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Searching for Silver Linings in Indianapolis

Super Bowl XLVI left the Sports Guy with no other choice but to try to look on the bright side of life

Like every other New England Patriots fan, I spent the hours after Super Bowl XLVI trapped in some sort of catatonic trance. It happened again? Against the same team? How could THAT happen again? This was like watching one of those lazy movie sequels — like Another 48 Hours, or The Hangover Part II — when they don’t have any inventive ideas, so they overpay everyone involved and shoot a script with the same beats.

They brought Eli and Brady back. And Coughlin and Belichick. And Welker. And the scary Giants’ defensive line. They added a few new characters (JPP, Gronk, Cruz, Hernandez, Nicks, Moore) to avoid completely ripping off the first movie … but we knew better. Everyone dressed the same — blue jerseys for the Pats, white and red jerseys for the Giants. They played indoors again, in a state-of-the-art football complex packed with Giants fans. Same movie, more Roman numerals.

Just like last time, the Giants dominated the game and somehow fell behind. Just like last time, the Patriots had a chance to finish them off (and couldn’t). Just like last time, Eli came through (and Brady didn’t). Just like last time, the Patriots botched a catch that probably would have clinched the Super Bowl. Just like last time, Eli hooked up with a receiver for an incredible, momentum-swinging moment that made every Giants fan say, “We’re going to win.” Just like last time, the Patriots had the ball in the final minute with a puncher’s chance to win, took a crushing sack, then nearly flipped the game with a miracle Hail Mary catch. Just like last time, I scurried out of the stadium as fast as humanly possible.

Unlike last time, I couldn’t write anything. At least not last night. It was too weird. It was too surreal. Reliving one of the worst (sports) nights of your life as it’s becoming another one of the worst (sports) nights of your life? How does this happen? How do you put this into words? This was like going back to Shea four years later to clinch the 1990 World Series, then blowing another two-run lead in the 10th with two outs. This was a night that made you say, “Why does this matter to me so much? Isn’t it fundamentally stupid that this matters so much?” This was a night when you try to keep everything in perspective by going through the checklist of reasons why you shouldn’t be depressed — “Are my kids healthy?” (CHECK) “Do I love my significant other?” (CHECK) “Are my parents still alive and healthy?” (CHECK) “Do I like my job?” (CHECK) “Do I have a good group of friends?” (CHECK) — and just by doing that, you feel like the biggest moron on the planet.

I have never been able to answer the question, “Why does this matter to me so much?” That’s just the way it’s always been. Ever since I can remember. You get older, your life changes, your friends change, your house changes, family members start dying, your kids start morphing into miniature people … and yet, one thing never changes for anyone who truly cares about sports. See, there’s no feeling quite like watching your team blowing a big game. It’s devastating. It’s paralyzing. It’s the only feeling that a 6-year-old, a 42-year-old and a 64-year-old can share exactly. You never get over it. You never stop thinking about the three or four plays that could have swung the game. It becomes something of a sports tattoo. You live with it forever, and then you die.

So yeah, that’s why I didn’t write a column last night. I was in a dark place. I feel better today. Good enough that I’d like to present to you something you probably didn’t expect … that’s right, it’s “The 15 Silver Linings I’m Taking Away From Super Bowl XLVI.”

1. The Good Karma Game Day Swerve

Look, I can’t lie and play the “I never saw last night’s brutal colonscopy of a defeat coming” card. I never saw Super Bowl XLII coming — it sucker punched me from behind like Todd Bertuzzi. Last night? The Brutal Colonoscopy Loss was always in play. It lingered over every moment of the weekend. That’s why two of my buddies (Jacoby and Horowitz, both Patriots fans) and I tried to swing the karma that morning by driving to the Hoosiers gym. Yeah, THE Hoosiers gym. That one. We wanted to bring some of that Hickory High karma back to downtown Indianapolis with us. Apparently karma doesn’t travel.

The Hoosiers gym (called “Hoosier Gym” for some reason) is located in Knightstown, Indiana, about 45 minutes from downtown. Halfway through the drive, you start feeling like Norman Dale in the opening credits — cornfields, middle America, dumb smile on your face, the whole thing. They kept the gym pretty much intact from the movie’s filming in 1986, right down to the Hickory High photo and “GO HICKORY” sign, and the front lobby is stuffed with memorabilia from the movie. You stroll into the gym and you just want to start shooting hoops. It’s unbelievable. Like a Pavlov’s dog type of thing. You drop everything and turn into a basketball robot. Must shoot hoops. Must shoot hoops. I couldn’t make a shot for the first 10 minutes, then started emulating Rade Butcher’s old-school set shot (the one when he kicks his right foot backward) and swishing everything. Did I mention this was happening in the Hoosiers gym? We checked out the locker room, sat in the wooden stands, muttered lines from the movie … we couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves more. My expectations were a nine out of 10; it ended up being a 13 out of 10.

Here’s the point: Whenever I think about Super Bowl XLVI, I’m always going to think to myself, That day wasn’t a total catastrophe … that’s the same day we went to the Hoosiers gym! Which made it a brilliant play. I’m adding the “Good Karma Game Day Swerve” to my arsenal for any monstrously important Boston sporting event. It made yesterday 10 percent more bearable.

2. The Good Karma Game Day Swerve, Part 2

Hold on, there’s more. Driving back to Indianapolis after our Hoosiers visit, we got pulled over for going 83 miles an hour in a 55-mph zone … and for the first time in my life, I talked myself out of a speeding ticket. What were the odds of the “Sorry officer, we just trekked down to the Hoosiers gym and lost track of time, we were worried we weren’t going to make it back to the Super Bowl in time” excuse actually working? Ten to 1? Twenty to 1? Or maybe everyone is just that nice in Indiana. Just know that, in the span of an hour, I knocked two more things off my bucket list — “Shoot hoops in the Hoosiers gym” and “Talk yourself out of a speeding ticket.”

(Did I think the combination of these two moments would lead to a Patriots victory? Put it this way: It seemed like a phenomenally good omen. Well, until … )

3. The “Don’t Sit Two Rows in Front of Hirschy” Lesson

One of my good buddies happens to be a Giants fan. We avoided each other all weekend. It was for the best. There was just too much at stake. So when Horowitz and I found our seats in Section 116 last night, guess who was sitting two rows behind us? That’s right, Hirschy and his brother. Why was this a big deal? Hirschy sat two rows behind me for Game 6 and Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals — you know, yet another one of the worst sports experiences of my life. So much for phenomenally good omens. Do I have to spend the rest of my life making sure Hirschy isn’t sitting two rows behind me for massively important Boston sporting events? Actually, yes.

4. Developing “What to Do During a Crushing Sporting Event” Veteran Experience

A lesson from Super Bowl XLII: As soon as the game ends — again, the second it ends — you have to hightail it out of the stadium. Don’t look at the field. Don’t soak in those final images. (And by the way, why would you? It’s just your guys limping off the field or lying on the ground in disbelief as the bad guys are celebrating.) Don’t look at the other team’s fans celebrating. Just shove your way out of your row, zip up the stairs, search for the exit and execute the sports fan’s version of the Walk of Shame. It’s the only way. The Hail Mary pass was probably still rolling around the end zone when Horowitz and I made it outside, miraculously avoiding 95 percent of the gloating Giants fans. If “Getting Out of the Stadium ASAP” were an Olympic event, I would win.

5. Developing “Always See the Bullet Coming When It’s Heading Toward Your Temple” Veteran Experience

Another lesson from Super Bowl XLII: Never assume you will win, never feel safe, never feel confident, never send a “We got this!” text, never take anything for granted, never pose for a picture late in the fourth quarter, always expect the worst while rooting for the best. At the very least, I’m in my fan-watching prime for that mentality. Even when the Patriots hit midfield with five minutes left — needing only two first downs to finish the game, with the suddenly quiet Giants fans going into “I can’t believe we blew this game” mode — I kept my guard up and stayed focused on the clock. Five minutes left. Two more first downs and it’s a wrap. Don’t give Eli the ball back. Don’t give Eli the ball back. Don’t give Eli the ball back. At least I saw the bullet coming this time.

6. My New Keepsake: My Framed Vegas Ticket for the 2011 Patriots to Win the Super Bowl (5 to 1 odds)

You know, because it’s fun to frame stuff for your office that makes you lose the will to live.

7. The Boston-New York Rivalry Is Better Than Ever

Know this: I hate New York fans more than ever before.

Readers always ask me, “How can you complain about sports ever again after seven Boston titles in nine years? How can you be so spoiled?” Are you kidding me? I hate the Giants and Jets. I hate the Lakers. I hate the Yankees. That’s my Mount Rushmore of sports hatred. (Sorry, Colts, you got bumped.) I want those four teams to suffer as much as I want my own teams to prevail. And you know what else? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I hate the Giants the most. There’s nothing worse than a team having your number, and even worse, having their fans flashing you those shit-eating smirks or sending you those shit-eating “pretending to be diplomatic but not really” e-mails. If I could pick one revenge win for a Boston team, it’s not even close — I want to see the Patriots beat the Giants in a Super Bowl before I die. Nothing will ever top the 2004 ALCS for revenge purposes; that was an eight-decade superiority complex (and 86 years of baggage) getting flipped in less than 100 hours. But this is close.

If you’re scoring at home, the Giants stopped the Patriots from (A) finishing 19-0, (B) winning five Super Bowls, (C) being remembered for one the best football runs ever, (D) employing the most successful quarterback of all time, and (E) employing the most successful football coach of all time. They did this while flipping the New York/Boston rivalry back firmly in New York’s favor and creating just a smidge of anti-Brady sentiment back home now (we’ll get to this), putting the Brady/Belichick era in a fascinating place historically. Despite winning three Super Bowls, they somehow need a fourth or Patriots fans — the same people who rooted for football’s Clippers for four solid decades and never in a million years thought the words “Patriots” and “dynasty” could ever appear in a sentence next to each other — will feel like the Brady/Belichick era never reached its full potential. The Giants made this happen. And to a lesser extent, so did the Jets — without them, Spygate never happens, and neither does that “You’ve never won anything since Spygate” crap, which technically isn’t crap because it’s true. I will not be visiting New York anytime soon.

8. A Brazilian Supermodel Helping Wes Welker to Avoid Scapegoat Status

Two things to remember about that “drop.” First, it wouldn’t have clinched the game. Eli would have gotten the ball back unless the Patriots finished the drive and scored. Second, it was a shitty pass. That play happened right in front of me — I was sitting on that side of the field, dead-even with the 13-yard line, 16 rows up. My favorite part about attending football games: Seeing the receivers line up, then guessing the play call the same way you would while playing Madden. Sometimes, you can tell exactly what’s about to happen — and that play was one of those times. They caught the Giants in the wrong defense; they had the ball on the right hash mark and Welker on the left side, with a ton of field to work with, so once he beat his guy off the line of scrimmage, you knew exactly where he was going. Brady knew it, too … only he put a little too much air on the ball.

Had Welker hauled that football in, the catch itself would have been on the level of Manningham’s tremendous catch that kick-started the winning Giants drive. Does Welker usually make that play? Yes. Does Brady usually make that throw? Yes. They both blew it. Regardless, Gisele’s performance before (the “Pray for Tom” e-mail that leaked out) and after (when she inexplicably talked to a reporter and ripped was overheard ripping Brady’s receivers for so many drops), as well as everyone’s affection for Welker (shades of Tim Wakefield after the Boone Game) should keep Welker from becoming a scapegoat.

Mrs. Brady? She might have a harder time shaking this one. I lived in the Boston area for the first 13 years of my life. I went to college 45 minutes from Boston. I spent the first 10 years after college living in Boston. It’s hard to overstate how provincial Massachusetts is. There’s an “Us Against Them” mentality that’s just part of the DNA. You grow up there, you live a full life there, you die there. That’s how it’s supposed to play out. There’s been a local undercurrent for the past few years that Brady thinks he’s too good for Boston (because he moved to New York, then California), that he cares too much about being a celebrity, that Gisele made him soft, that he’s not really “one of us.” So when you combine Gisele’s Super Bowl week performance with everything else, take a guess what they’ll be talking about on local sports radio this month.

Is any of this fair? Of course not. Tom Brady is one of the greatest Boston athletes of all time. But when that Gisele-fueled backlash kicks into fifth gear locally (and it’s already started), for the first time in Brady’s career, he might have to win back Boston fans. (Or, at least some of them.) I don’t remember that happening to Larry Bird. Or Bobby Orr. Or Bill Russell. Of all the strange things to come out of Super Bowl XLVI, that has to lead the list. How is that a silver lining? Because you always want your best guys to stay hungry. This will keep Brady hungry. Or so I keep telling myself.

9. Bernard Karmell Pollard: The John Wilkes Booth of Boston Sports

Let’s see … he ruined the 2008 Revenge Season in eight minutes. He knocked Welker out before the 2009 playoffs. He crippled Gronk (only the Patriots’ best weapon and the key to its offense) with a high ankle sprain for Super Bowl XLVI. How is this a silver lining? Hmmmmm … (thinking) … um … (still thinking) … I mean, how many sports cities have their own John Wilkes Booth? We’re making history here!

10. America Found a New Hidden Gem of a Sports City: Indianapolis! Who Knew?

Everything’s been said: great week, great city, great people, impeccably organized, surprisingly half-decent weather … it just couldn’t have gone better. This was a throwback Super Bowl. You walked to just about everything. You ate unhealthy food, drank beer and inhaled secondhand smoke. You had pleasant conversations with pleasant people. We were happy to be here; they were happy to have us. I will remember Super Bowl XLVI for what happened, but also for the Hoosiers gym, for the speeding ticket, for the parties, for a mystery podcast we taped that you haven’t heard yet, and for the good people of Indy. This will not be my last visit.

11. Yet Another New Dream As a Sports Fan: Seeing the Pats Recover a Fumble in a Big Game

Apparently this is impossible. Three Giants fumbles, we only recover one … and it’s the one where we had 12 guys on the field? Really? REALLY? For the sake of my sanity, let’s skip the six “And can you believe THIS happened?” paragraphs that I could have written here about the “12 men” play; Welker’s drop and the ensuing third-down pass that Brady threw behind Branch; Deion not hauling in the first catch of the final drive (and he had room to run); Brady’s horrific decision on the safety; the Pats somehow turning two no. 1 picks in the 2011 draft into four guys who didn’t have any significance whatsover last night; Bradshaw’s potentially fatal fumble on his own 11 somehow avoiding three Patriots that were right there; someone who nearly became a substitute teacher two months ago outleaping a crippled Gronk for an underthrown bomb that Brady never should have thrown (second game in a row he did this) … you watched it. You know what happened. Just know that the Giants fumbled five times in the last two Super Bowls and got the ball back every time. I will now pour scalding-hot coffee on my lap.

12. Timely To Catch a Predator marathons on MSNBC

After you just watched your team blow the Super Bowl and sat slack-jawed through the ESPN highlights for two hours, is there anything better than the unintentional comedy of Chris Hansen (who really shouldn’t be judging anybody) trapping unredeemable whimpering perverts? I demand that MSNBC make these marathons a late-night viewing tradition after the conclusion of every major championship event. I know it eased my pain by about 13.5 percent.

13. The Hail Mary Wasn’t As Soul-Crushing in Person

I thought the Giants simply batted it down, not knowing that Gronk (who would have been a yard closer if he hadn’t been hobbled) belatedly dove for the tip and came within a split second of grabbing it … which I realized when I watched the replay between 157 and 304 times last night. By the way, both Super Bowls had the same moment: a desperation Brady bomb lingering in the air, the crowd holding its breath, a Patriots receiver just missing it, and then the Giants fans raucously exhaling/celebrating. Both times, I can see the ball in the air, and I can remember thinking, Come on, just once.

But that’s the thing about those improbable moments — you can only cash in a couple of “Come on, just once” moments, but when you do, they will double as one of the best 75 moments of your entire life. I’ve had four that mattered: Bird’s steal (against the ’87 Pistons); the Roberts steal (against the ’04 Yankees); the Tuck Rule reversal (against the ’01 Raiders); and the 24-point comeback (against the ’08 Lakers). I’ve had 2,000 that faded away. Like last night’s Hail Mary.

14. We Have an Excuse Again: Gronk’s Ankle!

In 2008, I was able to rationalize the Patriots choking and the Giants outplaying them by clinging to the Helmet Catch — not just the absurdity of the catch itself, but the 47 holding penalties on the play that weren’t called. It wasn’t rational, and I can’t defend it, but these are the things you do after your team gets beat. You cling to lame excuses. This year’s lame excuse wasn’t actually that lame: Gronkowski couldn’t jump or explode off the line. You could see it right away. Eventually, the Giants just threw their weakest linebacker on him, and by the fourth quarter, they weren’t worried about him at all. Considering he just had the greatest season in the history of the tight end position, I’d say this was important. So what if injuries are part of football? I don’t care. A healthy Gronk swings that game.

(Just nod so we can move on.)

(Thanks.)

15. That Didn’t Even Crack the Top Five of My “Worst Boston Defeats of My Lifetime” List

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was worse. Super Bowl XLII was worse. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS was worse. Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals was worse. The “Too Many Men on the Ice” game in Montreal and the ’78 playoff game (Bucky Dent) were worse. Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was slightly worse because of the setting (enemy territory, 20,000 Lakers fans, and yes, I can still feel the purple confetti falling on me). I have this one tied for eighth with the “Roughing the Passer” loss in Oakland in 1976, if only because the 2012 Patriots weren’t exactly a dominating team (you can even say they overachieved this year), and because ’76 was my first true sports heartbreak (and my first experience with officials stealing a game). Only eighth place? Couldn’t have been that bad, right?

Here’s the dirty secret about sports in 2012: None of these NFL playoff teams were that good. I don’t think there was any real difference between the Ravens, Giants, Packers, Niners and Patriots. If you played a round-robin tournament with those five teams 100 times, part of me wonders if each team would win 10 times, then the other 50 times would come down to these pivotal moments that we kept seeing these past three games: a stripped pass in the end zone, a kick returner fumbling twice, a shanked 32-yard field goal, a potential stake-in-the-heart catch not getting caught, the same team recovering three fumbles, a sprained ankle swinging a game, the perfect sack at the perfect time.

You could say it about any sport, actually. The Bruins got hot for a few rounds and won the Cup. The Mavericks caught fire and won the NBA title. The Cardinals were on life support, heated up for a couple months and improbably won the World Series. Can you even remember regular seasons meaning this little? Nowadays, you just want to make it to the Final Four — after that, it’s all about executing and catching a couple of breaks. And that’s how we ended up with a Super Bowl champion and four other fan bases saying, “If only …”

With that said …

Something DID happen last night. As soon as the Patriots gave up the ball with four minutes to play, I fully expected Eli to drive down the field for a score. That happened partly because of the Patriots’ smoke-and-mirrors defense and partly because Eli Manning, at this point in his career, has evolved into the best clutch quarterback in football. We’ve just seen him do it too many times. The game came down to two plays, basically: Brady slightly missing that Welker pass; Manning not missing anything on that Manningham pass. Eli was slightly better. The right team won. This kills me.

(So much for silver linings.)

Filed Under: Events, Indiana, Super Bowl, Teams

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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