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By Ryan Wilson
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Brady's left shoulder had been an issue for most of the season. In fact, he missed practice the Wednesday before the Patriots faced the Ravens in the AFC Conference Championship and went on to play his worst game of the season. He appeared to injure the shoulder again Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVI, after Giants defensive end Justin Tuck sacked him on New England's second drive of the third quarter.
At the time, the Patriots led 17-12 and up to that point Brady looked every bit the future Hall of Famer he is. Earlier in the third quarter, Brady broke Joe Montana's Super Bowl record of 13 straight completions. As colleague Will Brinson noted during the completion streak, Brady was so spectacular that he even managed to get Chad Ochocinco involved.
But after the Tuck sack, Brady looked more like the quarterback who struggled against the Ravens two weeks ago, and the Giants … well, every time he's faced them the going back four years.
Brady's line, pre-Tuck sack: 20 of 24 for 201 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, the pass just prior to Tuck's takedown broke Brady's completion streak and it came 6:12 into the third quarter.
Brady's line, post-Tuck sack: 7 of 17 for 75 and an interception. The pick, arguably the play of the game, came courtesy of linebacker Chase Blackburn, who was a substitute teacher earlier this season before the Giants signed him. Blackburn ran stride for stride with tight end Rob Gronkowski down the middle of the field and actually out-Gronk-ed Gronk to haul in the slightly underthrown pass.
"We were in a defense where I had to carry [Gronkowski] vertical all the way down the field," Blackburn said. [Brady] had a lot of time. I think he busted out of a sack and he just threw it up for grabs. I finally found the ball. I just tried to box him out and go up and get the ball."
|Giants 21, Patriots 17|
But the road to a championship requires more than precise game-planning or flawless execution. A lot of luck is involved too. Four years ago, it was David Tyree's helmet. Sunday night it was Blackburn making the play of his career.
Here's the thing, though: Blackburn's grab would've been nothing more than a sidenote had Brady -- injured left shoulder or not -- been able to complete a pass to a wide open Wes Welker with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter. By that time, the Pats were clinging to a 17-15 lead but driving. Another score and the game likely would have been over and New England would finally have their fourth championship after a six-year drought that included no postseason victories until three weeks ago.
Instead, Brady missed Welker down the seam on a throw he must've completed a hundred times this season, a thousand times in his career.
"Wes was running down the field and it looked like they messed the coverage up a little bit and I threw it to him," said Brady. "(Welker) went up to try and make it, as he always does, and we just couldn't connect. He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possible can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate and I love that guy."
When New England finally got the ball back, they trailed 21-17 and had to navigate 80 yards in only 57 seconds. If this had been 2004, we'd all be lamenting that the Giants gave Brady too much time to do what he does. But this is 2012, four years removed from Brady succumbing to New York's pass rush on that final, fateful Super Bowl XLII drive. We've seen this movie, we know how it ends: five incomplete passes and a sack sandwiched around two harmless completions, and Brady walks off the field sullen and beaten.
"We could have done a better job in a lot of things," head coach Bill Belichick said afterwards.
But that sentiment holds for the Giants, too (and every team that has ever played a game). Things may have turned out differently had New England just been luckier.
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