It was somewhat fitting that New England's march to a 16-0 season came down to the team's biggest comeback of the year and wasn't finalized until Mike Vrabel recovered New York's onside kick attempt with just more than a minute to play in the 38-35 victory at Giants Stadium.
Three Tom Brady kneel-downs later and Bill Belichick's team could officially celebrate the perfect season. The topic that the team had long done its best to ignore now took center stage.
"That was some way to finish the season tonight," Belichick said in his postgame press conference, addressing the media after a lengthy celebration with his historic team in the visitor's locker room. "It's really exciting to be a part of this football team and what these guys did today. All the credit goes to the players. They stepped up and made a lot of outstanding plays at critical times in the game, especially in the second half and in the fourth quarter. They came through like they have all year."
The Patriots had to come through in the second half because New York did anything but lay down in the season finale. For all the talk of either or both teams sitting starters with history on the line, the game ended up being a hard-fought battle between the teams' top talent that came down to the final few plays.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is lifted in the air by his teammates Logan Mankins (70) and Russ Hochstein, left, after Brady threw a 65-yard touchdown to Randy Moss in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2007. Brady broke the single-season record with his 50th touchdown pass and Moss broke the single season-record with his 23rd touchdown reception on the play. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
The Giants took the lead 7-0 in the first quarter on a seven-play, 74-yard drive, making it clear that Tom Coughlin's team wasn't resting in preparation for an upcoming wild-card playoff game in Tampa. New York also led 21-16 at halftime as the Patriots uncharacteristically settled for a trio of Stephen Gostkowski field goals on first-half scoring opportunities.
The home team then established the biggest lead for any Patriots opponent by forcing a New England punt and marching to Plaxico Burress' second touchdown of the game to take a 28-16 lead early in the second half.
But with Don Shula and the '72 Dolphins somewhere chilling champagne and the Patriots backs up against the wall, New England pulled out another of the comebacks that became surprisingly common over the final month-plus of the season.
Still trailing 28-23 with slightly more than 11 minutes to play, Brady just missed on a play-action bomb to Randy Moss, who he'd connected with on a first-quarter score to tie the NFL records for both touchdown passes (49) and receptions (22) in a season. Surprisingly, the pair got a do-over on the following snap as Moss again broke free down the right sideline, this time Brady hit him in stride for a 65-yard touchdown that (with an ensuing Laurence Maroney two-point play) gave the Patriots the 31-28 lead while simultaneously putting the two players' names atop the record books.
"To be honest, I suggested that. I really did. I really suggested that," Moss said about him and Brady splitting the ball in half. Tommy was telling me, 'No, you keep it.' Well, we both did it. 'I give my kids one half, and you give your son the other half.' I really don't know what we're going to do with the ball. I'm very blessed and fortunate to be in this position to be able to go out and do what I love to do, and that's play football. There's certain things in life that you don't want to pass up, and this was an opportunity that I didn't want to pass up. Becoming a New England Patriot and playing some real heads-up championship-caliber football not only towards the end of the season, but at the beginning, the middle and the end. Now that the regular season is over, hopefully we can continue but at the same time pick up the pace a little bit."
Maroney would add his second touchdown and the Giants would keep things interesting with their own fourth-quarter TD, but when Lawrence Tynes' onside attempt landed harmlessly with Vrabel, history could finally recognize the Patriots as the first and only team to ever complete the perfect 16-0 season.
"I think what you saw was Patriots football," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It's what I'm used to. I've never been used to those 52-14s or anything like that. That's new to me. This is what I'm used to. These are the games I'm used to winning."
Although, don't expect the Patriots to savor this victory for long. There is still a lot of work for New England to accomplish its ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl and the players know it.
"We've got to move on because we realize we have bigger goals to accomplish," Bruschi said. "The tournament starts now."
--The Patriots have finished the 2007 regular season with a 16-0 record, becoming the first NFL team to have an undefeated regular season since the league established a 16-game schedule in 1978. New England has joined the 1972 Miami Dolphins (14-0), the 1942 Chicago Bears (11-0) and the 1934 Chicago Bears (13-0) as the only teams in the NFL's 88-season history to complete an undefeated regular season.
--On Randy Moss' four-yard touchdown reception from Tom Brady in the second quarter, the Patriots set an NFL record for most points scored in a season. Following the touchdown, the Patriots had scored 561 points in 2007, topping the old record of 556 points scored by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. The Patriots finished the game with a total of 589 points, for an average of 36.81 points per game. New England's 36.81 points per game rank second in league history, trailing only the 38.83 points per game scored by the 1950 Los Angeles Rams (466 points in a 12-game season). New England's final 2007 scoring differential was plus-315 (589 points scored, 274 points allowed), topping the previous league record of plus-292, achieved by the 1942 Chicago Bears (376 points scored, 84 points allowed in an 11-game season).
--On a 65-yard scoring pass to Moss in the fourth quarter -- his 50th touchdown pass of the season -- Brady set an NFL single-season touchdown pass record. He finished the 2007 regular season with a total of 50 touchdown passes. Brady eclipsed the previous record of 49 scoring passes in a season, set by Indianapolis' Peyton Manning in 2004. Earlier in the game, Brady tied Manning's mark on a four-yard scoring pass to Moss. Entering this season, Brady's previous single-season career best was 28 touchdown passes, achieved in 2002 and 2004. Prior to this year, the Patriots' single-season touchdown pass record was 31, achieved by Vito "Babe" Parilli in 1964. Brady passed Parilli's previous team mark on Nov. 4 at Indianapolis.
--With his 65-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter -- his 23rd scoring catch of the year -- Moss set an NFL single-season touchdown reception record. He finished the 2007 regular season with 23 touchdown catches. Moss passed the previous record of 22 touchdown receptions, set by San Francisco's Jerry Rice in 1987. Earlier in the game, he tied Rice's mark on a four-yard scoring catch in the second quarter. Entering this season, Moss' previous single-season career best was 17 touchdown catches, achieved in 2003 and 1998 with the Minnesota Vikings. Prior to this year, the Patriots' single-season touchdown catch record was 12, achieved by Stanley Morgan in 1979. Moss passed Morgan's previous team mark on Nov. 18 at Buffalo.
--On a 14-yard reception in the first quarter -- his first catch of the game and his 102nd catch of the season -- Wes Welker set the Patriots' single-season receptions record, passing Troy Brown's mark of 101 receptions in 2001. Welker finished the regular season with a total of 112 receptions. Entering this season, Welker's previous single-season career high was 67 receptions, achieved in 2006 with the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots acquired Welker via a trade with the Dolphins on March 5, 2007 in exchange for a second-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft (60th overall) and a seventh-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft (238th overall).
--"Well, I think Coach has kept us pretty grounded. He's not so concerned with records and stuff like that. He's most concerned with us putting our best out there each week. The veterans have responded and brought some of the younger guys along, and they've played well. It's really been a group team-type effort. Some days the offense has played really well, and some days the defense had really played well. I'm just glad we did enough to win today. Mike (Vrabel) getting the ball there at the end on the onside kick, I was standing right there, and I was pretty excited for a regular-season game." -- Tom Brady, on going undefeated.
Official Game Thread: Patriots vs Giants (Pats site)