It had to be this way.
Four years ago the Patriots played with fire in the desert and got burned. It only got worse after that.
Fans who watched Bernard Pollard crush Tom Brady’s knee before the 2008 season – ie the original Campaign of Revenge – had a heartbeat rightfully questioned whether they would ever again see Brady play for that stubbornly elusive fourth ring. Home playoff losses to the Ravens and Jets nudged that possibility closer to a reality.
Yet somehow, someway, on the strength of one of the least convincing and most peculiar 10-game win streaks one could possibly imagine, this latest Patriots installment has managed to claw its way to back to the big one. En route, Brady and Co. have snuffed out nearly every team that halted them in Januarys past.
And so we arrive in Indianapolis, the final stop on the Patriots Campaign of Revenge 2011. One last batch of demons to exorcise.
A Lombardi Trophy will go to the winner of Sunday night’s game, but it is what that trophy represents that sets Super Bowl XLVI apart from the others that have preceded it.
Back in early 2005, Brady had just led New England to its third title in four years. A 27-year-old, fourth-year starter, the former sixth-round pick could have decided to become a cabdriver and still would have been as ironclad of a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there ever was.
Fortunately, Brady stuck to the football thing, winning more in a 10-season span than any quarterback before him. Included in the run were four seasons of 14-plus victories (the other 31 teams combined had five in that span), nine AFC East titles, six AFC Championship games and, now, five Super Bowls.
Brady always talks about leaving points on the board, a perfectionist mentality that is no doubt also a metaphor for how he views his own career. Just how many wins – and titles – have been left on the board is a question that must both haunt and drive him.
From the Champ Bailey play in Denver in 2005, to Troy Brown running an out when he was supposed to run an in against the Colts in the AFC Championship in ’06, to the slew of plays the Patriots wish they had back in The One That Got Away in the desert four years ago …
That said, to scorn an ill-fated play is to defy the breaks of the game and bounces of the ball that make football such thrilling entertainment. It’s a little like moaning about missing the final Powerball number. It’s a tough break, for sure, but the ball still had to bounce the right way on the first five in order for you to have a chance at the jackpot.
For the Patriots, there was The Tuck Rule Game, without which there is no foundation on which a dynasty is built. There was Drew Bennett allowing a fourth-down catch to slip through his hands in the final minutes of a frigid and nail-biting divisional game against the Titans in 2004. And no one will soon forget the back-to-back stomach punches endured by the Ravens in the persons of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff two weeks ago.
The bounces of the ball went the Patriots’ way from 2001-04, and then not at all after that until recently. They’ve certainly aided the Giants, too, most notably this postseason in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, when the ball glanced off the knee of Niners return man Kyle Williams on a pivotal fourth-quarter punt with San Francisco leading, 14-10.
Had Williams steered clear of the football, the Patriots may well have been meeting the 49ers – a more favorable matchup than the Giants – in Super Bowl XLVI. As crazy as it sounds, snagging that seemingly unattainable fourth ring at the expense of San Francisco would have left something to be desired.
Brady has lost five games in 22 tries in his postseason career. One apiece to the Broncos, Colts, Giants, Ravens and Jets. In each of those instances of playoff failure, a team got the better of him on that day. But never twice. Brady beat Indy in 2003 and ’04, the Jets in ’06 and Denver and Baltimore last month.
That leaves but one vendetta to be waged.
What is often lost in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the 2007 season is how surreal the ride actually was until the very end. That outfit was, and will remain, one of the greatest of all time. But the reality is it cannot receive its rightful due until, and unless, Brady is able to snatch a ring away from the team that snatched immortality away from him.
By the time Sunday night turns in Monday morning, Brady’s legacy will be stamped. That is not to say the book is closed on the Patriots after Super Bowl XLVI. This New England team is going to get better before it gets worse.
However, for Brady, the book will essentially be closed. He will either have won his record-tying fourth Super Bowl by charging through the last remaining team with which he had a score to settle – and therefore finally elevate all the positives of the 18-1 season – or he will see his legend marked by a permanent asterisk. An asterisk denoting the fact that despite all the winning he has done (and will likely continue to do), all the records and all the history, there was one quarterback and one team that flat-out had his number.
Yes, the task is daunting. The stakes are seismic.
But just know. It had to be this way.