And this is how the Patriots’ grand tour of villainous fuck-you’s rolled into its ninth sold-out week: With a Giants touchdown catch that wasn’t, with a Tom Brady interception that wasn’t, with a field goal from 54 yards that tucked inside the uprights to put New England at 9-0 and still on the road to a perfect season.
How many times did we assume this was the week the 2015 Patriots would finally go down? After all, the Giants were the one team that had repeatedly exposed their thermal exhaust port. This was a New England team that hadn’t trailed by 10 points all season long until the Giants got up 20-10 in the third quarter; this was a New England team that trailed 23-17 in the fourth quarter and appeared to have run out of gas on offense before hardcore Gronking ensued. This was a New England team that had lost to the Giants in stupidly improbable fashion in a pair of Super Bowls (and in the regular season in 2011), and this was a New England team that, nursing a 24-23 lead in the fourth quarter, allowed Eli Manning and the Giants to drive from their own 3-yard line to the brink of the Patriots’ end zone as the two-minute warning approached.
I mean, of course it was Eli, because who else would it be? And here, we all thought, would come the dagger, some ridiculous fade pattern that the Giants’ circus-act receiver, Odell Beckham, would somehow catch between his teeth just to add to the lore of this series. And it nearly happened: Beckham pulled in that pass, dropped one foot and then another into the end zone and then dropped the ball, proving once more that no one in America knows what the hell it means to complete a catch in the National Football League. So the Giants, having failed to bleed the clock, had to settle for a field goal; but still, these were the Giants at home, leading 26-24 against the Patriots, the team that hadn’t solved this particular riddle since beating New York in the regular season back in December of 2007.
You may recall that game because the Patriots were also undefeated at the time. You may recall that as the game which eventually begat the David Tyree helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII (and perhaps the majority of the country that despises everything the Patriots stand for can take solace in the notion that maybe we’re headed to that same place eventually). But this is not the same Patriots team; these Patriots are older and more fragile, just as Tom Brady is older and more fragile, and on a day when Brady’s longtime adversary Peyton Manning sunk to rock bottom, it wasn’t unfathomable to imagine that Brady would also fail to lead a comeback. He no longer had the running back, Dion Lewis, who had proven such a catalyst to this offense before tearing his ACL last week; he no longer had the slot receiver, Julian Edelman, who had become his favorite non-Gronkish target but left this game with what turned out to be a broken bone in his foot.
With 1:39 left, Brady underthrew a pass that the Giants’ Landon Collins appeared to have intercepted…except that Collins, like Beckham before him, failed to finish the catch, the ball rolling to the turf underneath him. And the Patriots kept moving, kept pushing ahead, Brady completing short throws, Brady killing the clock when he needed to, Brady doing the kinds of Tom Brady things that turned him into Tom-Fucking-Brady in the first place. And in the end, Brady left it to Stephen Gostkowski, who like everyone else on this Patriots’ team is astoundingly (and perhaps frustratingly) competent.
At some point, even if you hate these Patriots, you have to start thinking ahead. At some point, you have to start wondering: Do I want them to go 16-0, just so I can root for them to once again fail epically in the postseason, as they did in 2008? There are still teams on New England’s schedule that could derail this run, starting with Buffalo next week (though that game in Denver in a couple of weeks certainly appears less daunting than it once did, given the apparent twilight of the elder Manning brother), and this is the NFL, which means that even a team like the Patriots could wind up tripping over their own feet against, say, the Texans or something.
But with every week, with every victory, with every bird flipped at both Roger Goodell and America as a whole, the Patriots appear to be gathering strength. The one dude we thought might be able to stop them, Eli Manning himself, just got rolled. If nothing else, it’s getting real now.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb