- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Calm yourself, New England. Step away from the DVR, stop replaying your misery over and over and over again, and try, if you possibly can, to gain a little perspective in the wake of your Super Bowl XLVI hangover.
I know. You are disappointed, angry, frustrated. You feel cheated. It's bad enough the Patriots lost again, but to a New York team, with another Manning, after one more fourth-quarter lead slipped through New England's grasp.
You want somebody to pay for this. You want blood for all the money wasted on an elegant Super Bowl spread (only to completely lose your appetite), for the sleepness Sunday night, for the crabby boss with the Patriots pennant on his door cursing you out on Monday morning, for the obnoxious "Patsies!!!" phone calls you've been fielding from cousin Vinny in Queens since Manning and Manningham ripped your heart out.
You want to blame somebody, and there is no shortage of candidates. Curse Wes Welker for not catching that pass at the 21-yard line with four minutes to play! Curse Tom Brady for not making a more accurate throw in that situation! And curse him for that dumb intentional grounding play, and, while we're at it, for that throw to Rob Gronkowski downfield that was picked off, in part, perhaps, because the big tight end simply didn't have the same lift he did before he tore up his ankle against the Ravens.
Curse Bill Belichick for his team's mind-boggling confusion in the opening minutes of the game! Curse 12 men on the field! Curse the secondary for not picking off Eli Manning at least once! Curse Vince Wilfork for not playing like the Incredible Hulk again! Curse Aaron Hernandez for dropping that ball over the middle on the final drive! Curse Dan Koppen for breaking his ankle in September! Curse Stephen Neal for retiring last spring! Curse Kevin Faulk for having the audacity to be inactive! Curse them all!!
Sometimes teams just lose. It's not because of a colossal blunder or an abysmal performance or a team "not showing up to play." Sometimes teams don't walk off with the trophy because the other guys are better.
This is one of those times.
Sunday night's football game was flawed. Both teams made mistakes. The Giants fumbled twice, but were fortunate enough to have neither cost them. Conversely, the Patriots paid dearly for their miscues.
Even so, the action was pulsating, the storylines fascinating, the suspense legitimate. There was drama from start to finish, and, just as we all predicted, the game came down to the very final ticks of the clock.
This was a brutal, physical slugfest, played with heart, emotion and effort. Nobody dogged it. Nobody "choked."
It wasn't so much that the Patriots lost this game, it was more that the Giants won it.
Feel free to hate the New York Giants, but respect how they delivered when it mattered most. Manning's sideline throw to Mario Manningham against double coverage was a perfectly fired bullet, and the catch was a poised, skilled, big-time play.
If Manningham drops that ball, the Giants still are pinned at their 12-yard line with a lot of real estate to cover and not much time. After that 38-yard grab, New York set up shop at midfield and suddenly was in control of the situation.
Manning and his charges seized the momentum and rode it to victory, in much the same way the Super Bowl champion Patriots did back in the good old days when they seemed untouchable.
Back then, Belichick set himself apart by proving to be smart, tough, innovative and tireless in his preparation. Well, guess what? Giants coach Tom Coughlin is the same way. Both coaches blossomed on the same Parcellsian tree, bore fruit out of the same philosophy and values. The Giants are one of the few teams that can match the Patriots when their coaches are compared back-to-back.
And what of the quarterbacks? Eli proved his mettle yet again in driving his team to another come-from-behind fourth-quarter victory. His heroics were reminiscent of those of the young Brady, and he is in the process of cementing his legacy the way young Tommy did during his run of winning three Super Bowls in four years.
The older, more seasoned Brady has endured a serious knee surgery and other nagging injuries that may or may not have compromised his effectiveness.
At times on Sunday night, Brady was brilliant, in complete control of the game. Other times, he was harried, rushed. Late in the game, after Justin Tuck tossed him to the turf, Brady seemed to be laboring. The franchise quarterback promised owner Robert Kraft he'd play better following a subpar performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, and he did. But he had some culpability in this loss, along with his teammates.
The failed Brady-to-Welker play against blown Giants coverage has become a lightning rod for this game. Some blame Brady, and they have a point. The throw was not a good one. It was too high, a little wide. When your receiver is that open, you need to pinpoint your target. Others want to tar and feather Welker because, as the saying goes, if if hits your hands, you've got to make the play. That too is a valid assertion, one the self-flagellating Welker made himself.
But let's not turn this into a passed-ball-or-wild-pitch argument. The play wasn't made. And, while it was at a pivotal point of the game, isolating that missed opportunity, then adding a dozen exclamation points to its significance and spewing venom at Brady and/or Welker is unnecessary. Both players have proved their worth to this franchise time and time again. Both were crushed in the wake of the defeat, Welker with tears in his eyes, Brady with a towel over his head in the postgame locker room, the last player in full uniform.
So they are human after all, not invincible, not "star kissed," as so many New York writers became fond of dubbing Brady last week.
Let's be clear about the NFL. Every week something happens that can tilt the scales in the other direction. Need we remind you that if not for a missed field goal by Baltimore and a dropped punt return by San Francisco, there is a distinct possibility the Ravens and 49ers could have been playing Sunday night instead of New England and New York?
Jerod Mayo, the young Patriots linebacker, said it best. "Losing is often decided by inches," he said. "And losing stinks. So now we've got to go back home and start winning again."
Sometimes it really is that simple.
There were will be, of course, some grand pronouncements in the weeks ahead. You won't like most of them: Belichick only wins when he cheats! Brady is a fraud! The Patriots are overrated! The New England dynasty was a myth!
That's what happens when you don't close the deal.
Someone needs to be blamed. Someone has to pay.
And that is the shame of professional sports.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Pull yourselves together, Patriots fans. Simply put, the better team won.