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.