- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interesting how, a month ago, the Patriots' narrow escape against the Giants was viewed as a sign of slippage — like detecting cellulite in a Jessica Alba photo. And now the Jersey Boys are in the Super Bowl after rolling over the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Packers on the road, the latter in conditions only Admiral Byrd would love.

The Patriots' 38-35 win at the Meadowlands is looking better all the time, isn’t it?

And so we have another Ultimate Game rematch, though hardly an undesirable one. In fact, the Giants might be the only NFC team that could create much mystery at all about this Super Bowl. Dallas, remember, lost to New England by three touchdowns… in its own corral. Green Bay would have had sentiment on its side because of Brett Favre, but no 38-year-old quarterback, Hall of Famer or not, is going to beat Bill Belichick in a big game.

But the Giants? Well, you can at least fathom the possibility — mostly because of that 38-35 slugfest in which the Patriots’ defense looked so vulnerable. Yes, on a given Sunday, the Giants conceivably could burst the Patriots’ bubble. And hey, after some of the mammoth point spreads New England’s games have had, “conceivably” sounds pretty good.


You get the feeling history is beginning to weigh on the Patriots a bit — and understandably so. Winning a championship is challenging enough without the additional baggage of a trying to stay perfect. The 17-0 Dolphins of 1972 went through similar tribulations. They actually trailed with eight minutes to go in their first playoff game and needed a fake punt to get them going in the AFC title game.

History is heavy. History is Fridge Perry after an all-you-can-eat buffet. As the season wears on, scores tend to get closer, fourth quarters tend to get tighter. And after a while, every game is a Super Bowl — for the other team, at least.

The Patriots reached that point in Week 9, after they went to Indianapolis and avenged last year’s loss in the AFC final. The Eagles, Ravens and Giants pushed them to the limit, and the Jets weren’t exactly easy pickings, either. Then came the playoffs and 12-rounders with the Jaguars and banged-up Chargers. Each step of the way, the gap between them and the rest of the league has appeared to narrow.

Tom Brady talked of the Patriots’ burden Sunday night in the afterglow of the victory over San Diego. “It’s been an emotional season coming down the stretch,” he said. “It feels like it just builds and builds and builds. We clinched a first-round bye late in the season and still had to find ways to motivate ourselves. There’s been so much energy expended each week with the expectations and the pressure our coach puts on us. I’m glad we have a week off here [to] regroup a little bit.”

But then, it’s supposed to be hard. The “hard” is what makes the Patriots’ pursuit of perfection so awe-inspiring. The road they’re traveling is even longer than the one the ‘72 Dolphins navigated — two games longer. And their schedule has been considerably more daunting. Nine of their 19 opponents, counting the Giants, have been playoff teams. It wouldn’t have taken much for their dream to be derailed.

“To not have a letdown like most teams have …” Brady said, not really needing to complete the thought.

Early in the season, it was almost as if the Patriots were fueled by rage — rage at losing last year’s AFC title game, rage at what they felt was an overreaction to Spygate, Belichick’s Candid Camera escapade. That probably explains all the blowouts (and the running-up-the-score accusations). But such an emotion can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, the season comes down to which club is the best, not which is the maddest.

As talented as the Patriots have been over the years, what has always separated them from the rest is their ability to win games the way they’ve been winning them lately. All three of their Super Bowl victories, let’s not forget, were by the thin margin of a field goal, with two of the kicks coming in the last seconds. It’s almost always the Other Guys who make the killing mistake — or have to settle a field goal, as the Chargers did, when a touchdown might change the course of things.

In the first few months, the Patriots played like A Team From Another Planet, laying the foundation for a bunch of offensive records. But in recent weeks they’ve reverted to their core selves, to the team that doesn’t blink in sweaty circumstances. Barring a desert dust storm or some other freak occurrence, the Giants will need to bring their A-plus game to have much of a chance — and even then, it might not be enough. As we’ve seen time and again, nobody in the NFL closes like the Patriots.