Super Bowl XLII: Why it still hurts

BOSTON -- For a great many New England Patriots fans, the team's loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII remains an indigestible outrage. It was a humiliating defeat -- a perfect season lost on a series of fluky plays at the end of the championship game. To lose that way -- 17-14, to a New York team, in the wake of the Spygate scandal and with a suddenly Patriots-averse world watching -- amounted to a televised tar-and-feathering for New Englanders.

In the days and weeks that followed, Boston-area televisions fell silent, shut off to avoid the inevitable replays of Giants receiver David Tyree's helmet catch and quarterback Eli Manning's game-winning throw. The Internet -- at least the major sports sites -- became a no-fly zone; ditto for sports radio. Just as they had after Yankees infielder Aaron Boone ended the 2003 ALCS by blasting a home run into the New York night, Boston sports fans went dark, retreating into a cloistered cocoon from which they still haven't fully emerged.

Just last week, a poll on ESPN Boston asked fans whether it was still too soon -- even now, with a Super Bowl rematch against the Giants looming in Indianapolis -- to post a video clip of highlights from the 2008 title game. The vote went 70 percent to 30 percent in favor of "too soon," and the comments section offered a window into just how raw that wound remains:

Soxwin91: "I remember that night vividly still. I cursed [Fox announcer] Joe Buck's name every day for a month because of the rage I felt -- still feel to this day -- and the perceived (in my mind anyway) joy he had in his voice when the Giants won. I am damn glad the game is on NBC -- I can't stomach Joe Buck's voice even to this day."

Newenglandsports11: "That was the most difficult loss personally and emotionally in my life in sports. I play and watch, and those were the most brutal few weeks of my life -- especially since I live outside of New York. I haven't seen a highlight of it in years, barring the occasional Tyree Catch and [Plaxico] Burress TD. In fact, I have no memories of that game, other than [then Patriots cornerback] Asante Samuel dropping the game-winning interception."

Micdus01: "That game hurts me to my core. Please don't show those clips. This was one of the reasons why I didn't want the Giants to win [the NFC Championship Game and go to the Super Bowl this year]. I knew the coverage would be a non-stop barrage of clips from that painful game."

Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, he of the supermodel wife and three championship rings, calls the memory of that game "an awful feeling in [my] stomach for a lot of years."

"As time goes on, I still can't watch highlights from that game," Brady said last Monday during his weekly Boston radio spot. "I think that's just the way it is. You get to the end, and we had a great opportunity there and really squandered it, because we didn't play our very best."

Patriots owner Robert Kraft echoed his quarterback, the bitterness practically dripping from his lips.

"I've never been able to watch [highlights of that game]," Kraft said. "I do remember the end of the game, a ball going through our cornerback's hands, that if he had caught that ball and it hadn't gone through his hands we would have been able to take a knee and we would have won the game."

Clearly, for many in Patriots Nation, the pain of that long-ago loss is as fresh as ever. But why?

What is it about that particular defeat -- besides the obvious disappointment that comes from watching one's team lose a title game -- that is still so hard for Patriots fans to stomach?

Dr. Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist at Boston University with more than a decade of applied counseling experience, says he thinks fans' lingering frustration is a result of the unique circumstances surrounding the 2008 game.

"I think there are a couple layers to it," Naylor says. "Emotion is the magic word. Depending on the level of emotional investment -- and genuine emotional investment, not 'Do you cook a good chili for the game' but 'Do you have Pat the Patriot tattooed on your shoulder?' -- a particular loss can be extremely painful, or not.

"In 2007, you had the perfect season. I think there's a very real element to that, because if you identify with a team and that team ends up being a perfect team, then you can say that you identify with perfection. When the Patriots lost, it wasn't just that they lost, it was that they might never again have a chance at a perfect season. Fans had a hard time dealing with that."

"And then," Naylor says, "it was New York. That adds a whole other level of emotion if you're talking about fandom [in the Boston area]. I think people would have been annoyed and irritated if it had been any other team, but it was New York, and because of that the loss hurt far more than usual. It felt like a failure."

Revisiting that kind of failure, says Dr. Amy Baltzell, a sports psychologist and faculty member of BU's counseling team, whether through articles or video clips or even topical discussion, can have a profoundly negative effect on fans.

"Being a fan is a source of joy, and we're all looking for joy in our lives -- shots of joy, shots of good, shots of happiness," Baltzell says. "Sports is a source of that. But bringing your attention to a failure can create a fear or worry that what you so deeply identify with might not bring you the shot of joy that you're hoping for.

"For Patriots fans, reliving the failure of Super Bowl XLII reduces their belief in the team winning this Sunday, and fans don't want that. They want to focus on what they hope will happen -- what they expect to happen -- and on what they want their team to achieve. Watching [clips] over and over creates the thought of possibly failing again."

The Patriots will meet the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday -- there's no avoiding that. Highlights of the 2008 game are already ubiquitous in the national media this week. By week's end, he NFL Network will have replayed Super Bowl XLII three times before Sunday's 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff, and the other major sports networks -- not to mention websites, newspapers and magazines -- are swelling with references to the game. It's a harrowing time for New Englanders, a continual rubbing of salt in a still-open wound, and for perhaps the first time since Manning floated his 2008 game-winning pass into the Arizona night, Patriots fans have been forced to uncover their eyes.

"I'll probably end up watching a replay of the game," says Bob McNeil, a 40-something Patriots fan from Medfield, Mass. "I'll watch it just to psych myself up for Sunday."

When McNeil settles onto his couch Sunday night, Jill Bloom, a 25-year-old native of Wellesley, Mass., will be in Indianapolis, sitting with her brother and two cousins at Lucas Oil Stadium and hoping the unthinkable doesn't somehow happen again.

Bloom, a longtime Patriots fan who watched her first live game from the icy aluminum benches of Foxboro Stadium in 1996 and has been to every Patriots home opener since 2002, says she watched the 2008 Super Bowl on television in a crowded living room at Georgetown University, where she was visiting a friend.

"I couldn't believe it," Bloom says of the loss. "It hadn't even crossed my mind that the Pats wouldn't win that game.

"When the game ended, I was so disappointed and humiliated in front of the Giants fans in the room that I grabbed my two friends -- both Bostonians -- and we stood up and walked silently out of the apartment. And yet the embarrassment I felt then will be a million times worse if I'm actually there when they lose. The flight home to Boston would be painful."

The funny thing is that Bloom, a Tufts graduate, is herself a budding psychologist -- a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Suffolk University -- and understands better than many the mental mechanics that fuel a team-based identification as deep-rooted as hers. Yet here she is, Patriots jersey packed for Indy, ready to face the fear of failure all over again.

"I think that's the tricky thing about being knowledgeable in psychology," Bloom says. "Having the intellectual perspective doesn't override the natural human response. The emotions are so strong and so real that you find yourself sucked in despite being able to understand what's happening."

And isn't that in itself, the knowingly impractical and yet obstinate passion of the true believer, precisely what being a sports fan is all about?

On Sunday evening in Indianapolis, Bloom -- and thousands of Patriots fans like her -- will have no choice but to find out.

Tom Lakin is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.