History denied: Belichick, Brady stymied by Giants yet again

INDIANAPOLIS -- The gray hoodie, cut off just below the elbows, was wet and splotchy. But the dark spots above the pouch were the product of perspiration, not a Gatorade bath. The man underneath the ubiquitous outerwear was as stoic and curt in defeat as expected.

On the cusp of history, with the New England Patriots coach seeking his fourth Super Bowl win -- a coaching high mark only legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll has achieved -- Belichick came up just a play or two short. Once again, he had lost on a last-minute touchdown drive by the New York Giants, this time by a 21-17 margin at Lucas Oil Stadium. There would be none of the occasional smiles, small talk and quips he had shared with the media leading up to the final game of this thrilling NFL season. Not in defeat.

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He wouldn't elaborate on the penalties and mistakes that cost his team glory -- the first-possession safety, the 12-men-on-the-field mishap, Wes Welker's drop of a potential game-changing pass in the fourth quarter. This was a time for clichés, not specifics. Belichick wouldn't elaborate on any of his conversations with his players, or with Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who once worked alongside him on Bill Parcells' legendary Giants staff. He wouldn't discuss how this loss compared to the defeat to the Giants four years ago. He wouldn't even talk to NBC for the postgame show.

He simply walked purposely to a riser mere minutes after defeat, calmly moved the folding chair aside and launched into Losing Belichick Mode: "They just made a couple of more plays than we did," he said, a mantra repeated throughout his postgame remarks.

Thing is, he was right.

Like seemingly all of the New York/New England matchups the last few years, this was a game of inches and close calls, a contest that hinged on a decision here or there. The clichés applied. The Patriots had to chase this game through the first half, and never pulled far enough away from Eli Manning -- a fourth-quarter surgeon who is suddenly tugging at Tom Brady's suit coat with his second Lombardi Trophy. It could have gone either way.

It began with a safety, on an intentional grounding call in the end zone on the Patriots' very first offensive play. In a game of few turnovers, New England forced two second-half fumbles ... and both times the Giants recovered. "The ball really didn't bounce our way," Brady said, still stuck one Super Bowl behind Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, who both own four rings.

New England just couldn't generate any explosive plays in the game. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell suffocated the Pats with his Cover-2 shell, and New England's longest play went for just 21 yards (to Chad Ochocinco, of all people). The young tight ends couldn't break free. Brady's downfield options were limited.

"When the few opportunities were there, we didn't connect," Patriots receiver Deion Branch said of the struggles against the two-deep safeties. "So we just took what they gave us."

"We really didn't make any big plays," Brady said, "so you need those methodical drives."

Brady was on fire for a stretch of the second and third quarters, hitting 16 straight passes, including 10 straight on an epic, 14-play, 96-yard four-minute drill to end the first half and give the Patriots their first lead, 10-9. They followed that with an eight-play drive to open the second half, culminating with Aaron Hernandez's 12-yard touchdown catch, which ended up accounting for New England's final points of the game.

New England's defense, getting after Manning in the first half, wasn't generating as much pressure after the break. "They were just getting the ball off (quickly)," defensive end Mark Anderson said. "The backs were chipping us a lot." And Manning's fourth-quarter heroics were about to grow. But first came an agony of the Patriots' own creation.

The Pats clung to a 17-15 lead, driving into New York territory with under five minutes to play. On second-and-11, Welker broke free far downfield -- such a rarity in this game -- with a chance to put New England in position for a field goal, at least. The ball sailed slightly high, with Brady trying to avoid New York's defensive backs, but the sure-handed Welker was able to get both of his mitts firmly behind the ball. He simply could not make the catch, and the drive died.

"It hit me right in the hands," Welker said, his eyes red and bleary. "That's one I have to live with."

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, he would make that catch," Branch said. "That's football. Nobody is perfect."

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With Welker's contract expiring, Brady didn't hesitate to campaign for his close friend and security blanket: "He's a hell of a player, and I'd like to keep throwing the ball to him as long as I possibly can." (Fear not, Pats fans -- he will surely be back.)

After this miscue, the table was set for one last dramatic turn -- at the Patriots' expense.

The Giants took possession at their own 12, with just under four minutes to play. On the very first play of the drive, Manning dropped back in the pocket, looked off the Cover-2 safety and unleashed a perfect throw down the left sideline to Mario Manningham. The Giants receiver hauled in the pass between Pats defensive backs Sterling Moore and Patrick Chung and successfully got his feet down for a momentous 38-yard gain. It was the most explosive play of the night, and fittingly, the play of the game.

Manningham caught two more balls on the drive after a silent first half, and Ahmad Bradshaw eventually scored a gift touchdown, with Belichick allowing the Giants to score with under a minute to play. Bradshaw's decision to take the ball into the end zone -- something he clearly second-guessed mid-play -- was beyond bone-headed. It gave Brady a shot to win with a timeout remaining.

"We're always confident with Tom Brady as our quarterback," wounded tight end Rob Gronkowski said of the situation.

New England proceeded to reach midfield, with the game coming down to a last-play Hail Mary.

Brady flashed back to David Tyree's circus catch that keyed New York's comeback win over New England in Super Bowl XLII, hoping his team could muster a miracle of their own.

"I thought we had a chance to make one of those," Brady said.

But alas, it was not to be. The final pass fell to the ground in the end zone. And Brady and Belichick are still chasing that fourth ring.

As Belichick strode solemnly back to the Patriots' locker room, a contrasting scene played out just off his right shoulder: Coughlin and Manning celebrating amid the confetti, suddenly only one ring behind the Patriots' dynamic duo.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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