INDIANAPOLIS -- The Giants and Patriots again delivered a Super Bowl that simply defied belief, so perhaps it's fitting that the play that led to New England's unraveling was the most unfathomable of them all.
The Patriots had a death grip on this game -- a 17-15 lead with the clock slowly bleeding away and the Giants seemingly in no position to prevent the inevitable New England celebration. On a 2nd-and-11 with four minutes left, Tom Brady dropped to throw and spotted Wes Welker, arguably the most reliable receiver in the league, breaking wide open downfield.
Brady delivered the pass. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't exactly where he wanted to put it. But it was there.
And Welker just dropped it, much to the chagrin of the Patriots defenders, who were shown on the NBC broadcast dropping their heads in disbelief and disappointment.
Two plays later, the Giants had the ball back and started their march to the game-winning touchdown in a 21-17 thriller.
"It's one of those plays I've made a thousand times," an absolutely devastated Welker said after the game, as he sat in front of a media swarm and tried to hold back the tears long enough to answer every question.
"It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it. ... It hit me right in the hands. I mean, it's a play I never drop, I always make. The most critical situation and I let the team down."
Brady, as you might expect, refused to pin the blame on Welker for the Patriots' loss, an understandable choice given that Brady made a couple huge mistakes of his own.
On New England's first offensive play, Brady took a snap from his own 6, dropped into the end zone and then threw the ball away as Justin Tuck closed in on him. After a brief discussion the officials threw a flag and called Brady for intentional grounding, which cost New England a safety.
Later, in the fourth quarter with the Patriots up 17-15, Brady avoided a furious pass rush and fired downfield -- a near carbon copy of the famous Eli Manning-to-David Tyree pass from these two teams' last Super Bowl matchup. Only this heave resulted in an interception as Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn stepped in front of a hobbled Rob Gronkowski to haul in the pass.
Despite those mistakes, though, the Patriots were on the verge of claiming their fourth NFL title. Four minutes away, in fact. Then Brady's ill-fated pass bounced off Welker's hands and hit the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
"Wes went up for it, like he always does, and we just couldn't connect," Brady said. "He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can."
Brady was less outwardly dejected than Welker, but he consistently repeated the same sentence over and over again in the moments after Sunday's loss: "We all wish we could've done a little bit more."
Can you blame him, or any of the Patriots, for feeling like that? If football is a game of inches, then New England lost by a millimeter.
"You put your whole year into this, and to come up that short, it hurts pretty bad," New England guard Logan Mankins said. "I've lost a lot of games in my career, but nothing hurts like losing the Super Bowl."
As remarkable as it was to witness Welker crumpled on the field, his head in his hands after Brady's fourth-quarter pass slipped through his fingers, that image likely would have faded into obscurity had Eli Manning not connected with Mario Manningham seconds later on a sensational 38-yard pass.
Only a few moments earlier, Manningham faded out of bounds on a deep ball from Manning, costing the Giants a huge play. With the Giants' gun nearly out of bullets, however, Manningham tucked in between Sterling Moore and Patrick Chung on the sideline and somehow hauled in a bomb from Manning.
"I've got to get a better jam on him to give Patrick a chance to get over the top," Moore lamented.
"Great catch by [Manningham], keeping both feet in," Manning, the game's MVP, said. "It was a big, big, big-time play."
When it came right down to it, the Giants again delivered more of those down the stretch, while the Patriots bumbled their way to the finish line.
"We just couldn't make enough plays," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "The Giants made a few more than we did ... really isn't too much more to say."
It's hard to say exactly what happened to doom New England late, other than to chalk it up to some untimely errors. After all, for a stretch at the end of the second quarter and start of the third, the Patriots appeared like they might blow the Giants off the field. They ended the first half by going 96 yards for a touchdown; they started the second half with a 79-yard jaunt that also ended in the Giants' end zone.
Over that span, Brady set a Super Bowl record with 16 consecutive completions, including TD tosses to culminate both drives. Unfortunately for New England, that was it. From then out, the Patriots shot themselves in the foot, on both sides of the ball.
"I thought we were going to run away with it, and it didn't happen," New England tight end Aaron Hernandez said. "We had too many errors and too many mistakes ..."
Brady said he'd rather get back to the Super Bowl and lose every year than not get here at all. While that may be true, the looks of utter despair on most of the Patriots' faces following Sunday's game told the opposite side of the story. When you get this close, it's hard enough to lose without feeling like you gave one away.
"It definitely hurts," said Gronkowski, who managed just two catches and was hobbled by the high-ankle sprain he suffered in the AFC Championship Game. "We've got to execute well, and unfortunately, we didn't."
Even New England's last-gasp effort, a Hail Mary on the game's final play, came within inches of connecting with Gronkowski, who dove but could not pull in the ball.
On that play, like so many others in Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots missed by the slimmest of margins.
"You're right there," Pats cornerback Devin McCourty said. "You think about this game the whole year, especially these last two weeks. You don't think about this outcome. You don't think about falling short."
The Patriots might have been singing a different tune if Welker had been able to haul in Brady's pass late.
Welker has 554 catches over the past five regular seasons and has become Brady's favorite target. But if that's a play Welker will make "a thousand times," this was number 1,001. That, as it turned out, was the one the Patriots would love to have back. "The ball is right there -- I've just got to make the play," Welker said. "I think there's a lot of opportunities to miss out on. We definitely had ours and didn't take advantage. I'm right there at the top of the list."