INDIANAPOLIS -- The Patriots didn’t lose Super Bowl XLVI. The more talented team won it.
You can blame Tom Brady (27 of 41, 276 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) for his throw to nowhere that resulted in a safety. You can blame Wes Welker, who was absolutely crestfallen in the postgame press area, for not hauling in a crucial catch with four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
You can blame a substitution snafu and the football gods for not allowing any of the Giants’ three fumbles to end up as Patriots turnovers. You can blame Bernard Pollard for injuring Rob Gronkowski in the AFC title game and forcing him to play the Super Bowl with a left ankle the size of a cement mixer.
All played a part in the Patriots’ lump-in-throat 21-17 defeat to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, a Hoosier House of Horrors in which New England has never won (0-3). Hoosier Hospitality is more like Hoosier Fatality for the Patriots. In the end, the Giants’ wealth of talent prevailed over the Patriots’ pluck and attention to detail.
The play of the game was a great 38-yard sideline catch by Mario Manningham, the Giants’ third wide receiver. The Giants have two receivers better than a guy who makes that catch? Yep. New York has an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball. When they decided to start the game with Jason Pierre-Paul at right defensive end that turned Osi Umenyiora into a backup.
How this Giants team went 9-7, even with injuries, is one of the great mysteries of our time.
Conversely, Patriots coach/chessmaster Bill Belichick squeezed every last ounce of talent out of his roster this year, like someone determined not to throw out a toothpaste tube until it’s been drained of every dollop. The Sterling Moores and Antwaun Moldens and James Ihedigbos, all of whom were discarded by other teams before landing in New England’s Island of Misfit Toys secondary, took his coaching and maximized their talent. But they had and have football glass ceilings.
This wasn’t Super Bowl XLII, when the Patriots didn’t show up for their own coronation. The Patriots played hard. They played well. They lost to a team with more playmakers and thus more margin for error.
They expended all their energy and all their talent.
“We gave everything we could,” said Brady. “Coach Belichick, I know he coaches us every day, puts a lot of pressure on us. Guys really responded. It just wasn’t our day.”
Belichick adored this team. There is a special place under his hoodie for this overachieving group. That was obvious after their win in Philadelphia, where he commented about how he wasn’t an easy guy to play for. It was apparent last night when he didn’t harp on missed opportunities or mistakes, but applauded his team’s effort.
“Can’t fault the effort of any of our players,” said Belichick. “They played as hard as they could. We could have just played a tiny bit better.”
You sensed Belichick felt he owed it to this team to give them a proper eulogy, not his usual laconic post-game observations.
“I have a lot of respect for this team. I’m proud of this team. I’m proud to be the coach of this team,” said Belichick. “I’m proud of the way they fought and performed all year. They gave their best tonight. It was just short by not very much, but we were short.”
Belichick knew the truth. That his team gave him everything it had. They just ran into a deeper, more talented football team that was equally as well-prepared.
During their 10-game win streak the Patriots got a few breaks from their opponents -- ill-timed penalties, missed throws, odd coaching decisions, opposing player mental mistakes. New England didn’t get any of those fortuitous plays last night.
The lesson from last night is that Belichick and Brady didn’t win three Super Bowls in the aughts on their own. It wasn’t just about the coach and the quarterback. It was about the team: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Troy Brown, etc.
The charge and challenge for Belichick is to now go out and strengthen his roster, to add impact players defensively in the front seven and the secondary. He must find a young pass rusher like Aldon Smith of the 49ers or Von Miller of the Broncos.
The Giants are proof that the best defense in today’s defense-discriminatory NFL is to harass the quarterback. The playoffs proved that the old bromide about defense and champions still holds true. The three top offenses in the league, New Orleans, New England and Green Bay -- also the bottom three pass defense teams in the league -- all ended up trophy-less.
Offensively, the lack of a vertical threat caught up with the Patriots. Their longest completion of the night was a 21-yarder to Chad Ochocinco. It was telling that on the two deep balls that Brady threw, the interception on a bomb to Gronkowski and the Hail Mary at the end, he was targeting his tight ends.
A receiver who can stretch defenses is a must to take some of the pressure off of Brady, who has to play nearly flawless football for the Patriots to win. The Brady Blame Game has become an annual ritual of Patriots’ playoff defeats, and it’s a little unfair.
“We really didn’t make any big plays,” said Brady, who set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions. “You need those methodical drives. We put together a few of them. We just couldn’t put together enough of them.”
The 2011 Patriots had the heart of a champion, but they won’t have the hardware to show for it.
They lost out in Super Bowl XLVI because talent won out.