Commentary

Past matchup won't fade away

Patriots told to forget Super Bowl loss to Giants, but that won't be easy

Updated: January 24, 2012, 1:32 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On Monday morning, the New England Patriots' franchise quarterback confessed during his weekly radio appearance that memories from his last tango with the New York Giants in the Super Bowl were so painful, he's never watched the highlights.

By the afternoon, the Patriots' hoodied head coach clamped the lid on any additional references to Super Bowl XLII by instructing his players during a team meeting to eradicate the past from their memory bank. Tom Brady told his WEEI radio listeners that coach Bill Belichick had previously informed his troops to "put your blinders on and focus on the target."

Now, what fun is that? With two weeks until there's another NFL game, there will be a deluge of rewinds and rehashes of the Feb. 3, 2008 tilt, the one Super Bowl in Belichick and Brady's decorated careers they did not win. The game was played on the heels of Spygate, Randy Moss' record-setting season and New England's pursuit of perfection. Young Giants quarterback Eli Manning torpedoed a gaping hole in the Patriots' happy ending with his coming-of-age performance, capped by a touchdown toss to Plaxico Burress in the final 35 seconds.

Four seasons later, we have a rematch of the franchises who played in that epic game, and while this rivalry will not generate the venom that a New York Jets-New England Patriots showdown invariably spews, their shared history makes for an intriguing sequel.

The Giants are not "just another team." The sting of what happened to Brady, Belichick and the boys in Super Bowl XVLII clearly has lingered, perhaps because they haven't made it back to the grand stage since.

There has been significant turnover on both rosters since the instant classic, a point that Belichick hammered home to his new, young, impressionable participants.

"Coach told us this would be a different ballgame all together," fourth-year receiver Matthew Slater insisted. "He said the Giants only have eight of their guys left from that game, and we have only five guys."

Either Belichick is prone to exaggeration or his disciples erred slightly in their math. There actually are eight Patriots still standing who witnessed their perfect season slip away that night in Glendale, Ariz.: Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Kevin Faulk, Vince Wilfork and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. (Koppen is on injured reserve and will not play in this year's Super Bowl.)

[+] EnlargeMatthew Slater
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaMatthew Slater said Bill Belichick stressed that the upcoming Super Bowl will be completely different than the last Patriots-Giants matchup.

There are a number of players who figured prominently in the dramatic finish, however, who won't make the trip to Indianapolis.

The guy who made The Catch, David Tyree, is retired. In fact, the acrobatic "helmet grab" that he somehow held onto despite the efforts of former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison turned out to be the final catch of his NFL career. Tyree, who also caught his first touchdown of the season in Super Bowl XLII, landed on injured reserve for all of 2008 and was released by the Giants in 2009.

The guy who made The Drop, former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, also has moved on. Had Samuel been able to hang on to a near-interception with his team ahead 14-10 with just less than two minutes to go, he would have sealed the Super Bowl win for New England. The loss was Samuel's final game for the Patriots. He signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and has spent the past four seasons racking up Pro Bowl invites and proving to New England they made a mistake by not re-signing him.

Of course, there are some things that haven't changed since the Giants shocked the football world. Belichick and Brady remain the heartbeat of this Patriots team, much in the way the irrepressible Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have come to represent the face of the Giants.

Giants fans understandably continue to make correlations between this year's New York team and the one that won it all in '08. There are eerie similarities, among them a late-season burst after being in danger of being eliminated from qualifying for the playoffs, a spirited loss to an undefeated team (the Green Bay Packers) in the regular season, followed by a victory over that same favored team in the playoffs.

Just as he did in 2007, Coughlin warded off rumors that that he had "lost" his players, as well as rumblings that he should be fired. Following a series of emotional wins, the players Coughlin supposedly had "lost" were hoisting him on their shoulders.

Coughlin is an old-school coach with New England ties who lives for the game of football. I interviewed him once when he was head coach of the Boston College Eagles and the University of Miami was coming to the Heights to play a game in the bitter November cold. I made passing remark that it was too bad the game wasn't in Florida, where temperatures were in the high 70s.

"I'm glad it's here," Coughlin growled. "I hope it's 10 below zero. I hope we have icicles hanging off our noses."

He meant it, too.

Coughlin has downplayed the shared Super Bowl history of the teams much in the way Belichick has. So many of New England's key players from that night have retired, among them Moss, Tedy Bruschi, Harrison and Mike Vrabel.

Oh, yes -- and Laurence Maroney, who doesn't want to be retired, but was not signed by any team in 2011. To give you an idea of how much things have changed, Maroney was the Patriots' leading rusher in that Super Bowl loss.

New England defensive back James Ihedigbo insisted there has been no talk of revenge among the veterans who still see The Catch in their sleep.

"We really haven't discussed it," Ihedigbo said. "Bill said this is our own game. That other one is gone."

Brady has a long memory and has a habit of quietly storing away his own perceived failures or slights for future motivation. While he may never admit that he'd like another crack at the Giants and yet another Manning in his path, he clearly embraces the opportunity.

"I'm not sure what [this game] will do to Tom," Slater mused, "but I can tell you no one on the field will be more prepared than him."

While the rest of us wax poetically about a game that was truly a football lifetime ago, the two teams will glance back at film from Week 9, when the Giants came into Gillette Stadium and upended the Patriots, 24-20. Just as in Super Bowl XLII, Manning engineered a late game-clinching drive that featured a critical, difficult catch, this one by Jake Ballard.

While Brady racked up 342 passing yards in that game, he also threw two interceptions. The Patriots turned the ball over four times and were whistled for 81 yards worth of penalties.

All of that is irrelevant, Brady insists. It, too, he reasons, is yesterday's news.

There will be new schemes, new trick plays, new heroes, new goats. That's how it works with the Super Bowl. Everything is magnified -- including the past.

But don't tell Coughlin that. Or Belichick. You are wasting your time urging Manning or Brady to reminisce about a game that turned both of their fortunes.

The blinders are on. Last one to take them off is Super Bowl champion.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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