And All That Could Have Been

. Tuesday, February 5, 2008
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The New England Patriots were supposed to finish the season as the undefeated, 19-0 Superbowl Champions. They were supposed to roll into Superbowl XLII and demolish an over-matched and under-experienced New York Giants football team. They were supposed to claim the throne as the "Greatest Team Ever".

Wait a minute, wasn't someone supposed to tell the Giants?

Because apparently, they didn't get the memo that they were supposed to just roll over and die. The Giants once again rallied together against a team that, on paper at least, they had no business beating, to pull off one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, defeating the Patriots, 17-14.

It was the crowning achievement for a Giants team that has overcome so much adversity from members of the media and even former teammates questioning whether coach Tom Coughlin or quarterback Eli Manning had what it took to take the team to the next level.

Coughlin proved that he was not the same hard-nosed, drill seargant that nearly got ran out of town by his own players two years ago, and Eli proved that his mistake filled past may finally be behind him.

Neither have any intention of going anywhere, and with the young nucleus the team has, it's a safe bet that this team will be contenders for quite sometime. It's too early to, as Dennis Green would say, "crown" Eli Manning.

One play from that final drive that will likely go overlooked is an overthrown ball intended for Amani Toomer that fell in and out of the hands of Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel. So, you can't say he's completely out of the woods yet, but the Eli Manning we saw in the postseason is drastically different from the Eli Manning we've seen since he came into the NFL.

While it's clear that the Giants have a bright future, what is a little less clear is what is going to become of this Patriots team.

This team had everything. The mastermind head coach, the record-breaking quarterback, the record-breaking wide receiver and a veteran-laden defense with plenty of Superbowl and playoff experience. They were labeled the "best team ever" halfway through the regular season and it was certainly hard to argue against that given the accolades they were gobbling up.

Getting so far and falling short has to be a bitter pill to swallow. The Miami Dolphins were the laughing stock of the NFL this season after finishing 1-15. All things considered though, the sorrow, regret and "what if's?" that ran through the mind of the players of that 1-15 team were probably nothing compared to the same questions and emotions that ran through the heads of the 18-1 Patriots as their 2008 season came to an end.

The Patriots had a chance to stake their claim as the greatest team, dynasty, coach, quarterback, receiver, waterboy, trainer, etc. of all-time and with the loss, are now at risk of being just a footnote in history.

It's tough to get back to the Superbowl and it's even tougher to get back after losing in the big game the year before. Making things tougher is the fact that the Patriots will be faced with a number of key personnel questions in the off-season. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau are both free agents and even if the money is there to sign them, the true question will be do they have enough left in the tank that it would be worth re-upping their contracts, or is it time to cut bait and bring in younger players?

Randy Moss is also a free agent and while I'm sure he'd love to return to New England, he's not going to come at the bargain basement price he did this season. Early reports say he's looking for at least $9 million a year to re-sign with the Patriots.

Cornerback Asante Samuel is a free agent after being given the team's franchise tag this season. The Patriots likely will have to make a choice between keeping Samuel and Moss.

Then again, if the team can somehow finagle a way under the salary cap to re-sign all these players, will it even matter? Bringing all of them back would leave no money to make other acquisitions to the team. It would, however, give the Patriots a chance to make one more run with the same squad that flirted with perfection, but if they couldn't close the deal this year with literally everything in their favor, why would they be able to in 2009?

You can never count out a team with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but it's hard to figure out how a team, even with the mental makeup the Patriots have, can rebound and put such a disappointing season behind them and move ahead without thinking about how close they were to perfection and what could have been.