Super Bowl XLII: So Much For Perfection

This wasn't the way the story was supposed to end. It was supposed to be the perfect season; an improbable run at history never seen before, and probably never seen again. Sometimes, things don't go according to plan.

In the end, New England's demise in Super Bowl XLII began on the opening play of their first drive of the game.

Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield hurried Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into an incompletion.

It seemed insignificant at the time, especially after Brady led the Patriots downfield for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead.

But after the confetti fell for the New York Giants after they upset the Patriots, 17-14, that's what most of the Patriots kept coming back to - the pass rush.

For the first time all season, Brady - who was sacked just 21 times in the regular season and just once by the Giants in their Week 17 meeting - found himself under serious duress.

By the time rookie tackle Jay Alford decleated the two-time Super Bowl MVP - a hit that drew plenty of "oohs" from the University of Phoenix Stadium crowd - in the final seconds, Brady was sacked five times and hurried nine other times.

"They had some great pressure schemes," Brady said. "Obviously some great pass rushers.

"We played them five weeks ago and it was a three-point game, and they made enough changes and really eliminated what we did offensively."

That pass rush made the difference in Super Bowl XLII.

All season Brady operated in an insular pocket, protected by a trio of Pro Bowl players. That pocket gave him time to pick apart defenses, as the Patriots scored 53 percent of the time the offense had the football, the top percentage in the NFL.

The Patriots set NFL records for most points (589) and most touchdowns (75).

On Sunday they scored 14 points - their worst total of the season by seven points. The Patriots hadn't scored under 20 points all season.

Brady finished the game 29-of-48 for 266 yards and a touchdown. But two numbers stuck out. Brady's longest completion of the night was 19 yards. He was never able to take advantage of the Giants deep, as he had most opponents all season. Brady consistently missed his top deep target, Randy Moss, usually because the Giants defensive pressure forced him to throw before he wanted.

Second, his quarterback rating was 82.5, his fifth-worst of the season and coming on the heels of his 66.4 rating against the Chargers in the AFC Championship game.

Brady's receivers felt the pressure, too.

"It (the pressure) makes it tough to get those throws downfield," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "They did a great job with their pass rush. They covered it short."

How did the Giants do it? Brady said he saw a defense coordinated by Steve Spagnuolo that gave him plenty of different looks and formations, some different from what he faced in December.

Spagnuolo found a nice mixture of pressure from his front four, led by end Justin Tuck, who had two sacks, and complemented that with a consistent dose of safety and cornerback blitzes.

The result was consistent pressure - and inconsistent offense for the Patriots.

"I think because of our inconsistency it really limited what we could produce in terms of scoring points," Brady said. "There were plenty of drives where we moved the ball 50 yards and then got nothing out of it. I don't think that's good enough at the end of the day. You wish you could move it 70 yards and get something."

For a Patriots team that scored more often than it didn't in 2007, scoring just twice on nine drives against the Giants simply wasn't good enough.

And Brady was right. The Patriots produced three consistent drives in the middle of the game of 48, 48 and 55 yards. Any of them could have produced points.

But none of them did, and one play on that first drive may have set the tone as to why.

With 22 seconds left in the second quarter and the Patriots up 7-3, Brady was hoping to get the Patriots into field goal range. On first-and-10 at the Giants 44, Tuck changed all that.

Tuck beat the Patriots offensive line around the end and sacked Brady from the blind side. The hit jarred the ball loose for Giants end Osi Umenyiora to recover it for a turnover.

The Giants didn't turn it into anything, but it set a tone that spilled over into the third quarter for the Patriots. They could gain yards, but they couldn't score.

The Patriots drove the ball 48 yards on their opening drive of the third quarter, but the drive stalled at the Giants 31. Again, a sack, this time by grizzled veteran Michael Strahan, prevented Brady from moving the chains on third-and-7.

But on fourth-and-13 - perhaps because his offense was only sitting on a four-point lead - Patriots head coach Bill Belichick chose to go for it. Brady's pass to Jabar Gaffney fell incomplete.

It would have been a 48-yard field goal for Stephen Gostkowski.

"Yeah, but it was a 50-yard field goal," Belichick said about the decision.

On their next possession the Patriots drove 55 yards to the Giants 45. But that drive ended in a punt.

Why? Perhaps the pressure wore on the Pats' offensive line. While Brady was not sacked and no Giants were credited with quarterback hurries, Patriots tight end Ben Watson and left tackle Matt Light were called for false starts, the latter of which derailed the drive.

In the absence of pressure, the Patriots began making uncharacteristic mistakes.

"It's one of those things where they have a great front seven," Patriots center Dan Koppen said. "They have tremendous players up there and they just outplayed us."

And before one believes the defensive pressure received too much credit for the Patriots' offensive malaise, consider the scoring drive Brady led in the fourth quarter.

That was the third drive Sunday in which a Giant was not credited with a sack or hurry. Brady finally had the pocket he needed to pick apart the Giants. He never went deep - his longest pass was for 13 yards - but he had time, a luxury he didn't have for three quarters.

He went 8-of-11 on the drive for 72 yards, including the six-yard scoring strike to Moss.

But that was an aberration on a night when the Giants' front seven took the screws to the Patriots offense like no defense had all season.

"I think it was their overall defensive scheme," Brady said. "They got good coverage guys; they have a good pass rush. They are a good team. I think they are coordinated very well. They are obviously very well-coached. They were just more than we could handle tonight."

And so ends New England's run to perfection.

"We had a great season, we just didn't win the game," Brady said. "Tonight doesn't take away from anything we have done over the course of the season. We had a great year. It is just unfortunate that tonight turned out the way it did. The Giants certainly deserve it; it's a great football team. As difficult as it is for us, you've got to hand it to them. They made more plays than we did."

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