It would have been the most remarkable final play in Super Bowl history.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wound up from just beyond the 50-yard line and threw a high-arching pass into the center of the end zone. Tight end Aaron Hernandez attempted to box out three New York Giants defenders and leap for the ball.
He deflected it, and for just a moment it looked as though teammate Rob Gronkowski would have a chance to make the catch. But the ball was just outside of his reach, and the pass landed alone in the back of the end zone.
It’s going to be an offseason of what-ifs for the AFC Champions, who lost to the Giants 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We got our chances,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “We couldn’t make enough plays, and the Giants made a few more than we did.”
The final pass was far from the only thing that didn’t fall New England’s way.
The troubles started on the team’s first offensive play, when Brady was called for intentional grounding in his own end zone and handed the Giants a safety.
Later, a 12-men-on-the-field penalty prolonged New York’s first touchdown drive after New England had apparently recovered a fumble.
“We made more mistakes than they did,” Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch said. “Regardless of the plays they made, we didn’t capitalize on the chances they gave us.”
Indeed, the Giants put two more fumbles on the ground that the New England defense failed to recover.
And Brady was responsible for the game’s lone turnover, heaving an interception deep downfield with the Patriots protecting a two-point lead.
At times against New York, Brady was at his best. He set a Super Bowl record with 15 consecutive completions, and his touchdown pass to Hernandez on the first drive of the second half gave New England a 17-9 lead.
But Brady and his receivers failed to hook up when it mattered most. Wes Welker dropped a wide-open pass late in the fourth quarter that would have put the Patriots at least in field goal range to extend their lead.
The ball was thrown a bit over Welker’s head, but he got both hands on it and couldn’t bring it in.
“That’s one of those plays I’ve made 1,000 times,” Welker said. “I just didn’t make it.”
Was it perhaps a little behind him, Welker was asked? Was there anything Brady could have done to deliver the ball better?
“I’ve made that play in games, in practices, my whole life,” Welker said. “It comes to the biggest moment of my life, and I can’t come up with it. It’s discouraging.”
Welker was far from alone.
Branch couldn’t come up with a ball thrown just behind him to start the final drive, and Hernandez dropped the next pass to bring up third down.
“We didn‚t play good football at all,” Branch said, “and we still had a chance to win the game.”
That chance had faded badly by the time Brady launched his final Hail Mary.
“Let’s be honest, that’s a low-percentage play,” guard Brian Waters said. “But we’ve got some good football players. So you know you’ve always got a chance.”
Gronkowski watched the play unfold in front of him. He’d been the center of attention throughout the week because of his ankle injury suffered during the AFC Championship Game victory against the Baltimore Ravens.
He had a chance to play the hero. But, just like his team’s opportunity for a fourth world championship, it fell just short.
“It’s just a jump-ball play, and Aaron did a good job of deflecting it there,” Gronkowski said. “We just couldn’t pull it in.”