The road to perfection reached a dead end in the Arizona desert. Now the New England Patriots are back where a Super Bowl championship — and an unbeaten record — barely eluded them seven years ago.
Not that they dwell on their return to the place where the best season in NFL history slipped from their grasp.
“It’s not where we play, it’s how we play,” Tom Brady said Wednesday, “and I’m glad we’re here with the opportunity to do something really special.”
A win Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks would even the Patriots record in Super Bowls at University of Phoenix Stadium at 1-1. New England is seeking a championship, not closure for its 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in 2008.
“I’m sure it will be a cool story if we win, saying we came back to the same place,” kicker Stephen Gostkowski said, “but I don’t think about that stuff. I’m just looking to make the first kick that they send me out for.”
So when a receiver leaps for a pass at the opponent’s 23-yard line, don’t expect the Patriots to have flashbacks to David Tyree trapping the ball against his helmet at that spot with Rodney Harrison draped over him.
That 32-yard completion with just over a minute left, after Eli Manning kept the play alive by breaking free with defensive end Richard Seymour tugging at his jersey, set up the winning 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.
It took Patriots players a long time to get over how close they came to a 19-0 record. Then coach Bill Belichick met with his assistants.
“One day Bill walks in,” running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “He says, `we got to move on guys, start smiling.'”
It’s a cornerstone of Belichick’s philosophy. Lamenting misfortunes leads to more of them, Fears said.
Fears, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia remain from the staff at the 2008 Super Bowl. Brady, Gostkowski and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are the only players from that game still on the Patriots.
“It was a heartbreaker,” Gostkowski said, but “we’ve already played in (and lost) another Super Bowl since then, so I don’t even sweat that. I have two kids and a wife and two dogs, and I didn’t have any of that seven years ago. So life has changed a lot since then.”
The Patriots are staying in a different hotel, meeting in different rooms and practicing at a different site than in 2008. The retractable roof on the stadium was closed for that game. The current plan is to have it open Sunday.
“Everything is different,” McDaniels said. “That was a great season and we were trying to obviously win an incredible game and the Giants made one more play than we did. But I don’t think that has anything to do with this week.”
The Patriots have made repeat visits to Super Bowl stadiums before. They lost the 1986 and 1997 games in New Orleans before winning there in 2002. But they had different coaches in each game, Raymond Berry then Bill Parcells then Belichick.
Now Belichick is preparing for his sixth Super Bowl with the Patriots in his 15 years as their coach. He’s a football historian who prefers not to consider his place in it during the season.
His coaching philosophy, he said, is to “try to give the players a good plan and opportunity to play, to put them in a position that they’re able to be competitive and be aggressive and let the players play. I mean, they’re the ones that have won our games.”
Whether they’re playing in a city where they’ve won Super Bowls — New Orleans, Houston and Jacksonville — or lost them.
Safety Devin McCourty was playing at Rutgers when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl in Glendale. He admitted, with a shy smile, that he was rooting for the Giants.
But he appreciated what the Patriots accomplished.
“I think every football fan saw the great things they did that whole year,” McCourty said. “It would have been incredible if they would have pulled that off and had a perfect season.”
Now he’s one of 50 Patriots players who weren’t on the team then.
“This is a different team and we don’t look in the past,” Wilfork said. “We never look back at the games we’ve lost or won in the Super Bowl.”