Patriots linebackers Adalius Thomas and Pierre Woods paused and locked eyes in the middle of the Giants Stadium field following the Patriots 38-35 come-from-behind victory over the Giants Saturday night.
Woods then let out a high pitched scream of joy and embraced Thomas as the pressure of the first perfect regular season in 35 years seemed to vanish high into the East Rutherford, New Jersey air.
"Only when it counts," Thomas said as he shook his head with a modest smile and a sigh of relief.
That's the key phrase, "When it counts!" Even when they had imperfect games, they knew how to win in the clutch to preserve their unblemished record. Much like during a perfect game in baseball, when there always seems to be a spectacular play in the field to preserve the no-hitter. The Patriots always came up with that proverbial diving stop up the middle by the shortstop to just throw the runner out at first base to save the no-no. They were perfect when it really counted.
When it counted against the Colts on the road, facing a 10 point fourth quarter deficit in week nine, Brady, who always seems to be able to keep his poise and focus under pressure, threw two of his three touchdown passes in a four-minute span to beat the Super Bowl champion Colts, 24-20.
They did it again in Week 11 at home when they trailed the second truly competitive game of the season for New England, 28-24 midway the fourth period against the 22-point underdog Eagles. Brady led a 69-yard drive ending with a Laurence Maroney 4-yard game-winning touchdown run.
They did it again when they were trailing the Ravens by four points in the final minutes of the game when Brady drove the Pats 73 yards, including two fourth-down conversions, before finding Jabar Gaffney in the left corner of the end zone for the win.
And they did it again against the Giants Saturday night, overcoming their largest deficit of the season in the second half. Brady lead three scoring drives, including the record breaking 65-yard touchdown bomb to Randy Moss along the right sidelines. The score proved to be symbolic of the entire season. They were not perfect on the drive. The play before the go ahead score to Moss, he dropped a badly under-thrown Brady pass at his shoelaces despite being wide open. But on the next play, when it counted, Brady and Moss were true to the task. The Patriots were not losing after that play and they were not going to lose to the Giants.
Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots points out the defense against the New York Giants on December 29, 2007 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
"I wish I would have made a better throw on the previous one," said Brady following the game. "I just didn't get enough on it. It was a third down play, third and 10, and he had a nine route which is just a go, and they had blitzed us on the play. It's tough when Randy does that with the technique the corner played. I just tried to throw it as far as I could and it doesn't get any better than that."
Randy Moss explained to the media after the game what he saw on the back-to-back deep passes. "The first play the ball was under-thrown a little bit and I tried my best to come back and get it because I saw, I don't know if it was the cornerback or the safety, but I saw one guy fall so I knew it was my chance to try to get that catch and move the offense a little closer to the end zone," he said. "But I missed the ball and jogged back to the huddle, and the very next play they called a play that was really designed for Wes Welker to go out and get the first down but the corner and the safety trapped Wes and tried to trap Tommy into throwing the ball there to get the ball picked off, but Tommy made a good read, all 11 guys executed the play, and I think that's really what jumpstarted the second half."
It seems fitting that the Patriots took the lead for good on Brady's 50th touchdown pass of the year, breaking Manning's 2004 record of 49, and Moss' 23rd touchdown catch, breaking Jerry Rice's 1987 record of 22. The 38 points the offense scored gave the team 589 points for the season, shattering the 1998 Vikings single-season record of 556.
Brady said he's just proud of the victory. "I think what I'm most proud of is playing a playoff team on the road, and [the Giants] were playing extremely hard, and down however many we were at one point, 11 or 10 (actually 12) and finding a way to come back and win," said Brady. "We did the same thing at Dallas this year. We did the same thing at Indy this year. We've been in some tough games. At Baltimore we were down quite a bit and we really rallied back and showed some mental toughness and some character and it's hopefully prepared us for what we're going to face next month."
Now that the Patriots have made regular season history for being the first team ever to go 16-0, the Patriots are well aware the season is far from over. Until then though, they can breathe easier and enjoy it for a few days before the playoffs get rolling.
Patriots' linebacker Tedy Bruschi said "Now the regular season is over. I'm going to enjoy it for maybe two days instead of one or so. We realize that we have bigger goals to accomplish. The tournament is starting now and there are a lot of teams in it that feel like they have a chance. They should feel that way because every team that has made the playoffs has a legitimate chance to be a world champion. So we have to forget about this and move on to who is next."
Pats defensive lineman Richard Seymour said he's proud of the way the Patriots never stopped playing hard when they were trailing in a game. He said "I think we had some other tough games. You can look back and point at, the Dallas game was a tough game and playing in Indianapolis. There were a lot of games along the way that gave us problems and we had to fight through. I was proud of the way that we continued to fight all season long."
"We were excited," said receiver Wes Welker, who shattered the franchise record for most receptions in a season with 112 catches, including 11 against the Giants. Troy Brown had the previous mark of 101 set in 2002. "There were some close games like this and to come back and win the game is pretty gratifying.
"We talked about playing winning football one game at a time and that is what we've done so far and that is what we need to continue to do," he said. "There is still a lot of work left to be done and we need to be sure that we are focused on that."
"Everyone's going to enjoy this one," said Brady. "This happens once every 35 years. We'll celebrate for a couple of days then get ready to go back to work."
The pursuit for a perfect post-season begins in two weeks in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots will be ready.
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