Book excerpt: The passion, pressure, profanity and near-perfection of the 2007 Patriots

Editor's note: On Oct. 12, ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham's book, "It's Better To Be Feared," will be published. This condensed excerpt is from the chapters documenting the New England Patriots' historic 2007 season.

On Saturday nights before each game of the 2007 season, Tom Brady held a 20-minute meeting for the receivers and tight ends. He stood at the front of the room with a list of items to run through, making sure that everyone was on the same page. Sometimes, he used video. Josh McDaniels, who had been promoted to offensive coordinator in 2005, would attend as well. Donté Stallworth had never seen anything like it. Brady was almost a coach, and the one players feared most and were most afraid of letting down. Brady's willingness to be weighed down with work and responsibility made everyone's jobs easier, including Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's. It was Brady's offense, and it was distinctive. It wasn't a numbers-based system, like Don Coryell's offense. And it wasn't Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, based mostly on timing concepts. It was based on Brady, and his ability to find the open receiver. Brady refused to throw to a receiver if he ran the wrong route. He had to know, within an inch, where everyone would be at every moment, or he couldn't trust what he saw.

Nobody needed to spell out the consequences if a receiver failed to catch on. "He isn't an a--hole," Stallworth recalled, "but he is a perfectionist." If a player couldn't perform, Brady wanted him on the sidelines. During one 2007 game, Wes Welker was hit hard on the head, and when he returned to the huddle, Brady recognized a familiar daze in his eyes.

"Wes, you all right?" he said.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"Maybe you should take a play off."

"Nah, I'm all right."

Two plays later, Welker ran the wrong route. "Wes, I asked you if you were f--ing all right!" Brady yelled. "If you need to take some f---ing plays off, take 'em off!"

The Patriots, known as a well-rounded or even a defensive team through the first three Super Bowls, emerged in 2007 as a machine-like and devastating offensive force. Brady would throw 30 touchdown passes in the first eight games, eclipsing his previous total for an entire season. All of the routes his pass catchers ran were iterations on conversion routes, designed to exploit open space. The 2007 Patriots used the shotgun on 49.4 percent of their snaps, a high mark that later became a common feature across the league. From the immediately widened view afforded by shotgun, Brady looked for dead spots in the defense, knowing which receiver would soon fill it. The Patriots were not just winning, in the wake of Spygate; they were humiliating teams, beating Buffalo by 31 in week 3, Cincinnati by 21 in week 4, and Cleveland by 17 in week 5.

For all their precision, the Patriots sometimes played a football version of streetball. On a second and one against the Bills, up 31-7, McDaniels radioed in to Brady to call a run, hoping to get a first down. Brady instead told Moss to go deep, and he tossed it up to him for a 45-yard touchdown. "Holy s---," McDaniels told Brady on the sideline. Here they were, just hoping to move the chains, and Moss scored anyway. "In 2007, for the first time, our offense could support our defense," Brady recalled to me. "It was a nice feeling."

On October 14, the 5-0 Patriots arrived in Dallas to face the 5-0 Cowboys. It was billed as a midseason collision of Super Bowl contenders, with plenty of subtexts, from Jerry Jones facing off against Robert Kraft, to Brady versus Tony Romo, a pair of quarterbacks who were draft-day afterthoughts and now were not only superstars but sex symbols, to Randy Moss versus Terrell Owens, a pair of moody but game-breaking receivers. "The game was hyped up more than it should have been," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs later said. "We knew that if we hit them, they'd fold like a tent."

New England attacked through the air. In the first quarter, with the Patriots already up by seven, Welker ran upfield, planning to fake outside and spin inside. But as he cut, he saw a hole: Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin had hustled down from the secondary, forming a bracket of Cowboys around him, one inside and one outside. Rather than stop, Welker bolted deep -- Brady loved Welker because he could read and react "at full speed" -- and Brady found him in the clear for a touchdown.

By the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had made a game of it and trailed, 31-24. Brady called a play that Stallworth was unsure of how to execute. "I was 90 percent on it," he later said. "But that's not good enough." Earlier in the week, Stallworth had considered asking Brady for help on the play, but didn't.

Now he wished he had. Oh s---, Stallworth thought.

As the huddle broke, Brady sensed that Stallworth was unclear about his job. "What do you want me to do?" Stallworth asked.

Brady looked at Stallworth, looked at the defense, then looked back. "Go deep," he said.

Stallworth exploded down the middle of the field. Brady faked a handoff and threw hard and in rhythm, hitting Stallworth in stride for a 69-yard touchdown, in what would be a 48-27 win.

When Stallworth got to the sideline, he found Brady and laughed. Brady had always been bloodthirsty, but now he was on another level, out to avenge every slight, real or perceived. The attitude was contagious.

BILL BELICHICK REFUSED to laugh. Or let up. The more the Patriots won, the harder he coached. The winless Miami Dolphins were next after the Cowboys, and on the Friday before the game, in the middle of a sloppy practice, one of the worst of the season, Belichick got fed up.

"I'm sick of this s---. I'm sick of looking at this s---."

He turned to Brady and safety Rodney Harrison. "Brady, Rodney, this is your team. I'm not looking at this s--- anymore. I'm going in."

Coaches handed practice scripts to Harrison and Brady, then went inside. "Hey, y'all know what we need to do," Harrison told the team. "OK, we had a bad practice. This s--- happens. Let's finish the practice."

Still disgusted the next day, Belichick went after the players again. He showed video of a Monday Night Football game from 2004, when the two-win Dolphins upset the Super Bowl-bound Patriots. "If you go out there and bulls---," Belichick said, "Miami can beat us."

It worked, mostly. The next afternoon, New England was up 42-7 in the fourth quarter. But Belichick gave some of the starters a rare rest -- and the wheels began to come off. After backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw a pick six, cutting the Patriots' lead to 42-21 with 10:30 left, Belichick inserted the entire first team, including Brady. He would rather risk injury to his stars than allow anyone on the team to think that a lack of focus was acceptable. In the locker room after the 49-28 win, Belichick was salty -- and the players were starting to lose patience.

"Hey, Bill," Hobbs said, "you said we'd come out and get our ass beat. You saw what happened." He lobbied for an extra day off.

"Yeah, don't press your luck, Hobbs," Belichick replied.

THE PATRIOTS HAD no demonstrable weaknesses. The next week, they destroyed Washington, 52-7, the game over from the first snap. The Patriots were winning so much, and by such large margins, that their sportsmanship became as much of a talking point as their dominance. A few Washington players accused the Patriots of running up the score. Spygate was the subtext of it all. "People thought Bill was giving Tom all the answers," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin later said. "So it was a matter of, 'We're not just going to stick it to you. We're going to stick it to you a little more than we usually have. We're going to prove a point, and prove it hard.' "

Belichick had a few points of his own he wanted to prove, but he had to walk a fine line. There was no better way to convince the world that Spygate was irrelevant than by going undefeated after the taping stopped, but in his mind, the only way to do so was to convince his team that, on any given Sunday, it could be beaten. He surpassed himself in coming up with motivational techniques. After the offensive linemen lobbied Belichick to go for it more often on fourth down, he showed the entire team a clip of them unable to move the pile on fourth and short, rewinding it again and again like "the Zapruder film," Stallworth later said.

"We can't get two inches," Belichick said. "Fourth and inches. Fourth and inches. Fourth and two -- not even two inches, fourth and the size of my d---, and we can't get the first down."

Nobody knew whether or not to laugh.

Whenever a player hinted at his or the Patriots' confidence to the media, Belichick would humiliate him before the team. "We don't need any more State of the Unions. Shut the f--- up. How about that? Just shut the f--- up." On some days, he left players more confused than angry. The offense kept fumbling in practice, so Belichick ordered all of the footballs soaked in water. "Wet that s--- up," Belichick said.

Belichick dismissed anything positive an outsider might say about the team -- or for that matter, even an insider. In early November, Stallworth was making an appearance at a local event, when a reporter from the Boston Herald showed up. The reporter was working on a glowing story on Randy Moss's unprecedented year. Stallworth had been avoiding the reporter for days, worried that if he spoke publicly about anything other than the next game, Belichick would notice -- and would let him have it in front of the entire team. The reporter told Stallworth that every other Patriots receiver had cooperated, so Stallworth decided to give a few kind quotes about Moss.

The day the story ran, Belichick arrived at the team meeting holding it. He was in a foul mood. "What was one of the first things I told you f---ing a--holes at the first meeting? Speak for yourself. There's one group that doesn't understand what the f--- that means -- the receivers."

There was nowhere for the wideouts to hide. What had been said couldn't be unsaid. They had no choice but to take what was coming. Belichick proceeded to rip each receiver who was quoted in the story by name, as if checking a list. Welker. Stallworth. Jabar Gaffney. When Belichick reached Chad Jackson, a disappointing second-round draft pick from 2006, he said, "Chad Jackson, you haven't done s--- all year. You're not talking to the media the rest of the year." After a few minutes, Belichick added, "I told you ass----- to speak for yourself."

SOME OF THE season's most competitive moments weren't on Sundays. They came on Friday afternoons, when the Patriots would practice the two-minute drill, one of the rare times when the first-team offense and first-team defense faced off. It was so fierce, almost sociopathic, with trash-talking reaching destructive levels. Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, and Ellis Hobbs would taunt Brady mercilessly. Vrabel would sometimes line up at safety to get extra conditioning work in. "He always knew what plays were coming," fullback Heath Evans later said. "Brady couldn't stand it." One Friday, Colvin sacked Brady, but because hitting quarterbacks was off-limits, Colvin yanked Brady's shorts as Brady threw, trying to de-pants him in front of the team. Even Belichick would join in, calling bogus penalties on the offense to make Brady's life tougher, just as Phil Jackson used to do with Michael Jordan, testing the boundaries of an intense competitor's patience and composure. Brady's face would turn red, his voice screechy. Never a gifted s----talker, Brady would just scream, "F--- you!" and stalk off the field.

Teammates, even those within the offensive huddle, became enemies. Once Moss ran out of gas during the two-minute drill. Brady benched him. "Put somebody else in there," Brady said, motioning to a backup. Moss yelled at Brady, who yelled back. All the defensive players laughed.

"F--- this s---," Moss said. "Come on, Tom, let's get their a--."

Samuel was locked on Moss man to man. Moss ran a slant and go, hoping to end practice with a deep touchdown. Brady threw it, but Samuel outleaped Moss -- nobody outleaped Moss -- and came down with the interception. He spiked it in Moss's face. Brady threw his helmet. After practice, Samuel removed the nameplate on Brady's locker and replaced it with his own.

On another Friday, after the defense had won again, Belichick benched the first-team offense. Brady begged for another chance. Belichick relented, and Brady told his receivers, "Hey, we're going back out, so make sure you're ready!" The defenders thought it was absurd to give the offense a second try after the defense had already won. In the huddle, Brady looked at Moss and said, "I'm going to the end zone. Let's end this s---." This time, Moss caught it for a touchdown, and Brady ran down the field, hollering at the defensive backs. The Patriots had an inside joke about celebrating touchdowns in practice in a way that would draw fines during games. Brady raised his arms and pretended to fire bullets, mimicking the cannon fired at Gillette Stadium after a touchdown. Then he mock-slashed his neck and dropped to his knees, lobbing fake grenades. A few members of the defense came after him, ready to throw down. "We felt they were cocky bastards," Harrison later said. Harrison confronted Brady and told him to cut it out before things got ugly.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS visited the Baltimore Ravens on the Monday night in week 12 with an 11-0 record, there was a feeling in the air that New England might be handed its first loss. You couldn't play scared against the Patriots if you hoped to beat them, and the Ravens were one of the few teams unafraid to brawl. Baltimore was only 4-7, but had a ferocious defense, led by a pair of future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. Belichick loved both of them. In 1996, before Modell fired him, Belichick had planned to draft Lewis, a star at the University of Miami, and later, as an assistant in New England under Bill Parcells, wanted to draft him, but the Ravens picked him first. Reed was another former Hurricane, and had such phenomenal instincts that Belichick believed he was the greatest free safety in history. He was so complimentary that Brady referred to Reed as Belichick's "son."

The crowd was in a frenzy despite the cold and wind. Belichick had spent the previous day in his hotel room, overlooking downtown Baltimore. Memorial Stadium, where he got his break for the Colts in 1975, was now a youth baseball field. Still, it brought back memories. He worked in a broom closet with a projector and a chair, his career in front of him. There were only seven coaches: three for offense, three for defense, and one for special teams. "I was like the eighth guy," Belichick later said. "I didn't know anything, but at least I was a warm body." The Colts didn't even have a regular practice field. They started at Goucher College, then moved to the McDonogh School, a private campus in the suburbs, then moved downtown to Eastern High School. The entire team would leave the locker room at Memorial Stadium, shuffle to the intersection at 33rd Street, hit the walk button, cross, and then practice at Eastern, "which had two blades of grass, dirt, glass, rocks, you name it," Belichick later said. He was both animated and relaxed in his hotel room, as if the purity of the beginning of his football life meant more now, his reputation up for debate.

Both teams were feisty and jawing and refusing to back down. At one point, after a Patriots interception, Rodney Harrison mouthed off to Ravens head coach Brian Billick, who returned fire by blowing Harrison a kiss. With the Ravens leading, 24-20, and 1:48 left, the Patriots faced a fourth and one at the Baltimore 30-yard line, the game and the undefeated season at stake. New England called a quarterback sneak to the left side, but Lewis single-handedly destroyed it, colliding so hard with the scrum that he knocked two Patriots, including Brady, back three yards.

It should have ended the undefeated season. But, before the snap, Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had called time-out, negating the play. Ryan was one of football's smartest and brashest coaches, and he loved to take aim at Belichick. Like many in the profession, Ryan felt Belichick was a good coach who had became known as a great one because he got lucky at quarterback. But one thing Belichick never did was crack under pressure -- he was a master of letting situations play out -- and Ryan had just panicked, costing his team a victory over the best team in the league. The Ravens' defensive players yelled at him from the field.

"We called that Rex's 'wanna get away?' moment," special team coach Brad Seely later said.

On the next play, fourth and one, the Ravens again stopped the Patriots, this time on a handoff to Heath Evans, who was hit in the backfield almost as soon as he took the ball from Brady. But the Patriots had committed a false start, erasing the play, a rare instance when a penalty helps the offending team. Now, on fourth and six, Brady stepped up in the pocket, saw a lane, and ran for an easy first down. Four plays later, the Ravens stopped the Patriots for the third time on fourth and undefeated on the drive -- but were flagged for defensive holding on a receiver away from the throw, giving New England a first and goal. The iron law of facing Brady was to never give him a second chance; he was now on a fourth. With 44 seconds left, Brady hit Jabar Gaffney to put the Patriots up 27-24. The Ravens refused to concede: as time expired, receiver Mark Clayton caught a Hail Mary -- but was tackled three yards short of the end zone. The Patriots were 12-0.

Belichick was predictably miserable. "This performance is not going to be good enough," he told the team. Several players were starting to lose patience. The endless carping, the unrelenting pressure, the steadfast refusal to be proud of the team or to acknowledge how remarkable its accomplishments were -- it was all getting old. "We thought that was bull---," Hobbs recalled. "We were angry at Bill. We were trying to prove to him, this s--- is hard."

Belichick, of course, knew it was hard. At one team meeting, he seemed to acknowledge the toll. "You guys have paid your debts. Your family is suffering. Your parents are suffering. Your bodies are suffering. Wanna know what cures it? Winning. Winning cures everything." But it wasn't curing everything. It was draining them. Belichick was draining them. Opponents were catching up. Success in the NFL requires peaking at the right time. A loss can be a boon, serving as a chance to refocus and reset. Belichick refused to let it happen. Wins had to serve as losses. History was too close.

A FEW WEEKS later, New England slogged out a win over Eric Mangini's Jets in the rain, sweeping the whistleblowers to move to 14-0. The 1-13 Dolphins were next. If the Patriots won, they'd be 15-0, passing the only undefeated team in league history, the 14-0 Dolphins of 1972, in regular-season wins. Once again, Spygate was at the center of the week's storylines. Don Shula had told the New York Daily News earlier in the season that the Patriots deserved an asterisk and later coined the phrase "Belicheat." Those words were harsh. Shula and Steve Belichick had been friends; Bill had once spoken to Shula about a job. Belichick, though, refused to entertain either narrative -- the cheating or the 1972 Dolphins.

"I don't want to hear it," he told players. "If I hear it, you'll be fined for conduct detrimental to the team."

The tenser the atmosphere, the more Wes Welker hunted for a good prank. He once got Brady with a fake rat, causing the quarterback to scream. One morning before the Dolphins game, Welker and Larry Izzo carpooled to work. Izzo did a radio interview during the ride, during which he was constantly asked about the 1972 Dolphins. Izzo did his best to dodge the questions, but the issue was unavoidable. He had to engage. After the call ended, Izzo was nervous.

"Dude, should I have said that?" he said. "No big deal," Welker replied. Welker had an opening. Izzo was an easy target, a perfect combination of high-strung and gullible. At the stadium, Welker told Brady what had happened and asked him to bring Belichick in on a prank. Brady was in. So was Belichick. After practice, Belichick addressed the team as usual, the players encircling him, and was demonstrably angry, even by his own standards. He spoke to the team, but stared at Izzo with "cold eyes," Izzo later said.

"I told you earlier I didn't want to hear anything about this," Belichick said. "I don't want to hear about the Dolphins!"

Brady and Welker were trying not to laugh. Izzo was terrified to the bone. "Freaking out," he recalled. "I was so mentally f---ed up. You don't want to be the guy who brought something up and that's the reason you lose."

On the drive home, Izzo feverishly surfed the sports talk radio stations to see if his words had created buzz. He barely slept. The next day, he was still shaken. Brady decided to put him out of his misery.

"Buddy, relax. He's just f---ing with you." Izzo didn't laugh. "It was total mental sabotage," he recalled. It didn't matter. The Patriots creamed the Dolphins, 28-7, leaving only one obstacle between them and the NFL's first undefeated season in 35 years: the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. Belichick's former team, in a stadium he revered, with one of his old Giants colleagues, head coach Tom Coughlin, on the other sideline. New England won, capping a 16-0 regular season. The Patriots looked invincible to the outside world, but were running on fumes. Kraft could see other teams closing in, the weight of an undefeated record saddling his players. The team sat in the locker room after the Giants win, amazed at their accomplishment. Belichick knew better. So did Brady, and as he left the locker room, it was clear to his teammates that he had already moved on.

"Nothing's better than the Super Bowl ring," he said.

TOM BRADY'S FIRST throw of Super Bowl XLII should have been a touchdown. That's what he thought. That's what haunted him years later, when he considered what could have been. It was a screen pass, a complicated Patriots version that they usually ran with ease, and they had it perfectly teed up, down 3-0, on February 3, 2008, at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Giants had just gone 63 yards on 16 plays to open the game -- a long drive, with four third-down conversions, exactly the way New York wanted to play. It was a reprise of the Giants' win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV and the Patriots' win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI -- the Giants were controlling the clock and trying to "shorten the game," as Bill Parcells liked to say. But Brady knew: if the Patriots could score -- and even better, score quickly -- the Giants' entire game plan would work against them. Nobody was better than Bill Belichick at undoing an opponent's game plan and forcing them to adjust, rendering weeks of preparation useless, manufacturing doubt on the other sideline.

But the Patriots were navigating some doubt of their own. After the AFC Championship Game, Belichick practiced his team in full pads for three straight days. It backfired -- especially along the offensive line, which wore down. The following week, New England's Wednesday and Thursday practices at Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University -- the two vital practices leading up to the Super Bowl -- were defined by dropped passes and missed blocks. "We went backwards," tight end Kyle Brady, whom the Patriots had signed from Jacksonville, recalled. "We had put out so much energy to get to that point. Maybe we had peaked too early and maybe we were physically and emotionally drained."

After one practice, Belichick told the team, "Fellas, the Giants got ahead of you."

Belichick might have felt differently if he had seen the Giants practice. On the Friday before the game, Eli Manning targeted a veteran backup receiver named David Tyree eight times. Tyree dropped seven of the passes; one bounced off his helmet. Manning knew that the Patriots would try to take away star receiver Plaxico Burress, making the Giants play left-handed, which would leave Tyree in favorable matchups. Manning not only needed Tyree to come through, but he needed to believe that Tyree would come through. He decided to "misremember" Tyree's practice, he later joked. When Eli spoke to his brother Peyton on Friday afternoon -- they always spoke on the Friday before games -- he said, "Guess what? David Tyree had the best practice of his life."

Belichick was relaxed all week in front of the media, chatting more than usual, deflecting Spygate questions. And as Sunday neared, Brady was loose. During a light practice, Brady and Matt Cassel competed over who could throw a more perfect deep pass to Moss in the back corner of the end zone. The quarterbacks stood at midfield and had to drop the ball into his arms, with mere inches to spare, like a half-court shot. Cassel went first and overthrew him. Brady went next and hit Moss so perfectly that the receiver barely had to extend his arms. Moss turned to the other receivers.

"That mother----- is gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Those are some Hall of Fame throws!"

But a difficult night before the game capped off a draining year. The Boston Herald published a bombshell by writer John Tomase, seemingly confirming the long-standing rumor that the Patriots had videotaped the St. Louis Rams walk-through before their first Super Bowl win. The Patriots and the NFL denied the story, and the story would later be retracted, but the damage was done. An Eagles fan and United States senator from Pennsylvania named Arlen Specter had announced an investigation into Roger Goodell's decision to have the Spygate evidence destroyed, threatening to do away with the league's cherished antitrust exemption if it refused to cooperate.

Making matters worse for the league and the Patriots was a profile of Matt Walsh, the former Patriots videographer who had turned into a whistleblower, by dogged ESPN investigative reporter Mike Fish, that cast further doubt on the thoroughness of the Spygate investigation. Seeking immunity in exchange for what he had to share, Walsh told Fish that nobody in the league had called him during its investigation and that he possessed eight previously undisclosed tapes -- as well as information indicating the Patriots' rule breaking went deeper than anyone knew. He was hinting at the taping of the walk-through. On Super Bowl Sunday, with an undefeated season at stake, potentially one of the most notable achievements in the history of the sport, the main storyline was New England's cheating.

Game time arrived, and Brady took the field deadeyed. The kid who grabbed Drew Bledsoe in the tunnel before the Rams Super Bowl in February 2002, shouting an undecipherable pep talk, was now a hardened veteran. When Manning jogged past Brady during warm-ups, the Giants quarterback gestured to say hi. Brady blew past him without so much as an acknowledgement.

Still, though: New England was down only 3-0, and on Brady's first play, he saw a chance to knock down the Giants right on his first drive, demoralizing them, reminding them that they had no business sharing a field with the Patriots. He faked a handoff to running back Laurence Maroney, then spun left to tease a reverse to Wes Welker. But the fake to Welker was a beat slow, and when Brady pivoted to throw to Maroney, who had drifted out of the backfield, two Giants defensive linemen had closed in. It was only a ten-yard pass, but Brady was off balance and could barely see Maroney, and his ball was low, hitting the running back in the shoes, incomplete, and before Maroney could turn up field and see that he had a wall of three blockers and nothing but open pasture.

Brady knew he'd blown it. The Patriots scored on the drive, but it took 13 plays, a sign that the Giants could slow them. The highest- scoring offense in NFL history wouldn't score again until late in the fourth quarter, when it was too late to send any messages.

"WE JUST NEED one stop," Tedy Bruschi said on the sideline. "Let's get it."

The Patriots were up 14-10 with 2:45 left in the fourth quarter. Bruschi wrapped fellow linebacker Junior Seau in a bear hug, cheeks touching, each speaking in the other's ear from an inch away as they prepared to go back onto the field. Brady had just pulled off one of the most impressive drives of his career. The Giants had punished him all game, exploiting his lack of mobility due to his ankle -- limiting what was already limited -- and dominating an offensive line that was confused and overmatched. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had disguised his hand signals since Spygate. He had been the linebackers coach for the Eagles when they lost to New England in the Super Bowl, with some questioning whether the Patriots knew the Eagles' signals. Now he had disguised an array of looks from his front seven, dusting off an old Belichick philosophy: when facing an offense without weaknesses, make the quarterback the weakness. Yet Brady had picked himself up and led a 12-play drive, the final throw a short touchdown pass to Moss.

Eli Manning had the ball with 87 yards to go. He had a genius for coming up big -- not in all critical moments, but in the most critical ones -- something that was evident in him from a young age. When he was a boy, Eli was shooting baskets in his backyard in New Orleans with Peyton. Archie Manning filmed his sons and narrated. Eli missed every shot possible: short, long, off the top of the rim, off the bottom, off air. He looked overmatched. But then he saw Peyton hit a shot from the farthest location in the driveway, right on the edge of a step to the house. It was beyond his range, but he decided to match his brother, walking his ball to that spot, stepping up, letting go -- and draining it. "Nice shot, E," Archie said, unaware that he had just documented his son's essential quality: he didn't make every shot, and often missed badly, but he always hit the most important one.

And so it went on the drive of Manning's life, on which he had five near turnovers. On one play, he was pressured and the ball sailed to Asante Samuel, who leapt to catch it. Time seemed to slow. This was it for New England: the ball game and 19-0. But Manning's pass came out of his hand so awkwardly that Samuel misjudged his jump and the ball grazed off his fingertips. "I didn't jump high enough," Samuel recalled. "Maybe, if I'd jumped a little higher ..."

Manning had all but given away the game, but the Patriots wouldn't take it -- an ideal prologue to one of the most unlikely and important plays in NFL history. On third and five with 1:15 left, Tyree lined up on the far right side, ready to run a post route. He exploded into the Patriots' quarters coverage -- four defensive backs deep -- and was open, but Manning couldn't see him. The pocket had collapsed. Patriots defensive tackle Jarvis Green held on to Manning's jersey by a fingernail, but Manning, under duress, saw an open white jersey nearby and considered pitching him the ball, yet it was not an eligible receiver; instead, it was guard Chris Snee, who was somehow not blocking anyone on the biggest down of his career, which later made him the target of endless ribbing from Manning, and so, for a split second, everybody seemed to stop -- not just time -- with Manning in Green's hands, as if waiting for a whistle, but Manning snapped the entire game back into action, spinning right, where he collected himself and saw Tyree alone downfield. With three Patriots closing in, Manning took a shot, a wobbly line drive that Tyree leapt for with Rodney Harrison draped on his back like a cape, and ... Tyree somehow wedged the ball against the right side of his helmet with one hand -- showboating unnecessarily, Manning later joked, arguing that if Tyree had caught it cleanly, he wouldn't have had to use his helmet -- and when Harrison and Tyree hit the ground, the receiver had two hands on the ball, and nobody in the stadium could exhale, and with Harrison punching in desperation to jar the ball free, Coughlin ran onto the field, screaming for a time-out, stopping the clock with 59 seconds.

"Did you catch it?" Manning asked Tyree. "Yeah, yeah, I caught it." "Don't lie to me," Manning said. Receivers had fooled him before, and, as he watched the replay, he thought the ball bounced off the ground. "David, you're a Christian man," Manning said. "Did you catch it?"

"I promise you," Tyree said.

The play was reviewed, and the replay proved him right. New York still needed a touchdown. On first down from the 24-yard line, Manning, as if on cue, nearly fumbled. On second down, he nearly threw another interception. Then, he finally locked in, hitting receiver Steve Smith for a first down. With 39 seconds left and the ball at the 14-yard line, the Patriots called one of the worst plays of Bill Belichick's career: a blitz, sending Seau and Harrison and leaving the secondary in zero coverage -- man-to-man across the board with no safety help. It isolated 5-foot-9 Ellis Hobbs on 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, a fatal mismatch, even though the height difference didn't matter in the end. Harrison recognized the problem and tried to call off the blitz. "What are we doing?" he yelled to Seau before pleading with him to audible to a better pass defense. "Check two! Cover two!" Seau waved him off. Harrison later said it was the "biggest regret" of his career that he allowed Seau to overrule him. Manning lofted a high and gentle throw into the back corner of the end zone, and Burress beat Hobbs by the length of a small subdivision for a touchdown. Thirty-five seconds left: 17-14, Giants. Center Shaun O'Hara hugged Manning and said, "I've got a s--- ton of cold-ass beer at the hotel we are going to crush after this!"

Tom Brady still had one throw left in him to save the season. With 19 seconds remaining and from his own 16-yard line, Brady rolled right, stopped, and threw deep left across the field to Moss, who had a step on two defenders. Belichick had once said of Brady, "We're not talking about John Elway here." But this was an Elway throw: long and diagonal. All of Brady's hard work over years -- on his release, his strength, his footwork -- was manifest before the world, and there was a shudder in every football fan who watched the ball soar, knowing who was on the other end of it. Brady launched the pass from the Patriots' 13-yard line, and it descended to Moss at the Giants' 20. If Moss had caught it, the Patriots would not only have been in field goal range for the tie, but would have had enough time for a shot at the end zone for the win. But Moss either couldn't or didn't adjust to snare it before Giants cornerback Corey Webster managed to get his fingertips on the ball. Instead of the greatest play in football history, surpassing Tyree just minutes before, it was the greatest incomplete pass.

Belichick ran onto the field a play later and hugged Coughlin, congratulating his former colleague, then trudged straight to the locker room with a few players behind him, a stark, sour image to cap the season. In a stadium elevator, Marty Meehan, the former Massachusetts congressman who had accompanied Brady to the State of the Union, was on the phone with his son, who had recorded the game for him. With the phone speaker loud enough for everyone to hear, his son asked if his father wanted him to keep or erase the tape.

"Burn that game!" said a voice from the back of the elevator. Meehan turned around. It was Tom Brady Sr.

OF ALL THE losses during the New England Patriots dynasty, none damaged Tom Brady and Bill Belichick like Super Bowl XLII. It was never far from their minds. In the locker room after the game, Belichick blamed himself, speaking for less than a minute, his voice low and shaky. "We were outcoached. I'm sorry we couldn't win the game for you guys." He seemed alone, broken. For 22 weeks, he had chased wins with a vengeance, but now it was over, history lost, with no Monday film session to serve as a correction and refuge, no Friday afternoon practice to fine-tune, the 2007 season both finished and unresolved. The room was quiet. Brady sat at his locker, staring at the floor. Few Patriots knew what it meant to lose a Super Bowl, from the emotion to the logistics. Was there a postgame party for the loser? Should anyone go? Months later, Belichick told the team after a practice to pick up its AFC championship rings on the way out of the building. He said it as a scheduling item, and as though he couldn't wait to dispose of them.