The week that leads to the Super Bowl is always a combination of football, foolishness and foreboding. These games carry the weight of history, after all. They are about legacies and records and claims to greatness. Last week in Indianapolis was a typical mix, with the weirdness of a "reporter" in a black mask and lime-green cape asking ridiculous questions at media day (to the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul: "You have 16½ sacks. Is half a sack when it's a really small quarterback?") and the unfailingly helpful attitude of the Hoosier citizenry accompanied by the knowledge that come Sunday night either the Giants or the Patriots would be devastated because both had pushed some significant historical chips to the middle of the table.
In the end it was the Giants who won a place in Super Bowl lore with their second title in five seasons, while the Patriots lost the chance to cement their place in the debate about the greatest team of all time. Their 21--17 loss to New York changed the historical context in which they will be placed. A win would have given New England four championships in five trips to the Super Bowl over the past decade. It would have allowed quarterback Tom Brady to match Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl rings. Coach Bill Belichick would have reaffirmed his genius by leading a team with a defense that seemed far from championship caliber to his fourth Super Bowl victory. The Patriots could have matched résumés with anyone else when it came to ranking the greatest quarterback, coach and dynasty in NFL history.
Instead, New England is 3--2 in Super Bowls in the Belichick/Brady era. That's definitely good enough for business class but excludes them from entering the first-class cabin with the Steelers of the '70s, 49ers of the '80s and Cowboys of the '90s. It's no longer possible to compare Brady to Montana, who was undefeated in the Super Bowl. (It also must be pointed out—call it coincidence, cause-and-effect or karma—that the Patriots have not won a championship since the Spygate incident, in which they were found to have taped the Jets' sideline during a 2007 game in violation of NFL rules.) Do the Patriots, without a title in the last seven years, still qualify as a dynasty? The Giants don't seem to think so. "We decapitated them," running back Brandon Jacobs said after the game. "They can't wear that crown anymore."
The Pats, not surprisingly, weren't ready to entertain that issue immediately. "I'll leave that to other people," Belichick said. "We played hard. We just could have played a tiny bit better." Brady kept shrinking the big-picture inquiries as well. Asked if he thought the loss cost him any claim to being considered Montana's equal or even superior, he chose to talk about the game. "It just came down to one play at the end," he said. "If you make it, you're celebrating. If you don't, you don't sleep for a week."
The game was really decided by a couple of plays the Pats didn't make. There was the safety that Brady gave the Giants with an uncharacteristic brain cramp—drawing an intentional-grounding penalty in the end zone on New England's first offensive play. And there was the slightly off-target but catchable ball that the normally glue-fingered receiver Wes Welker couldn't hold on to with the Pats leading late in the fourth quarter, which might have put the final dagger in the Giants.
The Patriots were knocked down a notch on the scale of greatness because they weren't great when they had to be—in the small moments that define such things. "Little things sooner or later add up to something big," Patriots running back Kevin Faulk said earlier in the week. How right he was.
In fact, this whole era of New England championships and near misses has been built on small twists of fate. Their three Super Bowl wins were each decided by just a field goal. If Asante Samuel had held on to a game-clinching interception four years ago against the Giants, the Patriots would have had a perfect season and four titles entering Sunday's game. If Billy Cundiff had made a 32-yard field goal for Baltimore two weeks ago, the Pats might have spent Super Bowl XLVI on their sofas.
Maybe debating over degrees of greatness is a fool's game, because the difference between a champion and a runner-up is often paper-thin. As brilliantly as Giants quarterback Eli Manning played, he might have a pair of Super Bowl losses instead of a pair of MVP awards if not for David Tyree's miraculous catch in Super Bowl XLII and Mario Manningham's nearly as impressive sideline snag on the Giants' winning drive on Sunday. Brady might have had it right when he summed up his philosophy toward it all. "I've been lucky enough to play in this game five times in 10 years," he said. "I hope to keep coming back and taking a shot. That's all you can do."
A few minutes later Brady excused himself from reporters, and his wife, model Gisele Bündchen, pushed through the throng to wrap her arms around him. Then they walked off hand-in-hand, as nearly everyone with a cellphone took photos. Win or lose, Brady and his wife are an impossibly good-looking couple. As for Brady and his team, they're impressive, too, but we may never again look at them in quite the same way.