Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 20, 2011

Helmet Catch Still Haunts New England

The thing about turning points is that they’re often hard to recognize in the moment. Generally speaking, a moment is just a moment, in the moment. Even when a turning point is quickly seen for what it is, the extent of its potential impact in a broader context virtually always takes longer, sometimes even years, to fully appreciate.

It’s now been exactly three years since the New England Patriots won a playoff game. On January 20, 2008, the Pats beat the San Diego Chargers 21-12 in the AFC Championship game, thus earning their fourth trip to the Super Bowl in six years. But that New England team was unlike its earlier brethren, indeed unlike every other Super Bowl-bound squad in the NFL’s modern era save one. The 2007-08 Patriots advanced to the final contest of the season with a pristine record of 18-0. Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins had carried a perfect record throughout the regular season and the playoffs; and of course after their 14-7 defeat of Washington in Super Bowl VII, only those Dolphins own the one perfect season in NFL history.

Three on one-half decades after Miami defined football perfection, and two weeks after their triumph over the Chargers in Foxborough, the Patriots faced the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. All reasonable expectations were that the ’72 Dolphins were at long last going to have company. The Pats had defeated New York at Giants Stadium 38-35 in the final week of the regular season. That was one of just four games that New England won by fewer than ten points during a regular season in which their average margin of victory was nearly three touchdowns.

In their first playoff game that year, quarterback Tom Brady went 26 for 28 against Jacksonville to set the NFL record for completion percentage in a single game. When Brady had an off day against San Diego, throwing three interceptions, running back Laurence Maroney rushed for 122 yards and the defense stepped up, holding the Chargers to four field goals. Given all this, and the fact that the Giants were trying to become the first NFC Wild Card team to take home the Lombardi Trophy, it was no surprise that the betting public had established New England as a 12-point favorite prior to kickoff.

Despite the wide point spread the game itself was a taut affair; but when New England took a 14-10 lead on an 80-yard, 12-play drive with a touchdown toss from Brady to wide receiver Randy Moss with just 2:42 left on the clock, the Patriots’ quest for perfection seemed about to be realized. When a weak return left the Giants starting their next possession deep in their own territory, many New England fans started to celebrate.

Two passes from Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning to Amani Toomer took New York to their own 37, where the desperate drive seemed to stall. But a critical two yard plunge by Brandon Jacobs on 4th and 1 kept New York’s hopes alive. Three plays later, on 3rd and 5 from their own 44 yard line, came the moment.

With 75 ticks left on the clock, Manning took the snap from the shotgun and was almost immediately besieged by Richard Seymour and Adalius Thomas. But with Seymour tugging at the back of his jersey, Manning ducked under the Patriots’ defenders and scrambled free. He then hurled the ball down the field in the direction of wide receiver David Tyree. The 28-year old Tyree, used mostly on special teams by the Giants, had just four receptions during the regular season. With Rodney Harrison fighting to bring him to the ground, Tyree caught the pass, and as he fell to the ground somehow manage to hold on with just one hand, securing the ball against his helmet.

When the football remained so improbably, impossibly, pasted to David Tyree’s helmet, it was at first just an incredible and spectacular play and moment. Four downs later, when Manning found a wide-open Plaxico Burress in the end zone the helmet catch became the turning point in an upset of seismic proportions. Three years later, one can’t help but wonder if that intervention of cruel and unlikely fate, robbing the New England franchise of a certain place in NFL history, has in fact had a broader impact.

The players themselves would of course adamantly deny any such thing. As professional athletes, a large part of their job is to remain in the moment; walking away from crushing defeats and not reveling too long in any single victory. But the easy assurance with which every pro athlete insists that’s what they do denies the role which psyche plays in performance.

New England has been a dominant 35-13 in the three regular seasons since their last Super Bowl appearance. In 2008 despite Brady being on the shelf with a season-ending injury, the Pats went 11-5. Despite their fine record they missed the playoffs, finishing second in the division to Miami and losing out on the last Wild Card berth to Baltimore on a tie-breaker. In the last two years they’ve won the AFC East with records of 10-6 and 14-2. Those division titles have twice given them the right to open the playoffs at home.

A year ago they were humiliated by Baltimore, 33-14. The Ravens scored on an 83-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, and then added 17 more first quarter points off of three Brady turnovers, a fumble and two interceptions.

Last Sunday of course they were stuffed 28-21 by the Jets, a team that New England had thrashed 45-3 six weeks earlier. On the Patriots’ initial possession Brady threw his first interception in three months. On one of their last, New England took eight minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter with a grinding drive down the field, the kind of drive you expect to see in the final period from a team with a ten point lead. In the end, the drive resulted in no points. Which would have been fine, but for the fact that at the time the team with the ten point lead was New York.

Since the catch that couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t have happened, for all of their continuing regular season excellence, the Patriots in the playoffs have been woeful. It is as if the almost-perfect Pats truly believed that execution would always, in all circumstances, be the trump card. Having watched in horror as luck and fate laughed at such a haughty notion, they now play tentatively when it most counts, seemingly just waiting for it to happen to them again. The players and their laconic head coach will all deny it, of course. But they have yet to prove it on the field.

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