INDIANAPOLIS - Heartache in the heartland.
It was there. Everything was in place. The Patriots were favored in Super Bowl XLVI and we were ready to anoint Bill Belichick best coach ever, while boosting Tom Brady to the top of the all-time quarterback list.
The Patriots led the Giants by 2 points with less than four minutes to play.
But then it all came apart under the man-made sky of Lucas Oil Stadium, 6 miles from the magic gym where “Hoosiers’’ was shot.
Four years after watching their perfect season implode in the desert of Glendale, Ariz., the Patriots were again beaten in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants, this time by a score of 21-17.
It was excruciating. The Patriots led, 17-15, with 3:46 remaining when Eli Manning took over on his 12-yard line. After a season of bending-but-not breaking, the Patriots’ defense finally cracked. Jump-started by a sensational 38-yard catch by Mario Manningham (this year’s David Tyree), Manning moved the Giants 88 yards in nine plays. Playing the odds, and the clock, the Patriots lay down and waved Ahmad Bradshaw into the end zone on a second-and-goal from the 6-yard line with 57 seconds left to play.
How’s that for irony? The Patriots intentionally allowed the Giants to score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
So instead of a fourth Super Bowl victory since 2001, the Patriots have two straight last-minute losses to the Giants.
Instead of Tom Brady winning his third Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning won his second.
It was Goober over Glamour.
Tom Coughlin beat Bill Belichick.
New York beat Boston.
“We just didn’t make enough plays,’’ said Brady. “It came down to the fourth quarter. They made some plays at the end that allowed them to win the game . . . But I’d rather come to this game and lose than not get here.’’
Curses. Is this some sort of cosmic payback for what the Red Sox did to the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series?
In 2008 we saw a game-clinching interception sail through the hands of Asante Samuel. Last night it was Wes Welker dropping a Brady pass that would have effectively guaranteed victory for the Patriots.
In 2008 we saw Tyree make his ridiculous velcro-helmet catch when all seemed lost for the Giants. This time it was Manningham reeling in a 38-yard pass Manning threw to start the winning drive.
So close. So many times. The Patriots were inches from a clean getaway in two Super Bowls and have nothing to show for it.
Belichick is not a man given to hyperbole, but this 2011-12 team had a chance to be his masterpiece. Short on talent, particularly on defense, these Patriots were a raft of street free agents and marginal talents. Belichick used 16 defensive backs to get to the Super Bowl, then came within one minute of winning.
Brady was on a mission. He was unhappy with his play in the AFC Championship game and had not gotten over the last Super Bowl loss, which stripped the 2007-08 Patriots of immortality.
The Patriots fell behind, 9-0. An intentional grounding penalty on Brady (he threw the ball away while under pressure from his end zone) gave the Giants a 2-0 lead, then Manning drove the Giants 78 yards on nine plays, connecting with Victor Cruz on a 2-yard touchdown pass. Manning completed his first nine passes. The Patriots possessed the football for eight seconds of the first 11:36. New England had one offensive play to New York’s 19. It looked as if it might be a Giant blowout.
The Patriots got off the schneid, drove to the Giants’ 11 and settled for a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
The Belichickmen you have grown to know and love finally showed up at the end of the first half, just as they always do. Taking over on his 4-yard line, Brady completed 10 straight passes, moving the team 96 yards in 3:55, capping the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead.
Madonna’s halftime show was all smoke and mirrors, but effective; a perfect metaphor for the Patriots’ first half.
After the interminable break, the Patriots came out and drove 79 yards in eight plays, taking a 17-9 lead on Brady’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. During the drive, Brady was 5 for 5, giving him 16 consecutive completions, erasing his idol Joe Montana’s Super Bowl record of 13 straight. It would be the Patriots’ final score of the night. New England’s explosive offense has scored an aggregate 31 points in two Super Bowls against the Giants.
The Giants clawed back with a pair of field goals (38, then 33 yards) by Lawrence Tynes to cut New England’s lead to 17-15 at the end of the third quarter.
It was Game On for Super Bowl XLVI.
Brady (27 of 41 passing for 276 yards) did not have a good fourth quarter. He was intercepted, and threw a couple of passes to the wrong side of his receivers, most notably the second-and-11 pass that Welker almost came up with. A completion would have changed everything. But the ball was not thrown well.
“It’s one of those plays I’ve made a thousand times,’’ said a teary-eyed Welker. “Just didn’t make it . . . It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don’t come up with it. It’s discouraging. Most critical situation and I let the team down.’’
Still, the Patriots were looking good after a punt when Manning took over on his 12-yard line with 3:46 left.
That’s when the season-long suspect Patriots’ defense reared its ugly head.
Manning went for a long ball on the first play and connected with Manningham on a sensational sideline pass play. The Patriots reviewed the completion, but it was upheld.
Two minutes later, the Patriots fell down on purpose and let the Giants score a touchdown. It was their only chance.
“Ball was inside the 10-yard line, a 90 percent field goal conversion,’’ said Hoodie.
The final drive saw the Patriots get to midfield. There was almost a miracle on the final play, but three Giants defenders lined up in front of Aaron Hernandez on the Hail Mary and batted the ball to the ground, inches from Rob Gronkowski’s outstretched arms.
“We kept fighting to the end,’’ said Brady. “If we make that last play, we’re world champions.’’
When the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins visited the White House Jan. 23, President Obama said, “The Bruins, the Sox, the Celtics, now the Patriots. Enough already, Boston. What’s going on?’’
Nothing, Mr. President. Nothing at all. After a decade of dominance, New England seems to be shifting back toward the Big Middle. The Bruins have been in a midseason slump. The Celtics are calcifying before our eyes. The Red Sox are pinching pennies, falling further behind their rivals in the American League. And the Patriots have lost two straight Super Bowls in the final minute against the New York Football Giants.
Instead of celebrating a grand slam - championships in every major sport over a period of four years and four months - New Englanders are spitting out pieces of their broken luck, bracing for the avalanche of grief from those annoying New Yorkers.