It was not easy and at times it was not pretty but the New England Patriots defeated the New York Giants 38-35 to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history, setting numerous individual and team records in the process. The Patriots had several lapses, most notably in their kickoff coverage and in the red zone (both offensively and defensively) but even those shortcomings ultimately testify to this team's unique greatness: it is not possible to play perfect football for 16 straight weeks, so overcoming mistakes well enough to post a perfect record is most impressive indeed. Coach Bill Belichick will no doubt be able to bake several "humble pies" with the ingredients that his team provided him against the Giants but what this team has accomplished is remarkable. Obviously, this story is not complete until and unless the Patriots win the Super Bowl--as they are the first to admit--but this squad, more than any other NFL team that I have ever seen, reminds me of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that set an all-time record by going 72-10 in the regular season and then went 15-3 in the playoffs en route to winning the NBA championship. Those Bulls tried to kill everybody every single night, regardless of what had been clinched or if the game was the fourth road game in five nights and that kind of extreme focus and dedication is unique even among championship teams; NBA champions often lose 20 or more regular season games and the past two NFL champions lost four and five games respectively.
Tom Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Wes Welker had 11 receptions for 122 yards, setting a new single-season franchise record for receptions (112; Troy Brown had 101 in 2001). Randy Moss caught six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Laurence Maroney only gained 46 yards on 19 carries but he scored two touchdowns. Eli Manning completed 22 of 32 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns but his fourth quarter interception was a pivotal play; the Patriots converted that opportunity into a Maroney touchdown that gave them a 10 point lead with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
There was a lot of talk about this game being "meaningless" in terms of playoff seeding but the Patriots and the Giants acted as if this were a playoff game. There were many hard hits and several after the play skirmishes. The Giants struck first, moving straight down the field with a seven play, 74 yard opening drive that culminated in a seven yard Manning touchdown pass to Brandon Jacobs. The Patriots only got a field goal on their first drive but after forcing a three and out they took the lead on a four yard touchdown pass from Brady to Moss; three records were set or tied on that play: touchdown passes in a season (49, tying Brady with Peyton Manning), touchdown receptions in a season (22, tying Moss with Jerry Rice) and points scored in a season (561, breaking the mark of 556 held by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings).
The joy from that moment did not last long for the Patriots, because Domenik Hixon ran the ensuing kickoff back 74 yards for a touchdown to put the Giants up 14-10. The Patriots answered that score with two good drives that stalled in Giants' territory and only resulted in field goals. The Giants received the ball deep in their own territory with less than two minutes remaining in the half but rather than playing it close to the vest they drove 85 yards and took a 21-16 halftime lead on Manning's three yard touchdown pass to Kevin Boss.
New England went three and out on the opening possession of the second half and the Patriots faced their biggest deficit of the season after Manning's 19 yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress put the Giants up 28-16. It was stand and deliver time for the Patriots, who did just that with a 73 yard drive that ended with a six yard Maroney touchdown run. The teams traded punts and the Giants received the ball with a 28-23 lead and 12:46 left in the game. One long touchdown drive would put a lot of pressure on the Patriots, who would need two scores in a short amount of time. Instead, Manning recovered his own fumble for a loss of one yard on first down, threw an incomplete pass on second down and completed a four yard screen pass on third down. The Giants failed to go for the kill--and promptly got killed. Brady threw an incomplete pass to Wes Welker on first down and just underthrew Moss on a long bomb on second down but, undeterred by those plays, Brady uncorked another bomb that Moss caught in stride for a 65 yard touchdown. That play gave the Patriots the lead for good while also breaking the single season records for touchdown passes and touchdown receptions; it will no doubt take a prominent place in NFL Films' library of seminal NFL moments, particularly if the Patriots cap off this season by winning a Super Bowl title. Maroney capped things off by running for the two point conversion to put the Patriots up 31-28.
Of course, more than enough time remained for New York to come back but the Giants went from being too conservative when they had the lead to being a bit too reckless when they were only down three. Manning tried to force a second and six pass into coverage and Ellis Hobbs intercepted the ball near midfield. That led to a Maroney touchdown run and a 38-28 lead. The Giants needed to score 10 points in just 4:36. They did not do a great job of time management on the next drive; one thing that they could have at least considered--but was not mentioned by NFL Network commentators Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth--was to kick a field goal, leaving more time on the clock to try to get the tying touchdown. In any case, Burress' one handed touchdown reception with a little over a minute left gave the Giants one last chance. Fittingly, Mike Vrabel--the sure-handed Pro Bowl linebacker who also catches touchdowns--recovered the onside kick to preserve the perfect season.
Some people questioned why the Patriots kept their first stringers in some of the earlier games in which the Patriots had huge leads, but this team is always sharpening its tools and that relentless focus on trying to play correctly regardless of the time or the score has been vindicated several times in recent weeks when the Patriots were able to execute under pressure; all season long they have held themselves to a high standard of performance, so they have never gotten stale or rusty, unlike some teams in previous seasons that shut some things down after clinching a game or clinching a playoff berth and then were never able to fire those things back up in the playoffs. Perhaps New England risked injury or risked getting some negative media coverage but the reward so far has been, as the commercial tag line goes, priceless: a 16-0 season that will be talked about as long as the NFL exists.
NFL records set by the Patriots (previous record):
--19 consecutive regular season wins (New England Patriots, 18--2003-04)
--16-0 record (Miami Dolphins, 14-0--1972)
--Tom Brady, 50 touchdown passes (Peyton Manning, 49--2004)
--Randy Moss, 23 touchdown passes (Jerry Rice, 22--1987*)
--589 points (Minnesota Vikings, 556--1998)
--75 touchdowns (Miami Dolphins, 70--1984)
--Scoring differential of 315 (589 points scored, 274 points allowed; the 1942 Chicago Bears scored 376 points while allowing just 84 points for a scoring differential of 292)
*Rice played in only 12 games in that strike-shortened season