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Postgame, Week 17: New England Patriots 38, New York Giants 35

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Greatest NFL Game Ever?
Everyone Wants to Watch the Undefeated Patriots

The Perfect Game remains elusive. The Perfect Season is in the book.

Love them or hate them, people tune in to watch the New England Patriots. With Saturday's game available only on the NFL Network and select local stations, some people planned going to bars to watch the game, most decided to skip it, and in the Indianapolis "metropolitan" area, they planned on watching "Hee-Haw" reruns.

Then, just three days before the game, the league saw folly in limiting the availability of what might be the greatest game in the league's modern history. The NFL allowed two additional public networks simulcast the game. On such short notice, more people watched the Patriots make history (and the New York Giants try to prevent it) than had watched any non-playoff in more than a dozen years.

They still watched "Hee-Haw" in Indy.

P1hotobucket - Video and Image Hosting 38 - - - P1hotobucket - Video and Image Hosting 35

They tuned in to see what may be the greatest NFL game in modern history, and they were not disappointed. New England claimed pro football immortality, rewrote the record book. And the Giants refused to let them do it. New York played a harder, more emotional, more physical, more spirited game than did Indy, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, Dallas, New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis and Detroit combined.

And for all the 10-5 Giants' giant effort, they could not beat the Patriots at home.

Compare to the last game of the season, the game NBC must now be embarrassed to have "flexed."

'Old Reliable' Does His Job -- A Bill Belichick mantra all his career has been "Just do your job." No one does it better than Patriots running back Kevin Faulk (33), who turned a 3rd-and-10 into a makable 4th-and-2, leading to New England's first field goal Saturday.

Photo courtesy: Boston Herald / Matthew West

For all the talk of the Patriots "cheating" (they didn't), all the talk about the "integrity of the game," all the implications that Tony Dungy is the NFL's "moral compass," the Colts laid down to Tennessee, effectively eliminating the Cleveland Browns from the playoffs, the essential equivalent of a prize-fighter taking a fifth-round dive or a hoops collegian shaving points.

But lots of other teams do it, so it's OK.

Anyway, back to the real football game played by two real football teams.

Patriots-Giants garnered 34.5 million viewers, making it the most watched game of the season, the most watch program of any kind this television season, the most watched program of any kind since the Academy Awards in February.

In addition, of the top five most-watched shows of any kind this television season, Patriots games were the top four of them. The Week 6 "Battle of Unbeatens" with the 5-0 Cowboys attracted 29.1 million. The Week 14 meeting with the 9-3 Steelers drew 30.3 million viewers. And the second "Battle of Unbeatens" in Week 9 against the 8-0 Colts caused an additional 3.5 million people to switch from "Hee-Haw" that night.

In fifth place was the "CSI" season premiere with nearly 4 million viewers fewer than Patriots-Cowboys.

Yes, everyone wants to watch the Patriots.

So was it the greatest modern-day regular-season NFL game ever played?

Almost without a doubt. I still haven't thought of one better. The game pitted the 15-0 Patriots against the 10-5 Giants, who were 10-3 following their 0-2 season start. In the long run (the upcoming playoffs being the long run) neither team had a thing to gain.

Pundits everywhere questioned the wisdom of risking stars and starters before "the tournament." Many, if not most, said the Giants should rest and preserve their players. Even more hoped the Patriots would sit Tom Brady, Randy Moss and others in hopes of damaging the team's rendezvous with Destiny, preventing one of the greatest teams in the history of the game from achieving what the has-been player- and coach-commentators never accomplished themselves.

If nothing else, they wanted New York to fold their tents the way Indy did and New England's victory would ring hollow.

No such luck for the haters and has-beens.

The Giants gave it everything they had. Eli Manning played one of his best games of the season. Tom Coughlin truly prepared his team for beating the class of the NFC. Despite some injuries, which probably would have happened or been worse had those players been surrounded by second- and third-stringers, the Giants discovered a lot about themselves as players and as a team Saturday.

But they were no 60-minute match for New England.

Brady capped the best-ever season for a quarterback and solidified his legacy. Randy Moss shut up critics within the media and without. Bill Belichick proved he's the best coach in the league, possibly the best ever. Adalius Thomas left loudmouth Ray in Baltimore with the rest of the quitters. Wes Welker thanked his new team for saving him from the dungheap of the league.

And while the mercury (not Morris) read "40 degrees," there was heat on that field: Lots of slightly late hits, lots of face-to-face jawing, a few pushes, an eye-poke, lots of stuff no one not on the field saw.

The two teams combined for fewer mistakes than the officiating crew made, and fans from both teams said so. The zebras called the most ridiculous "excessive celebration" penalty ever (that guy must be a close, personal friend of Tim Donaghy) and that "delay of game" for not letting a player up from the field -- obviously the first time that's happened this season. They let go so much more -- more egregious, more obvious, more -- y'know -- "football-related."

Meanwhile, the Patriots and Giants combined for one turnover, more a poor pass by Manning than a great play by Ellis Hobbs (a smart play, for sure). Manning also fumbled a snap, but he covered it himself for a loss of just 1 yard. Otherwise, each team was assessed five penalties, no matter how lame some were, for about 50 yards each. Following the lamest of the fouls, New England blew its kickoff coverage and allowed a touchdown.

But really, it was as flawless a game as you'll see.

Not So Secret Weapon -- Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) killed New England in two games against Miami last season. Now he's one of the most dangerous weapons in their own arsenal, even when other teams know where the ball is going.

Photo courtesy: Boston Herald / Matthew West

It wasn't a boring defensive struggle. It wasn't a barn-burning score-fest. Both teams played offense well. Both teams played defense well. Both teams played special teams well (mostly).

And in the end, it came down to the recovery of an onside kick -- by a linebacker -- with 63 seconds to play. OK, so it was 59 minutes.

The Giants became the first team in 16 games to score a touchdown on their first possession of the game against New England. Manning hit Plaxico Burress for a 52-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage in the game. Ellis Hobbs gave up the big play.

The Patriots, who have scored on most of their opening possessions, responded with just a field goal. On the first drive, Brady spread the ball around, but Laurence Maroney couldn't get the ground game going. Ben Watson dropped the first of two passes to effectively kill the drive.

New York squandered a chance to corner the Patriots with a 3-and-out, a season-long them for the New England "Homeland Defense." An obvious illegal contact penalty extended what looked to be a short-lived drive, and the Patriots made it count. Brady hit Moss for Moss's 22nd, Jerry Rice-tying, touchdown reception and his own 49th, Peyton Manning-tying, touchdown pass.

The ludicrous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty led to the special teams breakdown and a 14-10 Giant lead.

Stephen Gostkowski kicked another field goal. And another. For the rest of the half, New England couldn't find the end zone.

With less than 2 minutes to play in the second quarter, Eli Manning drove New York -- 85 yards on 8 plays -- taking a 21-16 lead and leaving the Patriots no time to answer. New England went to the locker room in a rare position in 2007: trailing on the scoreboard.

The Giants gave the haters a thrill, holding New England to a 3-and-out on the second-half opening possession, then traversing a short field to another touchdown and a 28-16 lead.

The proverbial perfect season on the line, the Patriots did what they have done so many times in the last 7 beautiful years, what they did several times this season. They played like a team with something to prove -- or to disprove. They played like a team with a singular determination (hey, that's what a team does).

They played like champions.

Kevin Faulk lost 2 yards as if to start New England in the hole. Then: Brady to Faulk, Brady to Watson, Brady to Welker, Brady to Welker, Brady to Welker (how many times have you seen that this season?). Maroney for 2 yards. Brady to Moss. An obvious pass interference put New England at the 1, and an illegal formation knocked them back to the 6. But a reinvigorated Maroney covered that ground and closed the deficit to 5 points.

The Patriots forced a punt. They had 15 minutes and 30 seconds.

They had the time, and they played field position. They punted, and the defense came up with one of the biggest 3-and-outs of the season.

And then it happened.

Brady missed Welker. On a blown coverage he under-threw Moss, who couldn't make yet another amazing play. And on a call designed to pick up the first down, the Giants made the right play -- they covered Welker 10 yards downfield.

But cornerback Sam Madison fell off his coverage of Moss, and safety James Butler had no chance to make up for it. Moss was wide open down the sideline. Brady, not under pressure as he had been on the previous play, stepped into the throw -- as pretty a textbook pass as you'll ever see -- and laid it into Moss's arms, in stride. Brady had his record 50th touchdown pass. Moss had his record 23rd touchdown reception.

And anyone who appreciates good football, anyone who appreciates history, anyone who appreciates human achievement rejoiced and reveled in the moment. They were watching one of the game's greatest quarterbacks, one of the game's greatest receivers, one of the game's greatest teams, playing one of the game's greatest games against an opponent who, like Jake LaMotta, would .. not .. go .. down.

History, Meet Destiny -- Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss (81) reels in a perfect Tom Brady pass to break a pair of monumental records. New York cornerback Sam Madison (29) fell off coverage early, and safety James Butler (37) had no chance against a pair of Hall of Famers.

Photos courtesy: Boston Herald / Matthew West

What happened from there was far from anticlimactic.

The tide turned, New England leading 31-28, Manning tried to lead New York to respond. Before Manning made his mistake, Amani Toomer made one. Brandon Jacobs had run for 9 yards and a first down, but Toomer clearly held (Hobbs?). Instead of a first down, the Giants were in a passing situation. Manning floated one for Burress. Unlike the 52-yard first-quarter hookup, Hobbs made the right play and picked the pass on the sideline.

Eight plays later, New England had the Giants backed up to their 5. Most of the world expected Brady to look for Moss -- or maybe a 22nd Patriots who had yet to score this season. Instead, he handed off to Maroney, who powered in for his second touchdown of the game.

Clearly, chasing the Patriots receivers, trying to penetrate the impregnable offensive line, attempting to deny destiny took a toll on the Giants defense. Even New York's offense looked lethargic with the game on the line. Manning methodically took his team down the field and punched it in with another pass to Burress, but the Giants didn't leave themselves enough time.

In the end, the Patriots had a 38-35 win, a boatload of records and historic statistics, a 16-0 record, and the honor of doing it all against an honorable team.

The greatest regular-season game ever?

How Does It Feel to Be 16-0? -- Ohhhhh, yeaaaaahhhhh!

Photo courtesy: The Boston Globe / Getty Images / Chris McGrath

Poll

With the Patriots 16-0 after Week 17, they are ...

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    ... the greatest team ever.
    (35 votes)
  • 48%
    ... one of the greatest teams ever.
    (59 votes)
  • 22%
    ... No. Right the first time: The greatest team ever.
    (27 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now