Truth be told, they had almost no right to even be there.
Last in total yardage, 15th in points allowed, one win over a team with a winning record via a fluke missed field goal, a secondary held together by duct tape and chewing gum, and aside from Wes Welker, a group of wide receivers that would best be described as pedestrian.
Yet there they were, the ball in their possession, a two point lead, and the reality that they were less than four minutes away from one of the more improbable Super Bowl wins in history. Then, all of a sudden, all those sins that had so tortured their fans throughout the season seemed to catch up to them all at once.
All everything quarterback Tom Brady threw behind a WIDE open Wes Welker, forcing the All-Pro receiver to twist his body back to make an incredibly difficult catch. The pass harkened back to two weeks earlier when Brady suffered through one of his worst playoff outings against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, missing open receivers in crucial moments.
Had Brady completed this pass, it probably would have ended the game for intents and purposes. The New York Giants had just one timeout remaining, and the New England Patriots would have had a first down inside the red zone, needing only to burn the remainder of the clock and hoist the trophy.
Two plays later, the Pats were forced to hand the ball back to eventual MVP Eli Manning and the Giants offense. No longer could Brady and the offense win this one. Were the Patriots to be Super Bowl champions, it would have to be the defense that won it. Despite their relatively mistake free game to that point, even the most die hard fan had to have that sinking feeling. This defense being on the field with the trophy on the line was not what you wanted.
Manning promptly found receiver Mario Manningham streaking down the sideline on what was one of the most perfectly thrown balls you'll ever see. The pass nestled in between the bracketed Pats defenders and into Manninghams arms. The ball at midfield after just one play, you knew how this was going to end.
The Giants would be in the end zone seven plays later courtesy of a "pull the goalie" style touchdown for Ahmad Bradshaw and then would have to survive a desperate last gasp drive that saw multiple dropped balls by Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez, and then a hail mary pass that was so tantalizingly close to being caught by the otherwise ineffective Rob Gronkowski.
The better team won this game, and when you step back and think about it, the Giants outplayed the Patriots for the most part. Only during the two drives that were sandwiched around the halftime break were the Pats the better team. During that span, Brady completed 16 consecutive passes, a new Super Bowl record and threw for a pair of touchdowns.
The rest of the game?
The rest of the game saw the much discussed, dissed, and dissected Patriots defense being walked up and down the field more or less at will. Of the eight times the Giants had the football (not counting the kneel down right before the half), they managed to eat up at least four minutes off the clock six times. On the night, the Giants held the ball for nearly 40 minutes of this game, an absolutely absurd stat.
Bill Belichick loves to rave about his team being willing to surrender yards rather than touchdowns, but having your defense on the field that long is a recipe for disaster. They held up surprisingly well through most of the game, but when it came down to winning time, they had nothing left to give. You simply can't win a championship when your defense can't get off the field.
Once everyone has stepped off the ledge of the Tobin Bridge, the first order of business is to assign blame and find the exact moment or play that this game was lost for the Patriots. Despite the overwhelming coach speak that he put forth in his post game interview, Bill Belichick actually nailed this one right on the money with a simple phrase:
"We ended up a couple plays short," he said.
In truth, they came up exactly one play short.
Just as it happened in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots needed one play, any play, from anyone in order to seal this game up. In that game, Asante Samuel couldn't haul in a difficult, but certainly reasonable interception that would have iced the game. Ditto for Vince Wilfork who couldn't wrestle Eli Manning to the ground two plays later and for Rodney Harrison who couldn't knock the ball away from David Tyree on that same play.
In this game, if Welker makes the catch the game is over, if Brady's throw is on target on the same play the game is over. Defensively, if Sterling Moore, who got beat badly on Manning's 38 yard bomb to Manningham on the ensuing possession, or safety Pat Chung who had the over the top responsibility and was late getting there to break up the play, do their job and keep that pass from being completed, the game is probably over.
There are literally a dozen other examples of plays that the Patriots could have made down the stretch that could have put themselves in a dominating position and allowed them to claim their fourth Super Bowl title in this century. But it was not to be.
In this type of situation, if nobody on your team is able to step forward and make one play to seal the deal, you don't deserve to win. Eli Manning and Mario Manningham stepped forward and took this game into their own hands, nobody on the Patriots could do the same. And ultimately, that's why maybe the last great chance for Brady to win his fourth ring went by the wayside.