EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - In a fitting finish to Boston's magical year in sports, the New England Patriots - Bill Belichick's History Boys - last night recovered from a 12-point, second-half deficit and defeated the New York Giants, 38-35, to complete the first 16-0 regular season in the history of the National Football League.
Tom Brady set the record for touchdown passes in a season (50), Randy Moss set the record for touchdown catches (23), and the Patriots set the season scoring record (589 points). New England needs another Super Bowl trophy to make its case as the best team in football history.
"To be able to win 'em all is great," conceded the ever-stoic Belichick. "I'm happy about it . . . That was a fun way to finish the season. It's really exciting to be part of this."
Few games are likely to match the drama that unfolded before 79,110 witnesses at the Meadowlands. Meaningless in the standings, a game with no bearing on playoff seeds or home-field advantage, the Patriots and Giants played four quarters of bone-crushing, foot-to-the-floor football.
The big play came with 11 minutes 6 seconds left, when Brady connected with a wide-open Moss on a 65-yard touchdown pass. The perfect parabola put the Patriots ahead for good, while simultaneously booting Peyton Manning and Jerry Rice from the record book. Significant records. Just like 16-0.
"I had to throw it as far as I could," said Brady. "It doesn't get any better than that . . . Everyone's got to enjoy this. I happens once every 35 years."
It was more than must-see TV. Back home in Boston, you couldn't take your eyes off it and you couldn't change channels. Even if you tried. Patriots vs. Giants was a breakthrough television event on a par with the Kennedy-Nixon debates and the first moonwalk. The game was broadcast on three national networks (first NFL simulcast since Super Bowl I in 1967) and aired on Boston's channels 4, 5 and 7, plus the much-maligned NFL Network.
Now it's already an ESPN Classic and bound for the History Channel.
The Giants had been colored as cardboard cutouts, mere props in the coronation of the perfect Patriots. But Tom Coughlin's guys wanted to be giant killers. They wanted to be the men that shot Liberty Valance. They wanted to slay the bullies who vaporized the rest of the NFL in 2007.
Not quite. Not with Brady (32 of 42 passing for 356 yards) on the attack. The Patriots quarterback capped what is certain to be an MVP season with the latest in a long line of comeback victories.
"What I'm most proud of is that we beat a playoff team on the road," said Brady. "We found a way to come back, just like we did in Dallas and Indy. That shows toughness and character."
There was a playoff atmosphere in and around Giants Stadium early in the evening. Many fans wearing Brady and Tedy Bruschi jerseys were spotted drinking beverages and huddling around open fires in the perimeter parking lots. The enormous football theater off Jersey Turnpike Exit 16W wasn't Gillette South, but Patriots sympathizers made their presence known.
Apparently annoyed with the perception that they were playing the role of the Washington Generals to the Patriots' Globetrotters, the Giants took the opening kickoff and marched 74 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead in the fifth minute of play.
The Patriots answered with a 37-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, then took a 10-7 lead when Brady connected with Moss on a 4-yard TD pass at the start of the second. The TD officially made the 2007 Patriots the highest-scoring team in NFL history (previously held by the 1998 Vikings).
Moss was flagged for excessive celebrating after his Rice-tying catch. This is the type of bozo behavior many feared when the wildly talented Moss was acquired by New England, but we haven't seen Bad Randy this year. His silly spike dance proved costly, as Domenik Hixon took the ensuing kickoff 74 yards into the end zone.
The Patriots regained the lead on a pair of field goals (45 and 37 yards) by Gostkowski, but road trippers from New England sat stunned when Eli Manning led the Giants on an eight-play, 85 yard touchdown drive before intermission. Manning's 3-yard TD strike Kevin Boss (always beware of Boss in the Meadowlands) gave the Giants a 21-16 lead at the half.
Belichick's brilliance is rooted in preparation and adjustment. His teams are usually better prepared than their opponents and halftime tweaks have been a trademark of the Hoodie Years.
So it was something of a surprise when the Patriots were forced to punt on their first series of the second half. It was New England's first punt of the night.
The Giants responded with a seven-play, 60-yard touchdown drive, making the Patriots defense look very old in the process. The scoring play was a nifty 19-yard strike from Manning to Plaxico Burress in the back right corner of the end zone. The Patriots trailed, 28-16, with 9:12 left in the third. It was New England's largest deficit of the season.
"I don't think this was our best football game," said Belichick.
Scattered across the country, those cranky old guys who played for the 1972 Miami Dolphins (14-0 regular season, 17-0 overall), limped to the fridge and peeled the foil off the tops of champagne bottles when the Giants took the 12-point lead. The old men were hoping for some rest.
But Brady simply wouldn't let them sleep. Superman took the Patriots down the field on a 73-yard drive, capped by Laurence Maroney's 6-yard run to cut the margin to 28-23.
After the New England defense finally took a stand, Brady got the ball back and connected with Moss again. Twice, actually.
Seconds after Moss dropped a game-tying touchdown pass, Brady went back to his favorite target and found Moss wide open a second time. The result was the touchdown pass that shattered all the records and put the Patriots in the lead for good.
"Randy outran him and Tom put it out there," said Belichick.
Ellis Hobbs intercepted Manning on the Giants' next series and it was clearly going to be another sleepless night for the '72 Dolphins. The Patriots and Giants traded touchdowns in the final five minutes, but when Mike Vrabel snagged the Giants' onside kick in the final minute, Mercury Morris and friends went to bed with without champagne.