Monday December 29th, 2008

It's tempting to just toast David Tyree for his remarkable catch one last time and call it a year. But unlike his ball-pinned-against-his-helmet grab in last February's Super Bowl upset for the ages, that's too easy, at least for my taste.

Tyree's gravity-defying feat in essence won the Super Bowl for the Giants and spoiled the Patriots' historic perfect season, but for me it was the other cataclysmic moment of shock and dejection that New England had to endure this year that truly impacted 2008 in the NFL like no other.

I'm referring to the one Bernard Pollard wrought. When the little-known Kansas City Chiefs safety slammed into the left knee of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady less than eight minutes into that sunny Week 1 Sunday in early September, ending the season of the reigning NFL MVP, it changed the landscape of the league standings and gave a wide-open feel to the chase for this year's Vince Lombardi Trophy.

With Brady out of the lineup in New England for the first time since early 2001, the NFL season was suddenly devoid of a starting point from which to navigate. Like them or loath them, the vaunted Patriots have provided us with a compass of sorts since their run of true domination began in 2003. They have been the team that the rest of the NFL measured itself against, and without them occupying their usual role of Super Bowl favorite, it was the kind of season in which almost anyone dared to dream of making it all the way to Tampa.

With the Patriots transformed into just another good, but far from dominant team, the AFC's power structure became a season-long revolving door of sorts. Tennessee quickly inserted itself into the vacuum of elite teams with a 10-0 start, but there were flashes of excellence along the way from Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and even the Brett Favre-led Jets. And to overlook the seasons that got better as they went along in Miami, Baltimore and even, yes, New England, would have been to sell the AFC's Super Bowl field short.

In the NFC, having no New England in the role of Beast of the East means no AFC superpower to fear come February. That has seemingly emboldened many contending teams to believe that a title is theirs for the taking, with the defending champion Giants convinced that a repeat is within their grasp now that no 2007-like run of historic significance is required.

Likewise, with New York looking fallible late this season, Super Bowl hopes have risen in such places as Carolina, Atlanta, Arizona, Minnesota and Philadelphia. Without Brady and the Pats looming on the horizon, all things look possible in the conference that has seen New England represent the AFC in four of the past seven Super Bowls.

The ramifications of no No. 12 in New England this season have been felt far and wide. A year after dominating the league in historic fashion, the 2008 Patriots had to re-invent themselves, and that reincarnation paved the way for a different kind of season than most expected. Last year New England forced the rest of the NFL to its knees. This time around, one Week 1 knee injury changed everything.

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