IT'S EXHAUSTING trying to beat the world every week, all season.
Over 18 games coach Bill Belichick cultivated the New England Patriots' persecution complex. He channeled every late-show joke about his video spies. Every verbal jab by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who were all but sticking pins in voodoo dolls wearing hoodies. Every slight uttered by players well-known (Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens) and not (Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith).
Every attack on the Patriots' superiority was not simply used as sophomoric bulletin-board material by Belichick but also as a Post-it for the team's competitive soul: Remember, the world is against us.
This in-house slogan of Belichick's became a self-fulfilling prophecy as New England plowed its way through an undefeated season to reach Super Bowl XLII on Sunday. Any poll beyond the Mass Pike would reveal a broad anti-Patriots vote: They are too smug to tolerate; Tom Brady is too precious to cheer; Randy Moss is too damaged to embrace; Belichick is too aloof to love.
Only those who operate on the same plane of genius as Belichick understand how lonely life as a virtuoso can be. "On one level it's flattering [to be called a genius], but it can be frustrating too," says Eric Maskin, a Belichick devotee who won the Nobel in economic sciences last year. "I think in some fields you have to have a certain mind-set in order to make progress. Sometimes you have to cut yourself off."
To Belichick's credit, his players get him. They buy into his Mensa mystique and appreciate his methods and forgive his congeniality gap. Spygate certainly took more of a toll than it had to when Belichick remained unrepentant after being caught—no Jimmy Swaggart tears for Hoodie—but his troops just circled around him.
"If you read the history of great composers, they're different," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "Bill is special. He can see things no one else does."
Belichick has been called many names, but he has always been referred to as brilliant—until perhaps now. He outsmarted himself on the run to Super Bowl XLII. By the time his team arrived in the Arizona desert, it was mentally and physically spent. Five of New England's last eight games were decided by 10 points or less. "Battling isn't easy," as one member of the organization said last week, "especially when you're fighting perception too."
Against the New York Giants the Belichick Wall came tumbling down. The Patriots' worn-down offensive line could not have protected Brady from the paparazzi, much less Justin Tuck. Their gasping defense permitted not one, but two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 17--14 defeat.
And it wasn't the pressure of remaining unbeaten that ground them down. "Our record didn't lose the game," New England linebacker Junior Seau said. "We lost it, and it hurts."
While some Patriots remained inside the locker room to console one another, Belichick burned rubber. He rudely fled the field before the final tick of the game. Then, once he grunted through a press conference in his best Sling Blade imitation, he briskly dragged a roller bag through the stadium corridor as he escaped the scene of Perfectus Interruptus, brushing past well-wishers who raised hands as if to pat him on the back but thought better of it. Don't mess with genius. Not a good time.
And who should have halted Belichick's bid for unbeaten glory but a player who most surely had been persecuted, and not just for 18 games? Quarterback Eli Manning had been a whipping boy for four years, as New York fans and media collectively decided that the Giants had gotten the dregs of the Manning gene pool with the first pick in the 2004 draft. Eli wasn't pugnacious or loquacious or victorious. He wasn't Peyton at all. What a rip-off.
But Eli never internalized the harsh inspection, brutal headlines and rampant doubts as fuel for revenge against the NFL society. That's too heavy for Eli. "He never knew how bad they were beatin' him up," says Archie Manning, beaming father of the first family of football. "If he did, he never complained about it."
So after Belichick's grumpy exit and as other Giants carried their Louis Vuitton duffels to the team bus, the Super Bowl's MVP toted a gray backpack you'd swear contained a juice box. Eli's perpetual bed head was still wet from a shower. His tie was askew, his face familiarly calm.
So just who is the smarty-pants now? Affable Eli Manning had just schooled the great Bill Belichick in the skills of grace.
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Belichick has been called many names, but he's always been referred to as brilliant—until perhaps now. He outsmarted himself on the run to Super Bowl XLII.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER