We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
The replays began right after Lawrence Tynes's kick cleared the goalposts in San Francisco, making the Patriots-Giants rematch official. Nostalgia is on a loop from now through Sunday: Asante Samuel dropping an easy pick on the Giants' final drive in Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning floating a touchdown to Plaxico Burress—and in between, dominating the whole story, David Tyree and his helmet.
As a Patriots fan, I'm supposed to be baited into a vengeful frenzy by watching the ruination of that perfect season. But I'm not biting. At the time, I was perversely relieved when Samuel dropped that interception, and thrilled when Tyree came down with that catch.
I did want the Patriots to win. I wanted it profoundly. But in my mind, those flawless 2007 Patriots weren't competing against the Giants. They were competing against my memories of their first Super Bowl championship squad.
That 2001 team was far from perfect. Tom Brady was a brave but awkward novice; Charlie Weis's offense relied on wily game-planning, with more screens than Best Buy and occasional gimmicks like sending his gangly quarterback to fake as if the snap had gone over his head, then go out for a halfback pass. Those Patriots needed help—from overeager defenses, from the weather, from the obscure depths of the rulebook—to deliver them from statistically superior opponents.
Most importantly, they needed us. It felt that way, at least. My friends summoned fortune in the Tuck Rule game by putting on every winter layer they owned and sweating out demons at halftime in a ski-lodge sauna. A week later, we maniacally rearranged the furniture in my bedroom to align invisible forces against the heavily favored Steelers.
Before we all learned about the tuck rule, the replays of Brady's apparent season-ending fumble against Oakland brought me near tears—not because our team was supposed to win, but because they were supposed to lose, and it looked like they had. The Super Bowl win gave us the ecstatic sense that our investment of love had thrown back the cold agents of inevitability.
It was impossible to believe that the 2007 Patriots needed our help, or our tears. Our job was to sit back and watch. Everything we'd ever claimed to want was there—a ball-hawking defense, an unstoppable deep threat, a slippery third-down passing game, an explosive special teams-corps. The usually miserable airwaves of WEEI hummed with glee. Our team was invincible. Surely this was heaven.
Here's the problem: Having everything you ever wanted does not make you stop wanting things, it just changes what you want. Absent any conceivable threat of a non-win, I found new things to want. I wanted five touchdowns for Brady. I wanted 150 receiving yards for Randy Moss. I pouted over sub-optimal quarterback ratings. I lamented junk-time touchdowns by the opposition that ruined the aesthetic of the final tally. The consistent blowouts poured layers of unthinkable decadence on the basic idea of winning, and soon that basic idea was buried.
I attended one game in person that season: a nail-biter against the Eagles in which their second-string quarterback put up 345 yards, Brady threw for "only" one touchdown, and the Patriots won by "only" three points. I walked away disappointed. The gadflies would probably go on about how the Eagles had supplied the rest of the league with a "blueprint for victory" against the Pats. Worse, Brady might not get the passer-rating record. Or the touchdowns record. Moss might not get the touchdowns-caught record. The team might not get the points-differential record.
These are thoughts that actually passed through my head and darkened my mood. Perfection had bred perfectionism. My team's perfect season had turned me into a perfect little shit.
And then there they were, in the Super Bowl, about to win again. It felt wrong. The clock was running down on the Giants. It was the climax, and it was no climax at all. The zero in the loss column had become a black hole, devouring all perspective. On the brink of the ultimate win, I was discovering new kinds of losing. The game needed to keep going. Something important hadn't happened yet.
Of course it hadn't. Heaven is a place where nothing happens. The deepest joy of being a fan is living in those moments when your team grasps something that seemed to be out of reach, seizing opportunity with its fingertips—and if need be, a helmet.
That Tyree catch was too affirming to hate. It gave Giants fans what was missing from the Patriots' perfect season: the adrenaline of a team on the brink; the narrow margin of survival; the providential reversal of tides. Not just victory, but the thrill of victory.
And then it was the Patriots' turn to answer. I can watch Tyree and Burress without feeling nausea; the replay that still knots my guts came afterward. Let's go to the tape: third-and-20, with the Patriots backed up to their own 16-yard line. Nineteen seconds.
Brady takes the shotgun snap and rolls right. Moss gallops up the left seam into double coverage. Brady crow-hops and releases the ball.
It's a breathtaking spiral. You couldn't call it a Hail Mary; the trajectory is too purposeful. Safety Gibril Wilson, who overplayed Moss to the middle, is already beat. His over-the-top help, cornerback Corey Webster, can't match Moss's freakish stride. By the Giants' 30-yard line, Moss has exactly half a yard on him.
Seventy yards from where it left Brady's hand, the ball closes its arc. Moss breaks stride almost imperceptibly. Webster and Moss both reach out to cradle the ball, their bodies achieving a split-second of symmetry. The ball strikes two fingers on Webster's left hand, clips Moss's index finger, and lands harmlessly at the Giants' 11-yard line, Moss, Webster and Wilson tumbling after it.
Incomplete. The one play that could have made the season not only undefeated but perfect.
Whatever happens in the rematch, it won't be a replay. The Patriots got here with an ugly victory, one snatched—or rather batted away—from the clutches of defeat. But when the Ravens Billy Cundiff yanked the game-tying chip shot wide left, I did something I did not do at any point in 2007: I leaped, I yelled, I was tackled and pig-piled upon. It wasn't perfect. I didn't want it to be.
Steve Kolowich is a writer living in Washington, D.C.