INDIANAPOLIS — The experts were wrong: The quarterback with the ball in his hands last did not win Super Bowl XLVI.
Why? Tom Brady's receivers let him down. His linemen didn't help much, either, when it counted.
Brady was the one with the ball last, hurt by drops on the final few drives, down to a Hail Mary attempt into the endzone. It came close, hitting Rob Gronkowski in the hands, but ultimately fell to the ground. The Giants stormed the field as champions moments later.
The Patriots have to feel as though they let this one slip away. Their receivers dropped passes down the stretch that they normally catch. The one that hurt the most was the Wes Welker drop.
Facing a 2nd-and-11 from the Giants' 44-yard line, creeping into enemy territory and slowly taking the wind out of the pro-Giants crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Patriots had a rare opportunity. The Giants botched their coverage on the play, rotating from a two-deep to a single-high safety look.
One problem: Not everyone got the message. Kenny Phillips was out of position, and it allowed Welker, who was running up the inside edge of the numbers, to get free, more wide open than he — or any other Patriots receiver — had been all game.
"We were in a man-coverage concept, and the set they came out in (five wide receivers) moved us to a different concept," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "We tried to communicate that; everyone wasn't able to hear it."
Brady floated a pass that hit Welker in the hands. He twisted around, the pass not quite perfect but darned good, and dropped it. A receiver's nightmare. The kind of drop — especially for the sure-handed Welker, who had a good game (81 yards on nine touches) — that can haunt a man for life.
"It's one of those plays I've made a thousand times," Welker said. "Just didn't make it."
Welker was miserable. His lip quivered as he patiently answered the media's questions. He looked completely spooked, as if he couldn't believe what had just transpired.
A catch would have landed Welker and the Patriots on the 20-yard line, assuming he couldn't have gained a single yard after the catch. There would have been under four minutes left, and the Giants were down to a single timeout because they had foolishly burned two in the second half already. On the play after the Welker drop, Deion Branch couldn't pull in a catch on 3rd-and-11 that he often makes.
The Patriots were forced to punt. Eli Manning took the ball back, and everyone in the building had déjà vu. Even the Patriots had to feel that Manning was going to make the plays he needed to win, having seen him do it in XLII and in Week Nine.
The drive started with a bang, Manning throwing his best pass of the night, a gorgeous fade to Mario Manningham, who a drive earlier had failed to give himself room to catch the ball on the other sideline. Manning went to his speedy receiver — the first time the Giants really tested the Patriots deep all night — despite the earlier non-catch and another drop Manningham had. And Manning admitted that throwing there was not ideal because of the two-deep coverage the Patriots threw at him all night.
"They were in cover-2. Usually, that is not your matchup," Manning said. "They had us covered pretty well to the right; I looked that way. I saw I had the safety cheated in a little bit and threw it down the sideline. Great catch by him (Manningham)."
And, the mercurial receiver said, some luck and good genes.
"If I was a size 11½ (shoe), I don't make that catch," Manningham said. "It was that close."
Bill Belichick challenged the play, and he lost a timeout in the process. It hurt the comeback effort, but the Giants gifted the Patriots another chance by scoring a touchdown at the end of the Manning-Manningham drive. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said the Giants did not instruct Ahmad Bradshaw to go down at the one-yard line, but Belichick said the Patriots let Bradshaw score.
As Bradshaw was rumbling toward the endzone with nothing but Patriots-coached green in front of him, he heard his QB — "Go down!" Manning yelled to him during the play — and tried to follow his orders, but momentum carried him into the endzone.
That gave Brady the ball at his own 20 with 57 seconds left. Two straight drops by Branch and Aaron Hernandez, both passes that hit them in the hands, and a sack left the Patriots down to 39 seconds and no more timeouts. Catches by Branch (19 yards) and Hernandez (11) gave them brief life, and Brady threw up a gorgeous Hail Mary attempt on the game's final play.
But it was not to be.
"They made a few plays more than we did," Brady said. "They've done a good job of that all season. I wish we could have done a little more. Our team fought really hard."
The Patriots didn't take advantage of key plays. It was their game to win. They had the lead, the momentum, the ball and the clock worked down. First, Welker dropped one. Then Branch lost two, even if Brady's throws were not perfect on either. Hernandez missed one.
But it wasn't just that. The offensive line played a patchy game, unable to control Giants DE Justin Tuck, who broke loose for two big sacks — one to force a three-and-out in the third quarter and another on the final drive — along with an opening-play safety to stake the Giants to an early lead. Tuck was a dreadnought all night, no matter where he came from.
In addition, the Giants suffered two fumbles, one by Bradshaw and one by Hakeem Nicks, which squirted right to the friendly hands of other Giants, Chris Snee and Henry Hynoski, who were Johnny-on-the-spot. There's no question the Giants out-lucked the Patriots, who failed to capitalize on some of the game's more important plays.
"We got lucky with those (fumbles), we did," Gilbride said. "But we also showed good patience today and took what they gave us."
It's true, and very much worth noting: The Giants ran a very patient game plan. The Patriots cover-2'd them to death, and the Giants methodically ran the ball and, in the process, worked down the clock but had little to show for it. Special teams parlayed into defense, and the Patriots started four drives inside the 20, including three starting inside the 10. The Giants couldn't contain Hernandez well, but like the Patriots, they kept the big plays in front of them and didn't beat themselves with mistakes as their opponents did.
But we have to come back to Welker. He's the guy you would have picked to be in the final five guys of the Goat Pool, pregame, because he has come up so big in so many games for this team. When it was clear that Gronkowski was going to be limited in this game, Brady looked for Welker working on Aaron Ross and Hernandez working on Michael Boley. Welker made several big grabs Sunday. But he dropped the one that in many ways will stick with him forever.
"It hit me right in the hands," he said with a blank stare. "I mean, it's a play I never drop, I always make. Most critical situation, and I let the team down."
Brady said games and Super Bowls come down to "one or two plays," and this one was no different. It was just shocking to see how those plays — hey, let's face it: that one play — turned out.