GLENDALE, Ariz. – Forty-two times, the NFL has been down this glitzy Roman numeral road. But there has never been a Super Bowl quite like this one.
At last, it is time. The history books are waiting. Those who love them and those who hate them are waiting. The 1972 Miami Dolphins – the past’s lone example of perfection – are waiting.
The New England Patriots are unbeaten, but are they incomparable? They have been great for 18 games, but are they to be flawless for all time? It is the question that has captivated the NFL landscape for months, even as the Patriots steadfastly kept to the script demanded by their unwavering coach. One week, one win at a time.
But the moment of truth has come. Tonight it is over, one way or another.
“We can’t run from it anymore,” Vince Wilfork said. “It’s here.”
“I think it’s the biggest game of our lives,” said Tom Brady, the quarterback at the middle of the New England universe. “We’re going to be remembering this game for as long as we live, win or lose.”
That is heavy stuff to put on one day in the desert. But the Patriots have not just a chance to be champion, but nearly immortal. This is not the normal Super Bowl.
The 1972 Dolphins slipped up on the national consciousness. They were underdogs in their last game. But the Patriots have been on a collision course with history for months. They play in a league whose parity-promoting rules supposedly made something like this impossible.
“There is a category called ‘good,’ there is a category called ‘great,’ and there is a category called ‘ever,’ ” Junior Seau said. “The journey could be over, or it could be alive forever come Sunday.”
And yet, it takes two to memorably tango. The New York Giants can become the most famous spoilers seen in a Super Bowl.
As luck would have it, the Giants make perfect foils.
They are big-city gate crashers with a reformed coach who learned to be a more human Tom Coughlin just this side of too late.
They have a quarterback who carries the burden of a famous name and won the hearts of merciless New York by simply ceasing to throw interceptions.
“I deal with criticism and praise the same way,” Eli Manning said. “I ignore it.”
They are the epitome of united composure, with their remarkable 10 straight victories on the road, including a playoff run through the heat of Tampa Bay, the noisy tradition of Dallas and the deep freeze of Green Bay.
They do not mind looking down the business end of the New England Patriots, having done it once before, when they lost 38-35 but never blinked. They come into today with an unmistakable stubborn streak.
“We’re not here. Just the Patriots. Don’t worry about us,” deadpanned Justin Tuck.
“The Cowboys already had their tickets for the championship game. The Packers were already booking their flights,” Antonio Pierce said. “Now the Patriots are already booking their parade. Nothing new.”
Still, the spotlight is on the Patriots, who have always understood that there was only one acceptable end to their mission. “Super Bowl or bust,” said Logan Mankins.
Theirs has been an epic saga, full of personalities, pitfalls … and success.
There was Randy Moss’ reclamation, Tedy Bruschi’s recovery from a stroke and Seau’s second wind at the age of 39.
There was the messiness of Spygate, a stain on the New England name that has been worn away by winning, and only made this a more compelling season. The perfect team caught sinning.
“Guys put in a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of hard work into the game, and people would say, ‘How does it feel to be labeled a cheater?’ ” Mike Vrabel said. “You wanted to stand up and knock the crap out of them, but we had to deal with it. We fought through it as a team, we got through it together and we haven’t looked back.”
Most of all, there are the two faces of the Patriots Empire.
Brady began NFL life as a sixth-round draft choice and now is the most decorated passer of his age, with three Super Bowl rings.
Today, he will face a rush frantic to get at him, for the Giants know well enough the road to the Lombardi Trophy goes through Tom Brady’s passing pocket.
Bill Belichick is the driving force of a dynasty, earning his coaching legacy with results, since he couldn’t win a game of marbles with his charm.
“The only reason why Belichick is the best coach ever is he wins,” Seau said. “Winning takes care of everything else.”
The question now is if the Patriots have any weaknesses. Or at least, enough to be denied.
“I think Tedy Bruschi summed it up,” Harrison said. “We’ve won one game, 18 times in a row.”
Once more, and forever is theirs. It is hard to imagine them failing now. Too many ways the Patriots can beat a team. Too many weapons for all of them to be stopped the same day. Too much destiny in their eyes and purpose in their voices. New England, 28-17.
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