From the very start, Sunday nights Patriots-49ers game had the makings of something special. Before the opening kick even landed in Devin McCourtys gut, you just knew that these teams were about to make a memory.
It was a classic match-up. Two storied franchises. The No. 1 offense vs. the top ranked defense. It was national TV. The Game of the Week. The grand finale to the most significant Sunday of the NFL season.
There was the weather. The cold, the rain, the ice and more than anything, the fog. It set an almost mythical scene. Like they were playing on a Hollywood set. You could see the players breathe, the rain pouring off their helmets. You knew Steve Sabol was smiling somewhere. As the game went on, the jerseys started to bleed. The whole thing devolved into a sloppy mess. But in perfect football fashion, as the conditions worsened, the drama heightened.
Above all else, there was Newtown, CT. There was that chilling tribute before the national anthem, the Presidents first quarter address and the general sense of disappointment, sorrow and confusion thats existed in all of us since the news broke on Friday afternoon.
While the shootings at Sandy Hook made the whole institution of sports, and really, everything else, feel completely insignificant, games like last night continue to serve an essential purpose in helping us cope with disaster. Obviously, theres something inherently selfish about that statement, because you know that the families and friends directly affected by the massacre couldnt have cared less about yesterdays action. But even in our countrys absolute worst moments, sports have consistently served as a unifying force in the face of tragedy. At the very least, theyre a distraction. And theres no doubt that Patriots and 49ers promised to give us that. But there was something in the air that felt like they might give us more. The stage was set for something truly special.
So, when did you first start to believe that the comeback was real? At what point did you put off your plans of going to bed early and settle down for the long haul?
For me, it was Tom Brady on fourth and goal. He got in, and I knew the game was on. I knew Brady was on. As he got up from that pile, there was a look in his eyes that we hadn't seen in some time. He looked like a super hero of fourth quarters past. Everything he did the way he fired the ball back and forth to stay warm on the sidelines, the way he spiked the ball into the turf after the Niners were granted that defensive timeout made you believe that the Pats were about to win the game.
For some reason, I kept thinking back to that Monday night in Denver. The night Bill Belichick sacrificed a safety and Brady found David Givens at the pile-on to win it. The confidence that Brady had shown during that drive was now on display every time New England got the ball. It was over. Soon, this game would be remembered the same way we remember that comeback in Denver which happened more than nine years ago, but still feels like yesterday. It was about to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in one of the greatest careers in NFL history. It was headed to the Hall of Fame.
We'd never forget the night Brady brought them back from 31-3.
But now, that night doesn't exist.
That's because the Pats fell short.
In the end, for all the comparisons between last night and some of the greatest comebacks of Brady's career, Sunday serves as a another reminder of a more recent chapter in Patriots' history one featuring a team that can never quite get over the hump. A team that forever keeps you believing that things are how they used to be . . . only to consistently fall on its face just short of the prize.
Now, obviously this loss isn't the end of the world. Certainly not after the way this weekend started, but even in a pure football sense. The Pats are still one of only a handful of teams with real Super Bowl aspirations. There's still every reason to believe that they have enough talent to finish on top. After last night, the road will be a lot tougher. The Pats are more than likely destined for the No. 3 seed, which means an extra game in the Wild Card round, (presumably) followed by trips to Denver and Houston. But what are you going to do?
The bottom line is that the Patriots are still good enough to win. The AFC, at least. And if by some chance they make it to New Orleans and face a rematch with the 49ers? They'll be good enough to win that one, too. Knowing Vegas, the Pats will probably be favored. At that point, we'll look back last night's game and retroactively obsess over the importance of New England's failed comeback. We'll talk about how essential it was that they proved that they can beat the Niners 'D', about the benefits of having a full game against Colin Kaepernick under their belts.
But for now, we'll just remember last night as another failure on the doorstep of greatness. And hope that the resulting shift in the AFC playoff picture isn't too much for the Pats to overcome.