INDIANAPOLIS - Groundhog Day was last week, but for Tom Brady it was four years ago. Same opponent, same stakes, same outcome.
“We got to the 50-yard-line and just ran out of time,’’ the Patriots quarterback acknowledged last night after his all-or-nothing pass on the final play fell on the floor and let the Giants escape with a 21-17 victory in Super Bowl XLVI. “I threw a Hail Mary at the end. I’m not sure how close we were to getting it. Obviously, I wish we could have done a little bit more.’’
After five appearances in the sport’s ultimate game, Brady is less than two minutes from a record five rings.
Last time in Arizona, he had to watch Eli Manning drive his team down the field for the winning score in the final minute. Last night, it happened again and Brady was quick to give credit to his counterpart.
“Eli’s had a great season and he made some great throws there in the fourth quarter,’’ said Brady. “They deserved to win. They did a better job than we did.’’
In their last Super Bowl meeting it was David Tyree making a Velcro catch to keep the winning drive going. This time it was Mario Manningham pulling the thread through the needle and somehow keeping both feet in bounds with two defenders on him.
“That’s what it comes down to in football,’’ said Brady, who called it a phenomenal catch. “It’s one play. You look at our game four years ago and a miracle play that they make. Today, we had a chance to make one of those and didn’t come up with it. Either you make it and you celebrate, or if you don’t, you don’t sleep for a week.’’
If Brady had the ball in his hands longer than 23 minutes, New England might well have prevailed. He’d shrugged off a safety on his first play and brought his squad from a 9-0 deficit to a 17-9 lead with bookend touchdown passes to Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez on either side of halftime.
And if a wide-open Wes Welker hadn’t dropped the ball with barely four minutes to play, Brady might have been able to finish off the New Yorkers then. “He went up to try to make it, as he always does, and we just couldn’t connect,’’ said Brady. “He’s a hell of a player. I’ll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He’s a phenomenal player and teammate and I love that guy.’’
If it hadn’t been for the safety on the Patriots’ first possession, Brady might have only needed to get within field goal range on the final drive. But when he’d gunned the ball well downfield to avoid being sacked in his end zone, he was called for intentional grounding and gave up what turned out to be 2 precious points.
“I know it’s a referee’s judgment call,’’ Brady said. “I was looking down at the middle of the field. [Justin] Tuck was coming to get me and I tried to get rid of it and the ref made the call.’’
So with New England clinging to a 17-15 lead with 3:46 to play Brady once again had to play spectator, watching Manning dink his way downfield. To give his quarterback any chance to win, coach Bill Belichick had to concede a touchdown to Ahmad Bradshaw, who scored the most reluctant 6 points in championship history.
“I liked it,’’ Brady said of the decision. “It was better than not having a chance at all.’’
So New England got the ball back on its 20 with 57 seconds to play and one timeout left. “We were thinking that we still had a chance to go down the field and win the game, just like always,’’ said running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Brady had more time than he would have had but a bigger deficit to overcome.
“That was the whole deal, to have at least a 4-point lead,’’ said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. “When we had that, I felt a little bit better. [Brady] is so dangerous with the ball, you don’t know what to expect.’’
What nobody expected was that Brady’s glue-fingered receivers would keep dropping the ball, as Welker had on the previous drive. But Deion Branch, a former MVP, dropped Brady’s first offering on the final drive and Hernandez the next. After Tuck sacked him on third down, the Patriots had to burn their final timeout and Brady was down to his last play.
When he ducked around Jason Pierre-Paul and hit Branch for 19 yards on fourth and 16, there were 32 seconds left, enough time for Brady to craft his own miracle. A pass to Hernandez put the ball on the New England 44, but Brady had to burn a down with a spike to stop the clock. When the Giants left 12 men on the field, it gave Brady two second-down chances at midfield but, finally, too little time to more than throw and pray. “I was just holding my breath,’’ Giants receiver Victor Cruz confessed.
Hernandez went up as though he was a power forward trying to wrestle down a rebound, but there were too many white jerseys in his way.
So Manning won another MVP and Brady resigned himself to a week of insomnia.
“I’ll keep coming to this game,’’ he vowed. “I’d rather come to this game and lose than not get here.’’