New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress could be the hero of Super Bowl XLII. Probably not for his own team, but this Super Bowl isn't about the Giants. If anyone is talking about the Giants on Monday morning, no matter who wins, the New England Patriots will have failed.
Burress is not the first player this year to guarantee (or semiguarantee) a victory over the still-undefeated Patriots. What makes Burress important is that he attached a specific number to his prediction: Giants 23, Patriots 17.
Forget the part about the Giants winning. That was a silly provocation. The Giants' whole gritty postseason run is based on the inspirational fact that, in a regular-season finale that meant nothing in the standings, they held their heads high and dared to try to ruin the Patriots' perfect season—and lost. The Pats rolled off 22 straight points on them in the second half.
But Burress was also saying the Giants would hold the Patriots to 17 points in the rematch. He was daring an offense that set the regular-season scoring record, with a quarterback who put up a 92.9 percent passing performance in a playoff game, to light up the scoreboard. "Is Plax playing defense?" New England quarterback Tom Brady asked reporters.
Brady took the bait because it had a barb of truth. In Brady's other three trips to the title game, the Patriots have proved that they're a great NFL champion. So far, though, they've been a forgettable Super Bowl team.
The Patriots have played one magnificent game in the Super Bowl. In 2002, as 14-point underdogs to the high-scoring St. Louis Rams, they put on a great football drama: battling the Rams' fearsome offense to a fourth-quarter tie, then boldly driving to kick the winning field goal as time expired.
Before that game, only three of the previous 19 Super Bowls had been seriously contested to the end. For a generation, commentators complained that the NFL's showcase event was plagued by terrible, uncompetitive games.
But why should the Super Bowl be competitive? The purpose of the Super Bowl is to crown the best team in the NFL. And what could be better than a team that can clobber anyone in its path? The closer the score, the less satisfying the outcome.
Most of the memorable Super Bowls of my lifetime have been blowouts: Washington's Doug Williams strafing the Denver Broncos for four touchdowns in a quarter in 1988; Joe Montana and San Francisco ringing up 55 points on the Broncos two years later. Would I have enjoyed those games as much if the Broncos had put up a fight? Quite the opposite.
Rooting interest had very little to do with it (though I did loathe John Elway). I hated the Dallas Cowboys, yet I'm still in awe of the 1993 Super Bowl— which I saw in the middle of the night in a London hotel room, near catatonic from jet lag, on a TV that made the Cowboys mint green and the Buffalo Bills pink. Every time I dozed off, I was jolted awake by the roar of the crowd, to see a monstrous green man rumbling upfield, ball in hand, pursued by hapless (or once, not entirely hapless) pink figures. The final score was 52-17.
Why doesn't America embrace the Patriots dynasty, with a fourth championship in sight? Some confused New England fans have chalked it up to envy. But pro football is a sport for front-runners, with no room in its heart for lovable losers. What about the idea that the Patriots are too villainous and intimidating? Nothing could be further from the truth. The Super Bowl-winning Patriots are not schoolyard bullies. They're goody-goodies—tireless promoters of their own selflessness and the ethic of playing the right way—kids hovering by the teacher's desk while the quiz sheets are being graded: This field goal means we have three more points than them, right, ma'am? And we've played all 60 minutes, haven't we? So that means we win, don't we?
Time after time, the Patriots have approached the Super Bowl as if it were just another football game: bleeding the clock with tidy, precise passing; picking their spots for the big defensive plays; and warming up the kicker. Brady is the greatest clutch quarterback of his era, and he's now put up the best statistical passing season of all time. In the annals of the Super Bowl, though, he's Adam Vinatieri's caddy. Two years after the thriller over the Rams, they repeated the same script for the game-winning kick—but against a Carolina Panthers team that was nobody's idea of the Greatest Show on Turf. The year after that, they eked out another three-point win, over the Philadelphia Eagles, thanks to a fourth-quarter game of keep-away.
Take it all together, and you have the Evander Holyfield of football: a little help from the officials to get established, then an era of competent, uninspiring title bouts. Not worth mentioning next to Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. The Cowboys have been to eight Super Bowls, outscoring their foes 221-132. * The 49ers are undefeated in five trips, by a total score of 188- 89, an average score of roughly 38-18.
The Patriots franchise, in five Super Bowls, has been outscored 148-107. Most of that margin was rolled up in Super Bowl XX, by the Chicago Bears, when Tom Brady was a small boy. That 46-10 pounding still stands, for my money, as the most thrilling Super Bowl ever played. There was no question about the outcome. It had been obvious all season that the Bears were the greatest defensive team ever and were going to win the title. They got better in the playoffs, reaching the Super Bowl with back-to-back shutouts. The game itself was the victory party, with the Patriots' backfield as the piñata. The Bears had transcended the whole idea of competition.
On Sunday, the Patriots get another shot at those Bears—and the 49ers and the Cowboys. The question is whether they'll take it. Any win at all would put them in the record books with a perfect 19-0 season. They can play it safe, fend off the Giants, and say they were better than the unblemished but plodding '72 Dolphins. Or they can cut loose, aim for 55 points, and maybe say they're the best team the NFL ever saw.