- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Eli Manning’s touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII didn’t just make the New York Giants one of the most unlikely champions in NFL history. It also ended the New England Patriots’ rendezvous with destiny.

Now instead of being the first 19-0 team and the second to win four Super Bowls in as few as seven years, the Patriots are dealing with what could be a franchise-changing defeat. Just ask the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers.

Many regarded the Rams as a dynasty in the making before the Super Bowl six years ago. Quarterback Kurt Warner and the “Greatest Show on Turf” had won the Super Bowl just two years earlier, followed with a playoff berth and were supposed to pound New England for a second title in three years.

The stunning 20-17 loss to the upstart Patriots on the final play started the Rams on a decline toward oblivion. St. Louis missed the playoffs in the 2002 season, lost its playoff opener at home in 2003 with Marc Bulger at quarterback, was pounded in the division round in 2004 and is 17-31 since, including 3-13 in 2007.

Brett Favre and Green Bay were rolling toward a second straight title in the 1997 season before being upstaged by John Elway and the Denver Broncos. The Packers, who had won five straight postseason games before Super Bowl XXXII, went three years without winning their next playoff game. Although Favre is still a top-notch quarterback, they didn’t get back to the NFC Championship game until this year and have yet to return to the Super Bowl.

So while the Patriots appear formidable on paper with MVP quarterback Tom Brady at the top of his game, coach Bill Belichick as intense as ever and only five starters over 30, questions lurk.

The offensive line that had been together for three seasons and boasted three Pro Bowl picks was overrun by the Giants’ league-leading pass rush even before right guard Steve Neal exited with an injury.

Inside linebackers Junior Seau, 39, and Tedy Bruschi, 34, played this year as much on guile as talent. Both are free agents and could retire, leaving a void in the middle of the defense.

Belichick might not be willing to break the bank to re-sign receiver Randy Moss (31 next week) despite his NFL record 23 touchdown catches in his New England debut, not with deep threat Donte Stallworth under contract and Wes Welker so productive underneath.

Money also figures to send ace cornerback Asante Samuel elsewhere because the Patriots can’t franchise him and his marketplace value figures to be much too rich for Belichick. Backup Randall Gay isn’t nearly as good, so New England likely would have to use the seventh choice in April’s draft, obtained from San Francisco, on a cornerback. That’s assuming that no inside linebacker is worth that high a selection or that a trade down for an extra selection or two doesn’t happen.

And Belichick could face repercussions from his lack of confidence in young kicker Stephen Gostkowski, bypassing a 49-yard field goal try indoors and going for it on fourth-and-13 against the Giants with a 7-3 lead late in the third quarter. Somewhere Adam Vinatieri, deemed expendable by Belichick after 2005, was laughing after having helped Indianapolis win the Super Bowl last year and knowing his absence perhaps cost his old team another title this season.

The Patriots have gone three years without winning the Super Bowl. Perhaps the first true dynasty of the salary cap era became history Sunday night in Arizona.

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