off the shards from the plate glass window I get jettisoned through, I’ll have to find a way to exit good ole S.I. without incurring further damage. Either way, it’s a story waiting to be written. And while the story of taking in a title in Boston will never get old, I’ve already lived it twice, and have just written about it. So I think the debate is resolved. For XLII, it will be the Island of Staten. As for the game itself…

THE XLII PICK

For the record, I’m 7-3 this postseason. More importantly, I’m 4-1 in games which involved the Patriots and Giants, with my first “L” coming after I picked Green Bay in the NFC Championship. (As for that someone who’s 5-0, please make yourself known; I’ll give you your own paragraph.) Because I live in New York and love the Patriots, I can count on one hand the number of combined Giants/Patriots games I’ve missed this year. Which is to say I know these teams, know them better than any two teams in the NFL. I will allow that before Week 17 I made a gross misstep in my assertion that Tom Coughlin would be crazy to risk injury to his starters by playing them against the Patriots in a meaningless game. While they did lose three key guys in the loss, that game unequivocally lifted the team to a higher place, beginning first and foremost with Eli Manning. There is simply no other way to explain and/or justify winning three road games and dethroning three NFC division champions in the playoffs. That is the G-Men’s claim to fame summed up. They almost beat the Patriots, used the loss as a watershed moment in which potential was realized, and have steamrolled the competition ever since. They are prepared, focused and confident. They have walked the walk.

Unfortunately for the Giants, in Super Bowl XLII they will not be facing the 2006 Colts or the 2003 Patriots or even the 2000 Ravens (who dismantled the last Giants outfit to make the Super Bowl). Those are three of the great championship teams of the last decade. Three title-winning teams that may have seen their own destinies altered if they ran into these ’07 Giants. No, they’re not playing one of those teams. They’re playing the 2007 Patriots, the first group of professional football players to sit at 18-0; the first squad to be both undefeated and slighted; the only team that could claim to be on a mission that trumps the mission of these G-Men. In its NFL standings section this year, the New York Post stuck an asterisk next to the Patriots name every week, which correlated to a phrase at the bottom of the page: caught cheating. The Patriots are determined to maintain that asterisk forever, except with a different phrase to interpret it: only 19-0 team in football history. Damned if the Colts, Eagles, Ravens, Jaguars or Chargers were going to thwart them. Same for the Giants a month ago. Like those before and after them, the Giants smelled blood, Patriots blood, but couldn’t seal the deal.

There’s only one way the Giants can hope to put themselves back in that position: get to Brady. Get to him early and often. Get to him in the huddle, before the snap, after the whistle. Get to him in his sleep Saturday night. If the Giants want to stand a chance, they better understand that anything short of a total incursion on Tom Brady will lead to their downfall. But let’s face it. That won’t happen. The Patriots have come too far. They’ve had a vendetta to settle since their collapse in the AFC Championship last year in Indy, since Eric Mangini blew the whistle on CameraGate in Week 2. Each victory has gotten tougher, but so too has their resolve. When other teams have sniffed blood, the Patriots have sniffed immortality, yet refused to let it faze or distract them. They are out to prove Mangini is a traitorous rat. They are itching to huff and puff and blow down the neighborhood of Mercury Morris and the rest of those loony ’72 Dolphins. They have played 18 one-game seasons to get here. Football may be a business, but winning football games has become the business of the New England Patriots. That job ends Sunday night.

Patriots 30 Giants 24