An undercurrent of revenge

INDIANAPOLIS -- The jarring, jostling media arrived here, 5,156 strong, a record for the Super Bowl. They approached their task with the zeal and determination of forensic detectives, archaeologists sifting the rubble for … the elusive R-word.

Vainly, as it turned out.

Four years ago, the New York Giants stole the soul of the New England Patriots. The Giants won Super Bowl XLII 17-14, an extraordinary upset in the Arizona desert that prevented an unprecedented 19-0 season. The agony of that imperfect defeat, the Patriots acknowledged afterward, was excruciating.

What better way to exorcise those damned demons than to meet those same Giants in Super Bowl XLVI? On Sunday, at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Patriots have an opportunity to right that wrong, a chance to extract a sweet, searing slice of …


Except none of those who suffered that defeat will admit that this is what drives them.

The second question out of the box when the Patriots landed Sunday concerned revenge. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has refined coachspeak to an art, was asked whether this game had any special significance given the teams' last meeting in the postseason.

"They're all pretty special," he said, smiling.

Vince Wilfork, Brady's leadership counterpart on defense, said of his teammates, "As far as revenge and they're holding the torch and all, I don't think it's anything big."

Even the Giants are lowballing the emotional thrust the Patriots will take from that devastating defeat.

"It really doesn't matter that much," said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. "It was four years ago. A lot of come and go has taken place."

Alabama 21, LSU 0, Jan. 9, 2012:

After a grim, grinding 9-6 LSU victory two months earlier, the BCS national championship was anticlimactic, a relative blowout. "I was tired of hearing about how their team had turnovers and all that," said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. "Our guys have pride in that, too. I mean, they didn't score."

Brad Pitt, as the sketchy yet oddly charismatic Tyler Durden in the 1999 movie "Fight Club," lays down the law to newcomers. "The first rule of Fight Club is," he intones, "you do not talk about Fight Club."

The first rule of revenge is: You do not talk about revenge -- until after you have accomplished it.

"The only thing I am really focused on is winning this game," Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said. "Does that take care of what happened? No, I don't think so. But at the same time, I'm not worried about that.

"We haven't talked about it."

Heat 118, Cavaliers 90, Dec. 2, 2010:

LeBron James, in his hyped return to Cleveland, the city that trashed him when he took his talents to South Beach, scored a then-season-high 38 points, 24 alone in the third quarter. "I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans," he said afterward. The Cleveland bench players, however, reported that James spent much of the game taunting them.

The Patriots will dress 53 players for the Super Bowl, but only seven of them -- Brady, Wilfork, Welker, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Kevin Faulk and Stephen Gostkowski -- were on the field for Super Bowl XLII. The Giants have 15 carryovers.

Notable Patriots losses: Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Asante Samuel. Notable additions: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jerod Mayo and Chad Ochocinco.

"A lot of guys who are going to be key factors in this game did not play in that last Super Bowl," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning. "We have the mindset that this is a new game. What happened in the last Super Bowl doesn't matter.

"It's about what we do on Sunday."

Blue Jays 3, Red Sox 1, July 12, 1997:

After a dozen seasons with Boston, pitcher Roger Clemens joined the Blue Jays in 1997 when Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette made little effort to re-sign him. In Clemens' first start at Fenway Park in a visitor's uniform, he gave up only four hits and one run in eight innings -- striking out 16 batters. Several times during the game, he glared in the direction of the box where he believed Duquette was sitting. Clemens led the American League in victories, ERA and strikeouts in each of his two seasons in Toronto, winning the Cy Young award twice.

Digging diligently through the 400 or so pages of interview transcripts from the week, you can unearth a few clues about the Patriots' actual mindset.

"Any time you lose, it's a tough thing," Brady said early in the week. "We've lost one Super Bowl. I remember waking up in Arizona the next morning after an hour of sleep thinking, 'That was a nightmare, that didn't happen.'

"After time, you learn to move on and get over it. Anyone who loses in the playoffs knows it is difficult to deal with."

Brady has tried to avoid highlights of that game. In a team meeting the day after New England beat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, coach Bill Belichick counseled his players to "put your blinders on and focus on the target."

The Thrilla in Manila, Oct. 1, 1975:

This was the climax to the bloody, bitter rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. They had split their previous two fights, and the Philippines hosted this extraordinary rubber match. Ali called Frazier a "gorilla" because the pugilist poet fancied the way it sounded in a sentence with Manila. Both men gave everything. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, wouldn't allow Frazier to come out for the 15th round, giving Ali a technical knockout victory. Frazier's camp didn't know that Ali had planned to quit, too. "He is the greatest fighter of all times," Ali said. "After me."

Perhaps more than any of the seven Patriots players who suffered through that first Super Bowl meeting with the Giants, guard Logan Mankins seemed to answer the media's questions with a degree of candor.


Q: What do you remember from Super Bowl XLII?

Logan Mankins: I remember a whole lot. I remember we lost, and that still burns some of us. We can learn a lot from that.


Q: How many questions have you had regarding Super Bowl XLII?

L.M.: Too many. A lot of people want to keep talking about that. A lot of us have moved on.


Q: The Giants have talked a lot of trash this week.

L.M.: I'm not surprised. We've played these guys a few times now, you kind of can expect this from their side. The game is on the field. It's not during the week, or in practice, or through the media. We'll see who does the talking this weekend.

Bulls 115, Pistons 94, May 27, 1991

After winning the 1989 and 1990 NBA championships -- beating the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals both times -- the Detroit Pistons found themselves facing the Bulls for the third straight year in the playoffs. The young Bulls, led by Michael Jordan, swept the Pistons in the conference finals and eventually won the NBA title. With 7.9 seconds left on the clock in Game 4, Pistons players Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre walked off the court so they wouldn't have to congratulate their opponents.

The Patriots wouldn't find themselves in this position if safety Rodney Harrison had done his job late in Super Bowl XLII. As David Tyree went up for the greatest Super Bowl catch ever, Harrison swung at the ball -- and missed. The reception was good for 32 yards, and four plays later, Manning hit Plaxico Burress with the winning touchdown.

Harrison, now an analyst for NBC, insists revenge is a big part of the Patriots' motivation.

"It's crap. It's crap," he said. "Of course it is. Trust me. You still have key members of that team still there. When you take away what the Giants took away, which inevitably could have been the greatest season in the history of the NFL, yes, it matters."

Heath Evans, a Patriots fullback in Super Bowl XLII, said if he were playing Sunday, he'd want to hurt the Giants.

Belichick was asked about this line of reasoning from his former players.

"Their opinions are their opinions," he said. "But I see this as this game. There aren't all that many people who played in the last game four years ago. This is this team. This game, the elements of it, are what we have in front of us, not what happened two months ago or what happened two years ago or four years ago."

Chiefs 24, 49ers 17, Sept. 19, 1994

In 14 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana won all four of the Super Bowls in which he appeared. Then, suddenly, Steve Young was ready for stardom, and Montana, with an iffy back, was expendable. Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993 and led them to the playoffs two years running. In Week 2 of the 1994 season, Montana faced his former team. He completed 19 of 31 passes for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. "I learned from Joe, from the master," Young said. "Today, the master had a little more to teach the student."

The only genuine animosity we are likely to see between New England and New York may come from Patriots left tackle Matt Light and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. They exchanged blows in two previous games, the 2007 and 2011 regular-season meetings. They really don't seem to like each other.

Umenyiora said that Light is a dirty player.

"I don't know what it is," Umenyiora explained, "but it's something he does that gets under my skin. Me and him, we have a history. We're going to rekindle that on Sunday."

Light, who missed media day with a virus, sought to diffuse the issue Wednesday.

"I'm ready to go out there and play whatever game I have to play," he said. "I'm not sure that comes at a personal level. I wouldn't say it's something more than anyone else I have ever faced."

On Thursday, Umenyiora seemed to have backed off a bit. Asked whether he had issues with Light, Umenyiora said no -- three times.

"We are OK," Umenyiora insisted. "It is time to go to work. All that talk is over. I will see him on Sunday."

Raiders 24, Steelers 7, Dec. 26, 1976

After losing back-to-back AFC Championship Games to the Steelers, Oakland finally beat Pittsburgh in the 1976 AFC title game. Playing at home, the Raiders ended the Steelers' two-year Super Bowl reign and went on to win Super Bowl XI. Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert: "I'd play 'em again tomorrow. Just give me a few beers, a couple of hours of sleep. I'll be there at 1 p.m., tomorrow."

Although it supposedly isn't at play here in Indianapolis, revenge has quite a history.

The concept probably originated with the Babylonians (1780 B.C.) but is later seen in the Roman culture, as well as the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and Exodus 21 of the Old Testament.

The Latin lex talionis, is commonly translated as "an eye for an eye," but more accurately it describes the law of retaliation. The desire for revenge, as portrayed in literature, is a deep, dark human impulse.

Revenge is sweet.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

"It [revenge] is sweeter far than flowing honey." -- Homer

"Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils." -- John Milton, in "Paradise Lost"

"Revenge is sweeter than life itself. So think fools." -- Decimus Junius Juvenal

Lakers 111, Celtics 100, June 9, 1985

After losing all eight of their previous NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers changed the karma in 1985. They won the title in Game 6, and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 29 points. "This trophy removes the most odious sentence in the English language," said Lakers owner Jerry Buss. "It can never be said again that 'the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics.'"

Tedy Bruschi played in five Super Bowls for the Patriots, losing the first (XXXI, to the Packers) and the last to the Giants.

Today the former linebacker is an analyst for ESPN. That doesn't mean he has gotten over the loss. He has been downplaying the idea that the Patriots are out for revenge. Here's a transcript of a brief interview that might be the most lucid and logical -- and yet harrowingly sad -- argument heard all week:

"I've shot that down all week. That '07 team was different than any other team in NFL history in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. The '72 Dolphins had the undefeated mark, but no team had gone into a Super Bowl 18-0.

"That team was trying to get the championship that trumped all other championships. We failed to do that and that's something that can never be fixed; 18-1 can never be changed to 19-0. No matter what the Patriots do in this Super Bowl -- beat the Giants, lose to the Giants -- the '07 New England Patriots will always be 18-1. To be mentioned with the Dolphins of '72, the Bears of '85 -- it was all for naught.

"Winning this championship will just make the Patriots four-time Super Bowl champions. The word perfection is always forever lost. That opportunity was there and it was just squandered. They could beat them by 50, and it wouldn't matter."

Rocky Balboa defeats Apollo Creed, November 1976

Near the end of the movie "Rocky," world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa embrace in a final clinch. "Ain't gonna be no rematch," Creed tells him. "I don't want one," a beaten Rocky responds. This being boxing, though, of course there was a rematch. In "Rocky II," Creed runs out to a big lead in the early rounds but, intent on embarrassing Rocky with a knockout, walks into a haymaker and goes down -- and out. Rocky is the champ, and Sylvester Stallone's future in motion pictures, for better or worse, is secure.

Combatants may not talk about it before the fact, but the thirst for revenge in all of these famous (mostly nonfictional) confrontations can be seen in the results.

Can it really be any different in this present case?

Consider what might have been if the Patriots had beaten the Giants that day four years ago. They would have been 4-0 in Super Bowls under Belichick and this game would represent the opportunity to go a record-breaking 5-0. Brady would have been the first quarterback to do that -- ahead of Terry Bradshaw and his idol, Montana.

The Giants, maybe not these Giants, exactly, ruined all that.

Fact is, after winning 10 straight in the postseason, the Patriots are 6-5 in their past 11 playoff games. Brady has been fairly average in that stretch (24 touchdowns, 18 interceptions). Belichick, Brady acknowledged, has shown the team plenty of clips of that last Super Bowl loss.

"Every loss hurts," Brady said. "When we lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, that hurt pretty bad. Last year, losing to the Jets -- you see other teams advance and you're staying at home. They all suck. You have to move on. I think this team has done that."

Willie McGinest, who won three Super Bowl rings as Brady's teammate and is now an analyst for the NFL Network, isn't buying it.

"Tommy is a total professional," McGinest said. "So he'll say all the right things to the media. I know Tommy. Oh, no, little brother! This is eating Tommy up! He hates to lose. He loves to win.

"He's going to be ready to go. He does not want to hear about the Giants, the [previous] Super Bowl, the regular season. He wants to prove the Patriots are the better team."

Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.