To say the Giants came out fighting in this one would be an understatement. Though technically this was a meaningless game for both sides, the Giants sent out their first string with murder in its eye throughout the contest. Up until less than 5 minutes to go in the third quarter, the G-Men held a double-digit lead over the Patriots, and it felt like we might be seeing a great downfall rather than an ascension into immortality.
I had thought about this as the hype built prior to the game. During the afternoon, I heard innumerable radio personalities waxing breezily confident about how the Patriots would be 16-0 before midnight. The NFL Network's commentators were similarly fatalistic, to say nothing of the "Path to Perfection" highlights shown at predetermined points throughout the game, which became excruciating to watch with the Patriots down double digits.
The hype and the confidence and the forward-looking statements had all set my superstitious alarm bells jangling. It had all the makings of an upset (remember the Rams and "a dynasty is born"?); up until about 11:15 in the fourth quarter, that's what it seemed like it was going to be.
This feeling of dread culminated with a failed attempt by Brady to hit Moss deep. "He's got Moss!" Bryant Gumbel shouted as Brady took two purposeful big steps up in the pocket, and launched a bomb.
Moss was wide open--the Giants had fallen down on the coverage and he was practically alone by the right sideline some 50 yards downfield. The ball zoomed straight toward him, but low. Still, I've seen Randy Moss catch the ball when it was behind his back. I've seen him catch the ball when it was past him. I've seen him catch the ball while being interfered with flagrantly by not one but two defensive backs. I've seen him catch the ball one-handed in midair on an overthrown pass.
This time, Randy Moss dropped the ball.
The pass was low, but it was catchable, especially for Moss. And yet in it came, through his hands, and bounced to the turf.
This, I was sure, was the big turning point. The two men most in the spotlight for the Patriots all season, the two men with the chance to break records, were literally dropping the ball in the biggest game yet. "Oh...my...goodness." one of the commentators intoned sotto voce.
The Patriots went back to the huddle. Already I could feel all the Patriots haters ready to pounce; already I could anticipate the kind of gleeful schadenfreunde that would follow us all the way into the off-season.
They went back to what looked like the same play. Moss sprinted down the right sideline and Brady took those purposeful steps in the pocket again. We held our breath as he put the ball in the air. (It turned out later that the second play was a different one designed to hit Welker for the first down, but the Giants' defensive backs tried to jump Welker's route, leaving Moss open, and Brady checked to him instead.)
This time, the pass was sheer perfection, arcing just so over midfield to drop, whisper-soft, into Moss's hands in stride as he raced for the end zone. This time, they nailed it: 65 yards including reception and run, to score the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead, and in one fell swoop broke the single-season individual touchdown passing and reception records.
Wes Welker got to Moss first, followed by Jabar Gaffney and Benjamin Watson. Soon Vince Wilfork was joining in on the fun from the sideline. Tedy Bruschi was shown beside himself with hollering joy on the bench. The offensive linemen gleefully gave the 'touchdown' signal with their own arms. Laurence Maroney grinned behind his face mask.
The camera's lens, and by extension the eyes of the world, then swung to the man of the hour, No. 12, as he strode down the field after making history, eager to capture a fist-pump, a grin, a gesture of joy.
Instead, Brady was headed toward the goal line, holding up two fingers. Not V for victory, but a signal to his teammates to huddle back up again. They were going for two.
That about sums it up. Sums up Brady, sums up the Patriots, sums up the game. Some players might be satisfied to have put their team ahead to preserve the undefeated season while breaking the all-time single-season passing record. Tom Brady wanted two more points. Immediately.
This isn't to say the Patriots were total stuffed shirts about the whole thing. Later, they took a team-celebration timeout (though technically it was the Giants' time-out, a very classy gesture by that team to let the Pats celebrate on their time) as the final seconds ticked off the clock, probably the first such timeout I've ever witnessed. Bill Belichick cracked an untold number of smiles postgame. Brady was bounding about among his exhausted teammates after the game like a hyperactive kid fed Pixie Stix.
But the Patriots also made sure to emphasize, post-game, that they know what lies ahead. I think Randy Moss said it best, when he took the press conference podium.
"We're going to go ahead and celebrate," he admitted. But he then made sure to add, "for about 24, and no more than 48 hours."