History vs. destiny

The Baltimore Sun

PHOENIX -- Although this marks their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, the New England Patriots are walking on unfamiliar territory in the Arizona desert.

Driven by a pursuit of unparalleled perfection, the Patriots are one step away from NFL immortality.

Put the confident New York Giants in their place tonight, and New England becomes the second NFL team to finish as undefeated Super Bowl champions but the first to accomplish the feat with a jaw-dropping 19-0 record.

Even the straight-laced Patriots, who throw out mundane cliches as often as Tom Brady throws touchdown passes, have publicly recognized the significance of this game as well as their potential place in league history.

"I think it's the biggest game of all of our lives," Brady said. "We're going to be remembering this game for as long as we live, win or lose. We're going to have great memories of this experience or we're going to look at it truly as a missed opportunity."

The Patriots would join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only other undefeated Super Bowl team, although a victory would place New England on a pedestal unlike any other.

Brady could be viewed as the finest quarterback in NFL history if he ties Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with his fourth Super Bowl ring.

Bill Belichick could be seen as the greatest coach if he ties Chuck Noll with his fourth Lombardi Trophy.

And the Patriots could stake their claim to being the greatest team of all time, eclipsing the 18-win marks of the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 1984 San Francisco 49ers.

But a loss would ruin everything.

"No one will remember the regular season," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, who spent the previous seven seasons with the Ravens. "All they will remember is Super Bowl 42."

If the Patriots are the team on a quest for history, the Giants are the team inspired by destiny.

Rebounding from an 0-2 start, New York did the unthinkable, setting the NFL record with 10 straight road wins.

While the spotlight has been on New England all season, the Giants came out of nowhere, ambushing the NFC with three playoff wins away from home (only the third team to reach the Super Bowl that way).

Now, derail the perfect Patriots and the 12-point-underdog Giants can boast one of the greatest upsets on this stage.

"We have been underdogs pretty much every time we've played," New York coach Tom Coughlin said. "We've gone on the road and been underdogs, and been underdogs at home. So it's kind of been a natural thing. The main theme that comes out of that for our team is having something to prove. We always have something to prove, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Rather than trying to sneak up on New England, the Giants have been loose and confident, beating their chests as if they were favored.

They arrived in Arizona last week dressed in all black, suggesting they were going to the burial of the Patriots' perfect season.

Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said his team would win, 21-17. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress called for his team to win, 23-17.

These predictions became the story of the week, overshadowing Brady's sore right ankle (which has not been listed on the injury report).

"I'm not going to back down and say we're going to lose the game," Burress said. "The goal is to go out and play at the highest level you can and go out and try to hold that trophy up at the end of the game. That's what you want to do. We're here to go out and compete and win the world championship."

If this is like New England's previous Super Bowls, it will be determined by the quarterbacks.

In three Super Bowls, Brady has completed 65.7 percent of his throws and has averaged 245 passing yards. He has thrown six touchdowns and one interception for a 99.8 quarterback rating.

Unlike his veteran counterpart, the Giants' Eli Manning is making his first Super Bowl start. After throwing a league-high 20 interceptions in the regular season, he has not turned the ball over in the playoffs, which could be a critical factor tonight.

Still, the Super Bowl has always been the showcase for the Patriots and Brady.

"Every game, you're playing for perfection," offensive tackle Matt Light said. "That's what Tom's doing, and it trickles down to everybody else. There's nothing like winning a world championship. There's nothing like being on that field celebrating a victory. That's what's on the back of everybody's mind right now."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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