The New England Patriots’ path to perfection has one last hurdle: a New York team of road warriors hoping for a Giant upset.
”We’ll try to elevate our game for one last performance,” said Tom Brady, the Patriots’ dimple-chinned, record-setting quarterback with the model girlfriend.
Brady and the Patriots (18-0) will try to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to complete an undefeated season when they face Eli Manning and the Giants on Feb. 3 in the Super Bowl at Glendale, Ariz.
”I think you enter the season and you’re hoping to put together a bunch of great wins and you realize there’s challenges every step of the way,” Brady said after beating San Diego 21-12 in the AFC championship game Sunday. ”To not have a letdown like most teams have – we had a few letdowns or times where we didn’t play our best, but we overcame them.”
Standing in the Patriots’ way are the Giants (13-6) and Manning – Peyton’s little brother, whose moxie and leadership abilities no longer can be questioned.
”We haven’t been given a shot, but we’re here,” Manning said of his Giants, who have won 10 straight on the road – including a 23-20 overtime win at Green Bay in the NFC title game. ”I think we’re deserving of it.”
Las Vegas oddsmakers might think differently. They installed New England as a 13½-point favorite in the big game, in which New York will get another shot at destroying the Patriots’ path to perfection.
New England won 38-35 in its final game of the regular season, rallying from a 12-point second-half deficit against the Giants. The teams also played in the preseason finale, when New England won – with Brady sitting that one out.
Brady and the Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven years. A win in this one would rank the Patriots as perhaps the greatest champion in NFL history – Spygate a long-forgotten speedbump.
In that scandal, the Patriots were fined $250,000 and coach Bill Belichick $500,000 for violating league rules by training a sideline camera on New York Jets coaches in their season-opening win. New England was stripped of its first-round draft pick next season, but the team stood by its coach.
And the Patriots never wavered.
”I think there’s special guys on this team that have stepped up all year when they needed to,” Brady said.
Maybe none more than New England’s record-breaking – and heartbreaking – quarterback.
Brady started this special season by becoming a father for the first time as his ex-girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan, gave birth to their son. Brady’s now dating former Victoria’s Secret model Gisele Bundchen, making them gossip fodder around the world.
When the football-hurling heartthrob got back to business, he became a cover story for other reasons.
Brady threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes in the regular season, with 23 of those to Randy Moss, who topped Jerry Rice’s record. Brady was also the league’s Most Valuable Player in helping New England score an NFL-record 589 points.
”They played great all year,” Belichick said. ”I’m very lucky to coach this team.”
Linebacker Junior Seau quickly returned the compliment: ”Bill is definitely the best coach ever.”
And the Patriots are on the verge of making NFL history.
”Now we can look ahead,” Belichick said.
They sure can. And they’ll see a familiar foe in the Giants, whose run through the playoffs into their first Super Bowl since 2001 was jump-started by their valiant effort against the Patriots in the last week of the regular season.
”That got us going, momentum,” Manning said.
This is the same New York team that gave up 80 points in its first two games and had fans calling for coach Tom Coughlin to be fired. Those same fans also wondered whether Manning, acquired in a draft-day deal in 2004, would ever become a franchise-type quarterback like his brother.
Little brother is now in the Super Bowl with a chance to bring home a title of his own.
”It’s exciting, but it’s not about me,” Manning said in his typical aw-shucks manner. ”It’s about this whole team.”
Sure, Manning had a big hand in the Giants’ success, especially when the games took on greater meaning. He has been flawless in the postseason, completing a number of clutch throws without a turnover.
”It’s just a matter of getting hot at the right time,” Manning said. ”It feels good because this is what you work for.”
New York became the first NFC wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl since Dallas in 1975. And the Giants did it the hard way, winning all their road games after dropping their season opener at Dallas.
”We’re going on the road again,” Coughlin said. ”That’s good.”
New York visited Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay in the playoffs and went home winners. Next up is the biggest game of them all and a chance to make history by ending New England’s attempt at football immortality.
”We have a lot of faith and trust in ourselves,” Manning said.
At least neither team will have to worry about a frigid forecast in Arizona. On Sunday, New England beat San Diego in 23-degree temperatures at Foxborough, Mass., while New York edged Green Bay in subzero conditions at Lambeau Field.
”I’m glad it’s warm weather,” Brady said, flashing that familiar smile. ”Weather won’t be a factor. It should be exciting.”