But if you’re a player for one of those teams, you’ve got to be encouraged. The template for how to beat the Patriots was there: pressure Tom Brady, double-team Randy Moss, run the ball if you can, get a big play on special teams, play your guts out.
The Giants haven’t been accused of being the best team in the NFL. Nor, for that matter, where the Eagles or the Ravens. But all three teams followed the template, and all pushed the Patriots to somewhere that might be near the limits of their extraordinary abilities. All had chances to beat the team that remains — so far — unbeatable.
That’s what the teams that will play the Patriots next month were watching on Saturday night. The fact that the Giants were smacked around for 22 unanswered points in the second half won’t register on those who would beat the kings. What they’ll see is a team that can be beaten and a way to do it.
And what should stand out most is the last piece of the puzzle, the one the Giants weren’t able to find: Don’t make a mistake.
That’s where the Giants lost. They didn’t do much wrong, but the few mistakes they made were all big — a couple of dumb penalties, a couple of critical dropped passes and the granddaddy of them all, a late interception when the last thing the Giants could afford to do was give the Patriots another possession and another shot at the end zone.
Eli Manning played about as well as he ever has. And there’s no dishonor in throwing one interception on a night when you’re 22-for-32 with four touchdowns and 251 yards. That’s an excellent night by any quarterback’s standards.
Their problem was they couldn’t get another break — not an interception or a fumble recovery. And finally, Manning made the one mistake he couldn’t afford to make, not against the best team in football.
They showed all of that against the Giants, who played harder and better than anyone thought they would. They may have played harder than they should have, to be honest. With a playoff game coming next weekend against the Buccaneers, it’s easy to argue that they should have rested some of their key players — starting with Brandon Jacobs and Plaxico Burress — instead of risking injuries in a game that had no meaning to them.
To the credit of the team and the game, they played perhaps their best game of the year, just in an effort to keep the Patriots from a record that won’t among to a hill of beans if they don’t win three more and end the season in Arizona doing the happy dance with the Lombardi Trophy.
A Giants’ fan could be forgiven for wondering where this team was in some of the games they lost this year, but that would be raising a quibble that’s out of place in this discussion. What’s important is that a team that is not considered a serious threat to get to the Super Bowl pushed the Patriots to the brink of their first defeat of the season.
If the Giants can do that, can’t the Colts or Cowboys or Chargers or any of the other teams still standing?
That’s what those teams are thinking right now. Just because the Patriots have not been beaten doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable. It’s not easy, but nobody ever said it would be or should be. It requires a perfect game. Nothing more and nothing less.
Pressure Brady. Cover Moss. Get a big play on special teams. And don’t make a mistake — not one.
There’s the template, laid out for all to see Saturday night. Now all somebody has to do is follow it.
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