Giants-Patriots Will End a ‘Friendship’

This column was originally published on on Feb. 1, 2012.

Super Bowl XLVI might be too much for me to handle. The magnitude of the game, the storylines for the main characters and the impact the result will have on New York and Boston might be too much for anyone to handle. So that’s why with a game as important for the history of two franchises and two rival cities, I felt there was only one thing to do.

As he does for every big New York-Boston game in every sport, Mike Hurley of CBS Boston joined me for an epic email discussion to talk about what’s at stake on Sunday in the biggest Super Bowl ever.

Keefe: Where do I begin? I think Super Bowl XLVI is pretty much the climax of our friendship (if our relationship can be considered a “friendship”). I say it’s the climax because this is it. One of us is going to experience the glory of a championship on Sunday night and the other is going to be on life tilt and likely questioning why they even like sports in the first place. I don’t see how we will be friends on Monday. My Giants and your Patriots are meeting in the biggest, most important and most significant Super Bowl in Super Bowl history. That’s not a stretch at all. It really is. There’s so much at stake in this game, for the quarterbacks and coaches involved, and for the fans and the two rival cities. That’s why I don’t know where I should begin, but I think I just might have the place: Feb. 3, 2008.

It’s a day you have said never happened. You have claimed that the 2008 calendar went from Feb. 2 to Feb. 4 in the city of Boston even though it didn’t anywhere else, the same way that Boston celebrates the third Monday of April (Patriots’ Day) by people skipping work and class and getting hammered while the Red Sox play at 11 a.m. and the Boston Marathon takes place as the rest of the country endures a normal Monday. (I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I love Marathon Monday, and I’m thankful for the four years it allowed me to play afternoon beer pong rather than sit in a media law class.)

Feb. 3, 2008 will forever be part of the Top 5 Sports Days of My Life. It might be No. 1 and it’s hard to say that anything can ever rival it unless maybe the Yankees come back from a 3-0 deficit against the Red Sox in a future ALCS, and trail by four runs with two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 before coming back to win the series in walk-off fashion. Then we’ll have to talk.

Super Bowl XLII is important on so many levels, but it’s even more important to me because it made up for the 2004 ALCS. It salvaged my college career in Boston and let me graduate on a winning note after having to watch the Red Sox win twice while living there. For you, it ended the “Perfect Season,” added to the Patriots’ championship drought, gave Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Super Bowl losses and pretty much devastated your life.

Immortality was stolen from Brady and Belichick in Arizona and the Giants’ win prevented us from having to hear about the 2007 Patriots as the best team ever forever. Instead, the Patriots celebrated their colossal failure by hanging a banner in Gillette Stadium to commemorate the perfect regular season. And fortunately they haven’t gotten the memo that it’s a terrible reminder and an embarrassment to New Englanders as it continues to hang at the stadium.

Take me back to Feb. 3, 2008, before I even knew you. Tell me about Mike Hurley during and after Super Bowl XLII and how that game has changed and shaped the way you think and feel about the Patriots. Part of me thinks this is a bad place to begin and that you might have a Rambo-like flashback and drive to New York City right now with a bandana tied around your forehead and dual bullet belts wrapped around your torso with an AK-47 in your hand in search of me, but I’m willing to take that chance.

If you need any help conjuring up some memories of Super Bowl XLII, maybe this will help.

Hurley: Hello, Neil. How are you? If you just told me in that long and winding email, I am sorry but I didn’t read it. I made it through the first paragraph before I blacked out.

I did catch the end though, so we can start there. In February 2008, I was just a young buck trying to make my way in sports media as an intern at WPRI in Rhode Island. I was in the Pats’ locker room, holding microphones in the middle of massive scrums in front of players’ lockers before they left for Arizona. I looked at these players and thought, “Will the Patriots win by 20 points? Thirty points? Should the Giants even fly to Glendale? That’s a lot of hotel money that would go to waste.”

Then the game started, and FOX showed the greatest quarterback in history, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., on the sideline, not playing, a full seven minutes into the game, while the third-best Manning brother (go Cooper!) drove his team for a painstaking 60 some-odd yards and took nearly 10 minutes to do it. I knew then that I wouldn’t see the blowout that I had previously expected, but I still thought the Patriots would win. They had to win. They were the best team ever. Yeah, they played a couple of vanilla playoff games in the January cold at home, but in Arizona, they’d go back to the five-wide shotgun offense that allowed them to beat teams 150-7 all season long.

But they didn’t, and it was painful, but I said to myself, “Whatever, it’s time to grow up. I’ll just become a media guy and not care about stuff like this anymore, because what’s the point?” I believed it, too, and I went to sleep with no problem. But then I woke up around 2:30 a.m., and the entire game replayed in my head from start to finish. Every. Single. Play.

That was the last time I watched Super Bowl XLII, and I hadn’t even watched a highlight (besides the helmet catch and Plaxico touchdown) until last week. I’ve now had to Google “Super Bowl XLII box score” a dozen or so times in the past week and a half, and it’s killed me every single time.

What’s killed me even more is that 16-0 banner hanging at Gillette. I don’t know why they didn’t just print a banner that said “We lost one time to the Giants,” because that’s all I see when I look at that thing.

Keefe: Media Day came and went without really anyone saying anything that can be considered bulletin board material. Unless the Giants want to hang up the transcript of Rob Gronkowski using the word “day” 49 times in one sentence and somehow get pumped about it. There weren’t any real “guarantees” but rather a lot of “expect” and “hopefully.” And to my dismay, Tom Brady didn’t laugh sarcastically at anyone on the Giants.

Brady is the biggest sports star in Boston and it’s no surprise that you wear his jersey to bed and have a Fathead size cutout of that picture of him shirtless holding a goat on your bedroom wall. And because Tom Brady is who he is, and has done what’s he done, the Patriots are favored by three points in the Super Bowl and no one really feels confident betting against arguably the best quarterback in the history of football. But in reality he might not be the better quarterback in this game. (That’s right I said it.)

Tom Brady is the Patriots. Everyone is favoring the Giants in almost every matchup on the field, except every argument always comes back to, “Well, the Patriots have Tom Brady.” And yes, TB12 has the three rings, but he also has had a lot of inconsistent games in the playoffs in recent years and most recently as the Patriots’ win over the Ravens. Did Brady pick apart an 8-8 Broncos team that ran a high school offense at Gillette Stadium? Yes. But aside from six-touchdown performance against a team that didn’t belong in the NFL playoffs, he really hasn’t played a good postseason game (and by good, I mean a game where you say, “Tom Brady won that game for the Patriots”) since the 2007 divisional round against Jacksonville and before that he hadn’t been good since 2006 wild-card round against the Jets. I’m sure you’re aware of all of this.

There is a common idea that “Tom Brady can’t have back-to-back bad games in the postseason,” but he can, and he has. I feel like Bostonians aren’t worried about Brady in this game and aren’t even considering the possibility that he might be average or worse like has been in eight of the 12 Patriots playoff games since their 2004 Super Bowl win over the Eagles.

How worried are you that Tom Brady might come out on Sunday and look like the Tom Brady that threw no touchdowns and two interceptions (and another two that were called back because of penalties)?

Hurley: I’ll look past your little “Manning is better than Brady” bit that you tried to sneak in there, mostly because it made me laugh too hard. Say whatever you want about Brady, but even if he were missing a leg and his left arm, he’d probably be able to avoid losing twice to the Redskins in the same season. He definitely wouldn’t throw four interceptions.

But there is reason to have some concern over Brady heading into Sunday. He was pretty bad against the Ravens, with the missed pass to wide-open Rob Gronkowski and the Lardarius Webb interception sticking out. Those mistakes were on Brady, but in terms of the overall numbers, you have to give credit to the Ravens’ defense. It was a unit that allowed just 11 passing touchdowns all season long and had 15 interceptions, so the Patriots knew the best way to score would be on the ground. Brady took care of one of those himself, too, thereby creating this photo that should become legendary in Boston sports history.

All that said, I don’t wear Tom Brady underoos, or whatever you suggested. I’m actually as harsh a critic of Brady as you’ll probably find in Boston. I believe he’s among the greatest of all time, and I still think he’s better than most of the quarterbacks in the league right now, but in no way is this the same quarterback that was in his prime four years ago. He’s certainly capable of having bad performances in back-to-back games … I just don’t think he will.

The Giants’ defense is horrible. The Patriots’ defense gets all the bad press, but the Giants’ defense is just as bad and maybe a little worse. Did you know the Giants allowed 25 points per game this year, and the Patriots allowed just 21.4? Did you know that despite that horrific New England secondary, the two teams allowed opposing QBs to throw for the exact same passer rating (86.1)? Or that the Patriots had more interceptions (23) than the Giants (20)?

Brady is going to have a day. He learned his lesson in the Super Bowl That Never Happened that he’s going to need to get rid of the ball quick, and the offense will game plan against that ferocious New York rush.

So no, I’m not worried at all that Brady will struggle on Sunday … unless is Plax is playing defense.

Keefe: Why isn’t Ray Lewis playing up near the line more on the touchdown in that picture? Did he just concede the touchdown and think, “Well, I’m going to try and break Tom Brady in half after he scores?” This is as much of a mystery to me as Lee Evans not holding onto the ball and the Ravens not calling timeout before the potential game-tying field goal.

Yes, the Giants’ defense was horrible. That’s right … was horrible. That was before the defensive line got healthy and the linebackers weren’t taking turns missing games due to injuries. The Giants lost most of their defense in preseason, and still managed to get it together enough times during the season and down the stretch to reach the Super Bowl, so I have to give them credit and you should too.

The Patriots are sort of similar in that it took them most of the season to figure out how to defend against the pass and how to prevent points on every drive. The problem is even if the Giants’ secondary plays as bad as they did for a lot of the season, they still have a great pass rush, and probably the best in the game, which can cancel out the bad secondary. What do the Patriots do well on defense? Hope that receivers don’t hold on to the ball tight enough or long enough in the end zone so they can knock it down? And the interception number is hard to put any faith in when the Giants played the hardest schedule in the league and saw Brady, Rodgers and Brees among others in the regular season. But, hey, if you’re content with the Patriots’ regular season numbers including four games against Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne/Matt Moore, then I guess we have come a long way from when you expected more from the Patriots.

Let’s be honest here … both teams hit massive, and I mean massive parlays to be playing in this game on Sunday. The Giants needed Tony Romo to overthrow a wide-open Miles Austin. They needed Victor Cruz to score a 99-yard touchdown against the Jets and change the momentum in a must-win game. They needed to beat the Cowboys again in Week 17 to make the playoffs. They needed the Falcons to win and the Lions to lose in Week 17, so that they could face the Falcons instead of the Lions in the wild-card round. They had to go to Green Bay and beat the Packers who hadn’t lost in Green Bay since Oct. 17, 2010. They needed the 49ers led by Alex Smith to miraculously come back in the final minute against the Saints and eliminate the Saints because if the Giants had to go to New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game, they weren’t coming back. Then in the NFC Championship, they needed the 49ers’ backup punt returner to let a punt go off his knee to give the Giants great field position to score then they needed the refs to prematurely blow the whistle on an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, and then they needed the same backup punt returner to fumble in overtime. To cap things off, they needed Steve Weatherford to handle a snap on the game-winning field goal that included a slippery and soaked ball that had to be held in the mud.

The Patriots’ parlay didn’t last as long, but it was every bit as ridiculous. They needed the 8-8 Broncos to knock off the Steelers (one of only three teams to beat the Patriots in the regular season) in order to play the much lesser opponent in Denver at home. Then they needed the Ravens to not notice Julian Edelman covering Anquan Boldin for the majority of the game. They needed Joe Flacco to throw a brainfart interception to destroy a great drive. They needed John Harbaugh to not go for it on fourth-and-1, but later go for it on fourth-and-6. They needed Lee Evans to incredibly not hang on to the ball in the end zone. And finally they needed a combination of the Billy Cundiff not being ready because he didn’t know what down it was and the field-goal unit rushing on the field, and Harbaugh going into the offseason with a timeout to spare for Cundiff to miss a chip shot. I can’t sit here and say the Patriots shouldn’t be in this game like some people are because going by that logic then the Giants shouldn’t be here either.

We talk all the time about how many insane things have to happen to win a championship. I should know. I needed Mike Carey to take an extra millisecond to find his whistle on a near Eli sack and then for the ball to land in the middle of four Patriots stuck to David Tyree’s helmet for the Giants to win Super Bowl XLII. It’s amazing to me that the Patriots ever won three Super Bowls in four years when you think of the one-game elimination format and how every single snap can change the outcome of a season.

It’s been a while since things had to break right for the Patriots to get where they are. Would you say the last time they needed this many things to break just right was during their 2001 run? Where does this Patriots team stack up for you in the Tom Brady Era?

You say so many things in these email exchanges — many which make you look like a stupid person — that I can’t possibly respond to all of it. I’m sure you’re right though. The Giants only faced Hall of Fame quarterbacks and the Patriots only faced bums. Seems reasonable.

Regarding whether or not the Patriots needed to catch more breaks this season than any other since ’01, the answer is absolutely not. Like you said, every single champion needs tons of breaks. So as not to bore everyone to tears, I’ll run through what the Patriots needed to win those three Super Bowls:

A comeback in the snow, The Tuck Rule, an absolutely impossible kick in the snow, a Drew Bledsoe touchdown pass, a Troy Brown lateral to Antwan Harris on a blocked field goal, the lack of penalty in 2001 for punching a quarterback in the face, a dropped Drew Bennett pass, a few Peyton Manning brainfarts, a John Kasay kick out of bounds, and a big pile of Donovan McNabb’s vomit.

What was crazy is that despite all of those fortunate breaks, everyone in New England expected the Patriots to win every single year for the next three seasons. That obviously didn’t happen, but it helped everyone appreciate just how special that little run is.

I do agree that a ton has gone right for the Patriots this season, namely that the AFC was as weak as I ever remember it being. The best team (Pittsburgh) was too banged up to win in January, so it left a free-for-all. So it left the Patriots, who I feel are much closer to mediocre than they are great, to take advantage and make it to the Super Bowl and play the Giants, who to me are in that same class. And yet, what makes it so great is that we’re all anticipating one of the best Super Bowls ever.

In terms of where this team stacks up in the Tom Brady era, I’m a little biased. I’m more of an old-school football fan. I miss defense. I love 6-3 games. I miss when players were allowed to hit each other. I miss watching the Patriots’ defensive backs be bullies. I miss Romeo Crennel calling in the signals from the sidelines with his big red jacket on. I miss the underdog Tedy Bruschi breaking down and tackling all-world running back Marshall Faulk in the open field. You know?

So as fun as it is to watch Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker run roughshod over opposing defenses, I’ll always miss the defense-first Patriots. This year’s team, you’ll probably notice, is, umm … not a defense-first team.

Keefe: I do say a lot of things, but most of them are true, and we both know that. (That’s not a joke or sarcasm. Ask A.J. Burnett and Boone Logan). But one thing I was wrong about was Tom Coughlin.

I never said that Coughlin should be fired midseason and I don’t think I said definitively that he should be fired after the season (at least not in writing, but maybe in a tweet). I did say that the Giants would fire him after the season if the team didn’t make the playoffs, and he was 5:41 in Dallas away from that happening. Now he’s being compared to Bill Parcells, everyone is guessing how long his extension will be for and there are debates as to whether or not he will be in the Hall of Fame. The Giants’ turnaround is remarkable, but Coughlin’s turnaround in the public eye and in Giants history might be more amazing.

It’s weird because the same thing sort of happened with Bill Belichick. No, his job status and legacy weren’t in question, but everyone was ripping his general managerial decisions and questioning his draft strategies. His young defense was getting dominated and lit up and after the Patriots lost back-to-back games to the Steelers and Giants, a lot of people wondered if the Hooded One’s reign was slowly coming to an end.

But here are the Patriots, back in the Super Bowl with a supposedly terrible young defense that just shut down the Broncos (maybe not that hard) and the Ravens (maybe not that hard either but it happened), and about to face one of the best offenses in the game. No one is complaining about Belichick’s roster and personnel decisions now.

Were you one of the ones to question him during the year? When did this young defense finally begin to understand his coaching style and his system and turn it around?

Hurley: I love Tom Coughlin, I really do, but I did find more than a little bit of humor when everyone was talking about him getting fired, when just a few short weeks earlier, his players lifted him above their heads in the visiting locker room in New England. It was very Rex Ryan, regular-season Super Bowl of him, which was funny, but I’m not completely sick, so I’m happy things turned around for him.

I don’t remember what I had for breakfast, let alone what I thought of Belichick three months ago, but I do think you’d have to be nuts not to wonder how a defense with Julian Edelman taking serious snaps was going to compete in the (wait for the emphasis) National Football League. Between Phillip Adams and James Ihedigbo and Nate Jones and Sterling Moore, you had to wonder how exactly the Patriots were even competing, let alone winning. That was always a question mark.

I didn’t bash Belichick though because I think this past offseason was perhaps his finest ever in finding free-agent talent. No, not in Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth, but in Brian Waters and Andre Carter. Waters has been outstanding at right guard, and if it weren’t for his steady play, the loss of center Dan Koppen in Week 1 would have been catastrophic. Carter was just an absolute monster and provided some serious veteran leadership for the rest of the locker room to follow. It definitely took a while to all come together, but the team ended up getting the job done.

Oh, and you can’t really crush a guy for his draft decisions when he snags Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, thereby creating a completely new dynamic for Tom Brady’s offense.

Keefe: A day after the championship games, you told me the Giants were going to win the Super Bowl. The same person who is pro-Patriots everything and the same person who ripped apart (and rightfully so I guess) the Giants in every picks column this year and whined about having to watch the Giants on FOX in Boston told me that the Giants would beat the Patriots. I’m not sure if it was your attempt at a joke or a reverse jinx or maybe you had a few too many Bud Lights in you when you told me this, but I couldn’t believe it.

Fast forward to Tuesday when you tell me that the Patriots are going to beat the Giants. I knew it would come eventually. I knew that you weren’t going to go into this Super Bowl and pick the Giants to win, especially after what they did to you four years ago. If the ’72 Dolphins or ’85 Bears were playing the Patriots this weekend I wouldn’t expect you to pick them over your Patriots. You told me that you re-watched the Week 9 game and that the Patriots are going to win by 11 points, so maybe you can explain what you saw and expect for those reading this.

To me, the Giants are the better team. They got healthy and hot at the right time and are following the 2007 blueprint (as Disney-esque as it seems, all the similarities are there). They already beat the Patriots in Foxboro without Hakeem Nicks, David Baas and Ahmad Bradshaw (I know you think Bradshaw doesn’t count). Now the Giants are even better than they were then and playing the Patriots at a neutral site this time. Umm, yeah…

I love the questions being asked about whether or not the Giants can stop Rob Gronkowski (if he’s healthy) and Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. I’m pretty sure I watched the Giants beat the Patriots with those three in Week 9. And aside from tight end, the Giants are superior in every part of the game, and without Gronkowski or without him at 100 percent, I’m not sure the Patriots are superior anywhere. But I guess watching Julian Edelman and Chad Ochocinco catch passes will be fun. Though it won’t be as much fun as watching Edelman play defense against the best wide receiver trio in the league.

It was fun being your “friend.” I’m sorry our friendship had to end this way.

I’m going with Giants 21, Patriots 17.

Hurley: I’ll admit, I was very down on the Patriots after that Ravens game. How could you not be? And I looked at what the Giants had done in the past five games, and I looked at the two teams, and I couldn’t honestly say that the Patriots were the better team. Like many others, I thought the Giants would be four-point favorites, and I was stunned to see they were 3.5-point underdogs.

I’ve done a lot of thinking since then, and I re-watched that Week 9 meeting at Gillette. I was at that game, but I forgot most of it. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think the Patriots looked to be the superior team. It was ugly, and the Giants, of course, won the game, but I watched as the Patriots simply outplayed the Giants.

You said you’re “pretty sure” you watched the Giants beat Welker and Gronkowski in Week 9, but Welker had nine catches for 136 yards and Gronkowski had eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown say otherwise. Hernandez had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown, too. Where the Patriots lost that game was in turning the ball over. They did it four times. You should never still be in a football game when you turn the ball over four times, but the Patriots led by three points with 1:36 left on the clock. That speaks to the Patriots being a much better team that day.

Considering that the Patriots only had 17 giveaways all season, I think it’s safe to assume they won’t repeat those mistakes this time around. If they hold on to the ball, that alone should make the difference in winning or losing.

Yes, the addition of Bradshaw into the equation makes no difference, because the Giants are the worst running team in the NFL and every single time Kevin Gilbride calls for a handoff on Sunday it will be a win for the Patriots. Nicks is a big addition, but Kyle Arrington can stick with him enough to limit a breakout game. Victor Cruz was the biggest problem in Week 9 and he will be again in the Super Bowl. He’ll rack up a ton of yards, but the Patriots will keep him out of the end zone, just like they did last time. And field goals aren’t going to win this game.

I agree that it’s sad that our relationship has to end, though I feel that way for different reasons.

Patriots 34, Giants 23.

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