- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The ball hung in the air as if it were in suspended animation, long enough for hope and despair to mingle in the end zone.
Tom Brady's last-gasp 51-yard bomb descended into a scrum of jerseys -- some blue, some white, each with hands outstretched, each clawing at the ball to ward off the misery that would surely follow should the player next to him come up with it.
Nobody laid claim to the final pass of Super Bowl XLVI.
The margin of error in football is a matter of inches, a pass thrown a whisper to the left, a ball deflected by the end of a fingertip, a fumble bouncing just out of reach, taunting those in pursuit.
Whoever can fall on those balls, whoever can turn mistakes into opportunities, tends to win football games.
The Giants and Patriots have proved to be worthy adversaries in these gut-wrenching slugfests that come down to the dwindling ticks of the game clock.
Yet it is New York that has emerged the victor in both of the teams' Super Bowl meetings, cementing its reputation as a clutch football franchise, leaving New England to wonder how it let another game slip from its grasp in the final minutes.
"I thought we were going to run away with it," tight end Aaron Hernandez said. "But we started off sloppy, and it went from there."
So now the reckoning begins. When this 21-17 loss is rehashed, and the squandered opportunities by the Patriots are dissected, there will be enough cringe-worthy plays that will keep Bill Belichick and the boys up for weeks.
There was the inconsolable Wes Welker, one of Brady's most reliable receivers, who recognized that the Giants were "kind of mixed up" on their coverage with four minutes left in the game and New England nursing a 17-15 lead.
Welker signaled Brady to give him the ball. The quarterback lofted a pass that was a little high, a little outside, but Welker twisted around and went up for the ball. It hit his hands at the Giants' 20-yard line, then careened high and away, incomplete.
If Welker catches it, the Patriots have a first down; maybe at the 20, maybe closer to the end zone. Maybe they run down the clock, maybe they seal the win with a score. Instead, New England ended up punting the ball away and giving the Giants and Manning one more shot.
Welker said one Giants defender was "playing two-high look and the safety was playing one-high look" on the coverage, which is why he was open.
"The ball was right there," said Welker, his eyes welling with tears. "I got my hands on it. I've got to make that play.
"It's a play I've made a thousand times, and at the biggest moment of my life, I don't come up with it."
One play later, the Patriots were forced to punt, forced to hand the ball to Eli Manning, whose poise and confidence were unmistakable and unshakable throughout. The Giants quarterback started his team's drive pinned on his own 12-yard line, but within seconds produced the biggest play of the night, a 38-yard strike to Mario Manningham. The receiver hauled in the spiral, mindful of positioning his feet properly so, in this game of inches, he kept them in bounds.
Suddenly the Giants went from lousy field position to prime real estate at midfield. Another throw to Manningham drew New York into field goal territory, then another throw to Hakeem Nicks into touchdown range at the two-minute warning.
"They made more plays than we did," said Brady and Belichick and Jerod Mayo and Hernandez and a host of other Patriots.
Although there were drops and penalties and fumbles across the board, the game was a series of dramatic vignettes featuring bruising hits, surgical quarterback play, a salsa dance from Victor Cruz after a touchdown, a salute from Sterling Moore after a critical pass breakup (with the Giants screaming, with some validity, for an interference call).
Yet there were also some head-scratching moments, such as when Brady -- in an inconceivable play from an elite quarterback whose trophy case houses three championship rings, Super Bowl MVP hardware and a league MVP trophy -- was called for intentional grounding on the very first offensive possession for his team. Brady was standing in his own end zone at the time with Justin Tuck bearing down on him. Instead of rolling out and throwing the ball out of bounds, he chucked it downfield, where there were no Patriots players to be seen. The referee threw a flag and called the safety.
It cost the Patriots two points and the ball.
Yet curiously, the same quarterback who confessed on national television after a subpar performance against the Baltimore Ravens that he "sucked," was not so self-critical after this one.
"Tuck was coming to get me, and I tried to get rid of it," Brady said. "The ref made the call."
The correct call, incidentally. Brady's miscue was further magnified when the Giants also scored on their ensuing possession and surged ahead 9-0.
Yet Brady redeemed himself in record fashion, completing 16 consecutive passes (11 in the first half), a Super Bowl record. By halftime, New England had pulled in front 10-9.
The Patriots have harped all season on the importance of creating turnovers, yet when Cruz fumbled in the first quarter and Moore recovered, the play was negated because New England had 12 men on the field.
And when Mayo stripped Nicks of the ball after a 17-yard completion in the second half, a cluster of Patriots scrambled for it, yet it was Henry Hynoski who recovered and retained possession for the Giants.
"We didn't come up with those loose balls, and they did," Mayo said. "It's just disappointing. We come up with one of those and maybe it's different."
The Patriots genuinely believe they are never out of contention as long as Brady is their quarterback. On their final drive, he was given 57 seconds to create a miracle, but the best he could do was lob a Hail Mary into a sea of players in the end zone, a ball that was tipped, but never caught.
"It's crazy how that works," an eloquent Logan Mankins mused. "It came down to a ball floating in the air, with everyone holding their breath the coaches, the players maybe if it bounces a little differently, we win this game."
Maybe, but championship teams do not rely on hope mingling with despair.
"It's a low-percentage play," receiver Deion Branch acknowledged. "A very low-percentage play."
The percentages have turned on your New England Patriots. Talk of a Belichick-Brady dynasty will be shelved for now. It is Eli and Tom Coughlin's time to shine, just as it was four years ago when a miracle catch by David Tyree sparked another Giants Super Bowl celebration.
There were no miracle catches this time, just hard-nosed, opportunistic football. The Giants are worthy champions, and the Patriots are heartbroken losers.
That's right. Again.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.