When Lawrence Tynes sent the football through the uprights to win the NFC Championship game, I knew exactly the words that would reverberate through media outlets in the morning: revenge. After the legendary drama that ensued from the underdog Giants dethroning the undefeated Patriots four years ago, it would be nearly impossible to look at Sunday's matchup without seeing the backdrop of XLII. In the following days, those involved with the game, downplayed that storyline, spilling cliche's that what happened four years ago is history, that these are two different teams, and that the only thing that matters is the 60 minutes on the clock. Despite the truth of those sentiments, I think it's all but certain that the millions watching Super Bowl XLVI will be inundated with highlights of "The Helmet Catch" and "18-1". Yes, the "Revenge Bowl" will soon be underway.
As the 2011 Divisonal Round Playoffs came to a conclusion with the Patriots fresh off a defeat of the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens on tap, an the New York Giants looming on the NFC side of the bracket, something incredible clicked inside my head. Like Kiefer Sutherland's kid in "Touch", all the numbers suddenly came together and created an unbelievable roadmap. However, before I get to that, let me take a step back and return to the beginning…
For four seasons, the New England Patriots held an incredible amount of meaning for me. In 2001, with a nation on its knees, the underdogs wearing red, white, and blue overcame unspeakable odds to bring America to its feet. The next year, the team faltered under the weight of championship expectations, but rose again in the final seconds of the season with yet another game-winning kick from Adam Vinatieri. Fast forward to 2003, and the Patriots win a second Super Bowl off that same kicker's foot, repeating the unbelievable ending from XXXVI and validating that this team was not a fluke. In 2004, the team that everybody had counted out and overlooked built a dynasty by working hard, staying humble, and playing as a team. Those seasons were simply inspiring at their core. They were storybook-esque in their drama and symmetry. They were the stuff that Tim Tebow's made of, minus the nauseating 24/7 hype machine. And then, things.. just sort of… fell… apart…
You can't expect a run like the Patriots had to last forever. It was the type of experience that, as a sports fan, you might get to experience once, if you're lucky. Or at least, that's what I told myself. Take a look at what happnened in the six years to follow:
2005 – The New England Patriots make the playoffs as a #4 seed and ultimately fall to the Denver Broncos in the wake of five turnovers, thereby crushing their hope for the NFL's first ever three-peat.
2006 – Again a #4 seed, a Patriots team decimated by injury defeats the NFL-best San Diego Chargers on the road in a slugfest. They then mount a 21-3 lead early in the AFC Championship game against the home-team Indianapolis Colts, only to lose in the final seconds. To this day, I still consider this to be the worst loss in New England Patriots history, even worse than the one to come in the following year. With this loss, the Patriots uncharacteristically blew a gigantic lead to their most-hated rival and cost themselves what would have been a nearly guaranteed win in Super Bowl XLI over the Bears.
2007 – Under the shadow of "Spygate", the Patriots band together and pull off an 18 game winning streak, the longest in NFL history, only to lose in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLII to Eli Manning and the New York Giants, finishing 18-1. The ultimate stomach punch.
2008 – In the opening minutes of the season, Tom Brady tears his ACL on a hit from Kansas City's Bernard Pollard. The Patriots immediately go from Super Bowl favorites, to a huge question mark. They rally around Matt Cassel and finish the season looking like a legitimate contender. As fate would have it, they also happened to be the only 11-5 team in the history of the modern playoff format to miss the post-season. To rub salt in the wound, the 8-8 San Diego Chargers are awarded a playoff spot by virtue of their winning the pathetic AFC West.
2009 – The Patriots lose an embarrassing home wild card game to the Baltimore Ravens in which they are outscored 24-0 in the first quarter.
2010 – New England earns the NFL's best record and seem like a lock for the Super Bowl. They to lose their first playoff game to, of all teams, their AFC East rival New York Jets.
If you look at the past six seasons for the Patriots, I bet that most teams in the league would be happy to trade places with New England. Yet at the same time, there is no denying that each Patriots season since 2004 has ended in the most gut-wrenching of fashions. The past six seasons are marred with embarrassment and opportunities lost. Despite the winning trend, Patriots fans have been met with pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, and more pain.
But as I sit here, just days before the Super Bowl, it suddenly all seems to make so much sense. The pattern has become clear. The "meaning" that defined the Patriots of old is once again within reach. Ten years removed from their first title, the 2011 have a chance to capture so much more than simple "revenge". On Sunday night, they will have a chance for Redemption.
In perhaps the defining game of the regular season, the Patriots defeated the New York Jets in Week 10, sweeping their nemesis for the first time in the Rex Ryan era. They have not lost since. In the playoffs, they first defeated the Denver Broncos, (who happened to finish 8-8) and followed that up with a jaw-dropping victory over the Baltimore Ravens, who just happen to have safety Bernard Pollard on their roster. And now, they will head to Indianapolis, the site of the Patriots' most harrowing loss, to face the very same New York Giants, who upended their chance at immortality four years ago. Much like a team named The Patriots hoisting the Lombardi in the wake of 9/11, this series of events defies explanation.
Opportunities like this don't come around very often. By winning one game, the New England Patriots will do more than add a fourth Super Bowl banner to the rafters of Gillette Stadium. A victory on Sunday Night will take all the senselessness and all the pain of the past six years make it right. No, the Patriots won't suddenly have gone 19-0, or won any of those failed playoff games if they end the season victorious. Those scars will still remain. But if the Patriots do win Super Bowl XLVI, every member of the New England family will be able to look back and know that over the course of 60 minutes in Indianapolis, our Patriots channeled all that hurt, and disappointment, and regret and used it to redeem ourselves with the biggest, loudest, and proudest victory that this franchise ever has and ever will experience.
I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope my New England Patriots win the Super Bowl. I hope to see Robert Kraft hoist the Lombardi Trophy and blow a kiss to MHK. I hope the confetti falling from the sky is as red, and as white, and as blue as it has been in my dreams.