EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Patriots started their season with a 38-14 victory at Giants Stadium Sept. 9. Last night, 112 days later, they ended it with a win at Giants Stadium, perfect symmetry for a perfect regular season.
By dispatching the New York Giants, 38-35, the Patriots produced the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history - the league switched to 16 games in 1978 - and became just the fourth team in league history to go through the regular season undefeated, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears.
History met destiny in New Jersey, as the Patriots set numerous records on their way to 16-0.
Tom Brady (32 of 42 for 356 yards) threw two touchdown passes, both to Randy Moss, to set the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season with 50. Moss’s two TD receptions gave him an NFL-record 23, topping the mark of Jerry Rice, who had 22 in 12 games in the 1987 strike-shortened season.
The Patriots scored 589 points in the season, surpassing the 1998 Minnesota Vikings record of 556.
It was all enough to bring a smile to the normally stoic Bill Belichick, who was beaming afterward.
“I’m happy,” said Belichick. “I’m happy because you work all year to try to win every game and to be able to win them all is great. I’m very happy about it.”
The 79,110 in attendance witnessed history and a heck of a football game, but the Giants did all they could to end the Patriots pursuit of perfection.
Nobody said 16-0 was going to be easy, and it looked to be in serious trouble when Giants quarterback Eli Manning (22 of 32 for 251 yards, 4 TDs) hooked up with Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone on a 19-yard touchdown pass, giving the Giants a 28-16 lead with 9:12 left in the third quarter.
But Moss and Brady stepped up when it mattered most.
One play after a wide-open Moss dropped a Brady pass inside the Giants’ 20, Brady uncorked another deep toss to Moss. This one put them both in the record book and the Patriots back in the lead with 11:06 to go. The 65-yard strike gave Brady his 50th touchdown pass of the year and Moss his 23d TD reception.
Who got the record-breaking football? “I told him, `I’ll give one-half to my kids and you give the other half to your son,”’ said Moss.
The Patriots then pushed their advantage to 31-28, when Laurence Maroney squeezed in for the 2-point conversion.
On the Giants next possession, Ellis Hobbs intercepted Manning at the Patriots’ 48. Maroney (19 rushes for 46 yards) scored his second touchdown of the night, a 5-yard effort with 4:36 to go that gave the Patriots a 38-28 lead and a sigh of relief.
“Being down 12 in the second half, it was just a matter of time for something to happen,” said Moss, who had six catches for 100 yards and broke Stanley Morgan’s franchise record for receiving yards in a season, finishing with 1,493. “I call it a party. We started a party out there. Hats off to us. I know that a lot of people didn’t really think that we were going to do it, and a lot of people didn’t really want us to do it. In this game of football it’s hard being 16-0, so as a football player and a fan of the game, my hat goes off to us.”
Even though the playoff-bound Giants had nothing to play for, they weren’t eager to be a football footnote to history and came out fighting.
Hobbs described the game as having a playoff atmosphere.
Part of the Giants’ game plan was to bully the NFL bullies. They frustrated the Patriots with verbal salvos and borderline play. It worked in the first half.
The Patriots trailed at the half, 21-16, for only the second time all season, when Manning found tight end Kevin Boss for a 3-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left before halftime.
On the drive, the teams engaged in a scrum and linebacker Junior Seau was whistled for a delay-of-game penalty after holding down Boss after a 7-yard game.
The Patriots had taken a 16-14 lead with 1:59 left in the half on a 37-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, who connected three times in the first half.
The Giants set the tone for the night on the first possession, marching 74 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead. Brandon Jacobs capped the drive with a 7-yard touchdown catch, running over Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. The score was set up when Burress beat Hobbs for a 52-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage. 0
It was only the second time this season the Patriots allowed points on the opening drive. The first time came against the Pittsburgh Steelers Dec. 9.
The Patriots took their first lead of the game, 10-7, in record-setting fashion on the first play of the second quarter. Moss outjumped Giants cornerback Aaron Ross for a 4-yard score.
The touchdown allowed Moss to tie Rice’s NFL record, Brady to tie Peyton Manning’s season touchdown mark of 49 set in 2004, and the Patriots to surpass the NFL record for points in a season.
But Moss was whistled for a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration after spiking the ball - just two plays before his touchdown he had taken a forearm to the face from Giants safety Gibril Wilson.
On the ensuing kickoff, which came from the 15, Domenik Hixon raced 74 yards for a dubious New England first: the Patriots allowed their first kickoff return for a touchdown this season, erasing the short-lived lead.
But it was another first - 16-0 - that will be remembered forever.
“How does it feel when you’ve done something that’s never been done before?” said Bruschi. “I just know there is a really great sense of accomplishment in this locker room in every single player, from the guys who cover kicks to the guys who threw touchdown passes. It took everybody to accomplish this goal, every single person on this team, every single coach, and we’re going to take a couple of days to be proud of this accomplishment.”