Thursday, February 3, 2011

February 3, 2008: Not quite perfect

GLENDALE, Ari. - How many things have to go exactly right in order for a football team to go undefeated? Everybody has to stay healthy, all those weird bounces the ball can take have to go in that team's favor, that team has to rise to the occasion throughout the season as they become a bigger and bigger target.

But perhaps most importantly, to go undefeated, you have to go an entire season without making the kind of killer mistakes that can cost you a game. And if you make such a mistake, you cannot let the other team capitalize.

Only two NFL teams have entered the Super Bowl undefeated, and both made potentially devestating mistakes late in the fourth quarter. The 1972 Dolphins had a scare when kicker Garo Yapremian tried to pass on a blocked field goal, fumbling a ball that led to the Washington touchdown that cut the Dolphins' lead to 14-7. Fortunately for Yapremian, the Dolphins held on to win the game and complete the perfect season.

For the 2007 Patriots, their killer mistake came with 1:17 left in the game. New England had just taken a 14-10 lead with 2:42 left in the fourth quarter, and the Giants were slowly starting to drive down field. As the Giants approached midfield Eli Manning threw a pass that seemed destined to be intercepted, but New England's Asante Samuel let the ball slip through his fingers to fall incomplete.

Now, defenders drop interceptions all the time. It's why they play defense instead of offense. There have been countless dropped interceptions that have led to nothing in NFL history, and there was no reason that a team like the Patriots should let one ruin their season. But this one felt different. It felt different because of the ease with which the Giants had driven downfield to score a touchdown on their previous drive, and it felt different because of how close the Giants had played the Patriots in the final regular season game. There were undoubtedly many Patriots fans who looked at each other after Manning's pass slipped through Samuel's fingers and thought "uh oh."

Yapremian's mistake has lived on in NFL history despite the fact that the Dolphins won that Super Bowl to finish undefeated. Samuel's dropped interception, though, has started to fade from the memory, mostly because of what happened on the next play.

Manning avoided the first sack attempt - by Adalius Thomas - by simply stepping up in the pocket. He squeezed out of the grasps of Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour by ... well, I don't think even Manning himself knows how he got out of that one. Nobody does. We just know that he somehow spun out of the grip of two players, stepped back, and fired it deep downfield, where David Tyree leapt up to catch it, then pinned it against his helmet as Rodney Harrison desperately tried to wrestle the ball away.

The "Helmet Catch" will go down as one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history. It's true that it didn't officially win the game - Manning's pass to Plaxico Burress a few plays later did that - but it was over at that point. Anybody who saw Manning's escape and Tyree's catch knew that the Patriots' incredible run of luck was over, and that there was no way the Giants were going to be denied.

Manning's escape and Tyree's catch are going to be what live on about this game long after all the participants have retired (In fact, Tyree has already retired, with the Helmet Catch being his final catch in his NFL career). But that stunning, once-in-a-lifetime play would never have happened if Asante Samuel had just held on to the ball.

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