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What might have been

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Maybe it should be arranged that through the foreseeable future -- until at least either Tom Coughlin or Bill Belichick pack it in or Eli Manning and Tom Brady wander off to their ultimate reward in Canton, Ohio -- we might have annual renewals of this thing the Patriots and Giants have lately concocted for our deep winter amusement. I say these two need to go at it, hammer and tong, again and again at the end of every season until one of them has won four out of seven.

Not that the two Soupeys they've so bitterly fought have necessarily been the best ever waged. But they have surely been the two most dramatic featuring the same two teams in a given era representing two city-states generally regarded as the Athens and Sparta of their times. All of which adds a certain essential grit to the infernal mosaic of the thing and accounts for the wonderful edge they bring to this opus which is otherwise too often overwhelmed by its own insufferable folderol.

It's a fact that in spite of all that profound banality which we annually bemoan we still can't get enough of Soupey. Some consider this irrefutable notion to be a grievous flaw in our makeup as an allegedly enlightened society. I, for one, am willing to leave it to the cultural anthropologists to fathom what all that really means. This much, however, remains clear; Karl Marx, a boring fellow who knew nothing about things as trivial as games, had it wrong. It is not religion that is the opiate of the masses. It is sports.

In that warm and loving spirit, we arrived at Soupey XLVI; skeptical -- as usual -- yet hopeful and Soupey XLVI did not disappoint. It was no thing of beauty. The greatest games in all of the sports are always defined by their blunders with the more excruciating the miscues the more memorable the occasion. We here in these parts, who have dined on such bittersweet gruel for about a century, know all about that stuff. Where will this one rank in the immortal roll call? Pretty bloody high, I'd bet; somewhere in the neighborhood of "Too many men on the Ice" and "Bucky Bleepin Dent."

Sure, a wide-open Wes Welker probably should have caught that pass in the waning moments and if he had that would likely have sealed the deal. But then it was hardly a well-thrown ball or easy catch. Tom Brady may have completed a record-busting 16 straight in one stretch but not in the fourth quarter when the issue got ratcheted up to epic levels of stress and daring. Brady, a stand-up guy, was the first to acknowledge that gaudy statistics not withstanding this was not his finest hour.

It was a game that's already a timeless feast for second-guessers and arm chair analysts including all of us in my doge and as usual most of the key questions will never get answered. If Rob Gronkowski, their all-world tight-end playing with a badly sprained ankle, can't out-run, out-leap and out-fight a lumbering linebacker summoned from retirement three months ago then he shouldn't have been in the game. Chase Blackburn's theft of the ball on the eight yard-line in that unforgettable fourth quarter saved the Giants. Eli, son of Archie, likely has no chance to play Horatio at the Bridge at the end if an unknown scrub who was teaching math to eighth-graders back in Ohio in November does not make the play of his lifetime.

And that is what makes the games wonderful; the inevitability of them turning on such small but fabulous ironies, like David Tyree's miraculous grab the last time they met at the brink. Mario Manningham's clutch reception in the opening foray of Eli Manning's winning drive was this year's variation, a 38 yard thunder-bolt that clearly rattled the Pats to their core. If it was not as impossible as Tyree's near-mindless heroics, it was no less crucial.

Actually, tough though it was the wonder of it was not so much the catch as the throw. Eli will never heave one that's "more perfect," nor has even wondrous big-brother Peyton ever done so. And there's no defense against a perfectly thrown ball. Boss Belichick challenged it because he felt he had no choice but you could tell from his sheepish demeanor that he knew Manningham had stayed in bounds and he had the best view in the house. If Belichick had no choice it nonetheless proved to be not a good one, costing him a time-out that would have been precious in those final 57 seconds.

This loss has to be awfully hard for Belichick to swallow. Winning it this year with a team notably deficient in key areas and with his ace in the hole -- the dynamic horse of a tight end who was virtually hors de combat -- would have been his master stroke, the definitive and final verification of his widely presumed but not yet validated genius. One imagines he wanted that, well more than merely desperately, and he came so very close; ultimately within the mere inches that Aaron Hernandez came of catching Brady's end of the game "Hail Mary." Now wouldn't that have been something!

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