All season long, the issues infiltrated the mind as if part of some impossible brain teaser. The Patriots often looked inept against the pass. They didn’t beat anybody. They don’t run consistently. They can’t throw outside the numbers.
And yet, Bill Belichick and his charges find themselves faced with a rather familiar predicament, only the New York Giants now standing between the Patriots and further immortality.
The imperfect season.
Flustered and confounded by a poised Baltimore Ravens defense that held Tom Brady without a touchdown pass in a postseason game for the first time since January 2002 - remember the time? - the Patriots pulled out a 23-20 victory in the AFC Championship yesterday in a game nothing short of thrilling. Maybe the Patriots got a little lucky. Maybe their defense is crystallizing at just the right time. Maybe they are destined to avenge the defeat that took place four years ago in the Arizona desert, where the Giants claimed a 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII that brought a devastating end to New England’s attempt at an unprecedented 19-0 season.
A victory in two weeks will not rewrite history, but it will at least change it a little.
“It wasn’t always perfect,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick fittingly told reporters following his team’s win over the Ravens. “But [Patriots players] fought to the final gun and we came out on top.”
Indeed, even now, it would be fair to ask the following question: just how have the Patriots pulled this off? During the regular season, the Patriots defense ranked 15th in the league in scoring, 31st in yardage and 28th on third down. The Patriots allowed 4.6 yards per rush (24th) and 13 rushing touchdowns (19th). And they did it all against a schedule stuffed with styrofoam peanuts, tissue paper and bubble wrap.
Until yesterday, in fact, the Patriots had not beaten a single team that finished the 2011 regular season with a winning record.
All together now: So what?
Of course, critics of the Giants would be wise to point out that New York finished the regular season at an astonishingly mediocre 9-7, though there is just one small problem: at the moment, head coach Tom Coughlin has his team playing better than just about anybody. In their last five games - all must-wins - the Giants have a claimed a 29-14 win over the New York Jets and a 31-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys as well as postseason victories over the Atlanta Falcons (24-2), Green Bay Packers (37-20) and the San Francisco 49ers (20-17, in overtime, in last night’s NFC Championship game.) This season, the Giants have toppled the top two seeds in the NFC (the Packers and Niners) as well as the top seed in the AFC (the Patriots), winning all three games on the road.
At their best, the Giants have all the elements to beat any team in football. They can run. They can throw. They have a dominating defensive line that can generate pressure without blitzing, allowing their linebackers and defensive backs to clog passing lanes and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
And they have a coach in Tom Coughlin who has outwitted Belichick before.
But again, as we have learned in the past, all of this is nothing more than meaningless backdrop for a game that will stand on its own in less than two weeks.
If you are a Patriots fan - regardless of whether you embrace this second chance against the Giants - there is suddenly a great deal to feel good about. Ever since that loss to New York in Super Bowl XLII, New England’s equilibrium has been disrupted. The Patriots have been skewed too heavily on the offensive side of the ball, too reliant on Brady, with whom almost all of their fortunes rested. For the last four years, New England generally has won the higher-scoring games and lost the lower-scoring ones. They have gone as Brady has gone. Until yesterday, New England had not won a regular-season game in which Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass since 2007, another instructive piece of information.
The last time Brady won a playoff game without throwing a touchdown pass was in 2002, when the Patriots won the Super Bowl. The last time they won any game in which he didn’t throw a touchdown pass was in 2007, when they reached the Super Bowl. The obvious lesson is that one man cannot get you to the big game all by himself, no matter how accomplished, no matter how gifted.
Ask Dan Marino about this. Or John Elway. Heck, ask Peyton Manning, whose only Super Bowl championship came during a postseason in which he threw three touchdown passes and seven interceptions over four games while posting an aggregate quarterback rating of 70.5.
For that matter, ask Eli Manning, who now has taken his team to as many Super Bowls as his far more celebrated brother.
All of this brings us back to yesterday and the Patriots’ ability to persevere despite, based on rating, the second-worst postseason game of Brady’s career. (The other also came against the Ravens, in 2009) What we learned yesterday is that Vince Wilfork might mean as much or more to this Patriots team as Brady does, that Sterling Moore can make a difference, that BenJarvus Green-Ellis has his place, too. We learned that even teams like the Giants need help, most notably in the form of two turnovers by a punt returner (San Francisco’s Kyle Williams) who single-handedly undermined the performance of a defense that is downright suffocating.
We learned, quite simply, that you don’t need to be perfect to win a Super Bowl.
In fact, in some ways, the imperfect ones can be even more rewarding.