EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The conversation continues, but it isn't over.
Greatest team ever. Greatest season ever.
Both apply to the New England Patriots, but only for the regular season.
Even stoic Bill Belichick allowed himself to enjoy the moment, as much he can enjoy any moment.
Yes, Belichick actually used the word "happy" in consecutive sentences.
However, as he well knows, there is so much more for the Patriots to achieve before the story is complete, before we can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that their 2007 edition is the best this league has ever seen. The '72 Dolphins aren't remembered for their 14-0 regular season. They're remembered for going 17-0. The Patriots have to go 19-0 before they surpass that Miami team and take their rightful place at the top of the NFL mountain.
That isn't to take a single thing away from the game the Pats won to achieve regular-season perfection. It was an impressive effort, requiring their fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season. They had to earn this one, which made it doubly sweet.
The Patriots faced an opponent that was determined to bring their historic season to a halt. Despite already securing a playoff spot, the Giants played their starters the whole way. And they played extremely hard.
But so did the Patriots, whose only motivation was to stay perfect. All season, they attempted to downplay the importance of that, stressing that their mission was not to be unbeaten in the regular season but to win a fourth Super Bowl. Yet, their performance against the Giants clearly indicated otherwise. The Pats also stuck with their starters the whole way, treating the game as if it were a playoff.
"It was kind of a tricky game, because it really doesn't mean that much but it means a lot," Tom Brady said.
Brady was his brilliant self, completing 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns. That gave him 50 touchdown passes for the season, one more than Peyton Manning's record. And both throws went to Randy Moss, whose 23 scoring catches broke a record held by Jerry Rice. It also shouldn't be overlooked that this Patriots team scored 589 points, more than any team in NFL history.
Brady enhanced the case that he should be regarded as the best quarterback, if not best player, to ever play the game. If he puts a fourth Super Bowl ring on his finger, that, too, will be an assertion that won't meet many arguments.
But the Pats have a lot of work to do before that discussion or the one about this being the NFL's greatest team can continue.
"It's a great feeling, and now is the time to take a day or two and appreciate what this team has done," Belichick said. "But at the same time, we have our biggest game of the year coming up, and we are going to have to be ready for that."
Although they allowed a surprisingly high number of points against a Giants team that had been struggling offensively, the Patriots' defense played with a great deal of passion. In particular, linebacker Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison were all over the field making plays.
Yet, the Patriots played two games. The one they played in the first half was not representative of a team looking to forge a place history. They were lifeless, almost going through the motions as teams with nothing on the line often do in a final regular season game. That caused them to fall into a 28-16 hole in the third quarter.
The Patriots would climb out of that hole with a pair of Laurence Maroney touchdown runs and the game's most explosive play, Brady's 65-yard scoring throw to Moss.
"We came out -- offensively, defensively, special teams -- and we didn't play particularly well in the first half," Harrison said. "No emotion, no energy. In the second half, we played a lot better, particularly in the fourth quarter, and it felt good to come out and make plays and play Patriot Football and not just slack it out there.
"In the second half, we matched (the Giants') intensity, and we made more plays."
The players celebrated in the dressing room, but it wasn't anything memorable. After all, several of them have been part of Super Bowl celebrations. They know the difference between winning a final regular-season game, even one that made them 16-0, and winning the only final game of the season that matters.
"Everyone's going to enjoy this one," Brady said. "This happens once every 35 years, so we'll celebrate for a couple of days and get ready for the next one."
And if the Patriots win the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, we'll be able to call their 2007 team and their 2007 season the greatest.
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