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Weep not, Pats fans, you were in it at the end

Maybe it should be arranged that for the foreseeable future – until at least either Tom Coughlin or Bill Belichick pack it in or Eli Manning and Tom Brady wander off to their ultimate reward in Canton, Ohio – we might have annual renewals of this thing the Patriots and Giants have lately concocted for our deep winter amusement. I say these two need to go at it, hammer and tong, again and again at the end of every season until one of them has won four out of seven.

Not that the two Soupeys they’ve so bitterly fought have necessarily been the best ever waged. But they have surely been the two most dramatic, featuring as they have, the same two teams in a given era representing two city states generally regarded as the Athens and Sparta of their times. All of which adds a certain essential grit to the infernal mosaic of the thing and accounts for the wonderful edge they bring to this opus, which is otherwise too often overwhelmed by its own insufferable folderol.

It’s a fact that in spite of all that profound banality that we annually bemoan, we still can’t get enough of Soupey. Some consider this irrefutable notion to be a grievous flaw in our makeup as an allegedly enlightened society. I, for one, am willing to leave it to the cultural anthropologists to fathom what all that really means. This much, however, remains clear; Karl Marx, a boring fellow who knew nothing about things as trivial as games, had it wrong. It is not religion that is the opiate of the masses; it is sports.

In that warm and loving spirit, we arrived at Soupey XLVI skeptical, as usual, yet hopeful, and Soupey XLVI did not disappoint. It was no thing of   beauty. The greatest games in all of the sports are always defined by their blunders with the more excruciating the miscues the more memorable the occasion. We here in these parts, who have dined on such bittersweet gruel for about a century, know all about that stuff. Where will this one rank in the immortal roll call? Pretty bloody high, I’d bet; somewhere in the neighborhood of “Too many men on the ice” and “Bucky (Bleepin’) Dent.”

Sure, a wide-open Wes Welker probably should have caught that pass in the waning moments, and if he had, that would likely have sealed the deal. But it was hardly a well-thrown ball or an easy catch. Tom Brady may have completed a record-busting 16 straight in one stretch but not in the fourth quarter when the issue got ratcheted up to epic levels of stress and daring. Brady, a stand-up guy, was the first to acknowledge that gaudy statistics notwithstanding, this was not his finest hour.

It was a game that’s already a timeless feast for second-guessers and armchair analysts, including all of us in my dodge, and as usual most of the key questions will never get answered. If Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ all-world tight end, who was playing with a badly sprained ankle, can’t out-run, out-leap and out-fight a lumbering linebacker summoned from retirement three months ago, then he shouldn’t have been in the game. Chase Blackburn’s theft of the ball on the eight-yard line in that unforgettable fourth quarter saved the Giants. Eli, son of Archie, likely has no chance to play Horatius at the Bridge at the end if an unknown scrub who was teaching math to eighth-graders back in Ohio in November does not make the play of his lifetime.

And that is what makes the games wonderful; the inevitability of them turning on such small but fabulous ironies, like David Tyree’s miraculous grab the last time they met at the brink. Mario Manningham’s clutch reception in the opening foray of Eli Manning’s winning drive was this year’s variation, a 38-yard thunderbolt that clearly rattled the Pats to their core. If it was not as impossible as Tyree’s near-mindless heroics, it was no less crucial.

Actually, tough though it was, the wonder of it was not so much the catch as the throw. Eli will never heave one that’s more perfect, nor has wondrous big brother Peyton ever done so. And there’s no defense against a perfectly thrown ball. Boss Belichick challenged it because he felt he had no choice, but you could tell from his sheepish demeanor that he knew Manningham had stayed in bounds and he had the best view in the house. If Belichick had no choice, it nonetheless proved to be not a good one, costing him a timeout that would have been precious in those final 57 seconds.

This loss has to be awfully hard for Belichick to swallow. Winning it this year, with a team notably deficient in key areas and with his ace in the hole, the dynamic horse of a tight end, hors de combat, would have been his master-stroke, the definitive and final verification of his widely presumed but not yet validated genius. One imagines he wanted that well more than merely desperately, and he came so very close, ultimately within the mere inches that Aaron Hernandez came of catching Brady’s end-of-the-game Hail Mary toss. Now wouldn’t that have been something!

More and more fascinating the more you think about it, was Belichick’s decision to concede the winning touchdown and allow Ahmad Bradshaw to cakewalk into the end zone in order to give Brady a faint chance to perform a miracle. It was a tough call, and one admits second-guessing it is a trifle unfair. He had only split seconds to consider it. The situation was genuinely desperate. That he was willing and able to take such a wild gamble further testifies to his wisdom as a coach. And yet was it the right call? Since it didn’t work, we’re free to second-guess it to our heart’s content.

Sure, it was first and goal from the six with less than a minute left. But have gallant goal-line stands never happened? Have crazy things like penalties and fumbles never happened? Obviously the Giants were angling to end it with a field goal from extra point distance; a veritable chip-shot. But have gimme field-goals never been blocked, or botched by a bad snap, or somehow sailed “wide left” as if breathed upon by the football gods themselves.  Think carefully, fans.

But the key question is this. Were any of those crazy things more improbable than Brady being able to take them all the way the other way under the preposterous circumstances of the moment? And yet they missed in the end by only inches. It’s great stuff! Happily, we can never know thus allowing us to quibble about it. Forever!

The play’s the thing, as the Bard continually reminds us, and this was as great as it gets in the Soupey. It’s always a blessing when you have a game that makes tolerable the idiocy of the half-time show, this year taken to new depths of vulgar burlesque by the supremely untalented Madonna and her ill-mannered buddies. Would that the lady might disappear forever in that puff of smoke that ended her act. Only A-Rod might weep.

Look at it this way. Your team was lucky to even be there at the end. For they actually lost that semi-final brawl in Foxborough against the Ravens, or should have. The pass that Baltimore’s Lee Evans caught in the waning seconds was surely a touchdown and nine times out of ten would have been so ruled. His feet were down and his control of the ball was firm for the nanosecond that’s usually all that’s required, before Sterling Moore chopped it from his grasp.

So weep not, Patriot legions. In more gallant and noble times, they used to say that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have strived at all? Well, let me tell you that it is better to have had your precious hopes dashed on the shoals of a thousand super ironies than to have your season end in December. You may ponder all of that, old sport, while you wait until next year!

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