Much has been and will be made about Super Bowl XLVI. And why not? 111 million people watched the game. It was a taut, well-played, and came down to the final seconds. Yet, for all that, the play that decided the game happened with 8:52 left in the first quarter. Tom Brady, standing in his own end zone, threw the ball away to avoid being sacked and was called for intentional grounding. We didn’t know it then, but this was the play that determined how the finale of the game played out.
Follow the score with me. In the fourth quarter, with 57 seconds left, Ahmad Bradshaw fell into the end zone, unable to stop his momentum and take more time off the clock. Since a 21-17 advantage was meaningless, the Giants opted for a two point conversion and failed. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense then had 0:57 to go 80 yards. A field goal would do them no good—it had to be a touchdown. But, if there had been no safety in the first quarter, the Giants’ touchdown would have put them up 19-17, and they would most certainly have kicked the PAT. It is reasonable to conclude that that game would have been 20-17 with 57 seconds left. Brady would not have needed to go 80 yards in 0:57, but only 50 or 60 for a reasonable chance at a tying field goal. Instead, he passed deep and quick, only reaching his team’s 49 yard line.
With something as unpredictable and chaotic as a football game, a dozen other small things could have happened to change the outcome. Wes Welker could have caught the ball. Mario Manningham could have dropped the ball. Thousands of tiny decisions and indecisions affected the outcome of the game. It is unfair to put the fate of the game on one Tom Brady error.
Even so, that safety stands out as having real consequences on the scoreboard. It gave the Giants momentum, and they followed up with a touchdown drive. Even more so, it changed the Patriots strategy in the final moment of the game. For an seemingly insignificant moment, it drove the final seconds of the Super Bowl.
The reason that I watch sports—well, one of the reasons, anyway—is the way that it mirrors real life. Hopes and dreams, triumphs and tragedy are reflected in meaningless events that make our daily lives feel more meaningful. This isn’t always the case, but I find it often enough to make watching sports more than a mere diversion. That’s why Tom Brady’s error haunts me.
As humans, it is often our earliest errors that hurt us in the end. Sometimes, one mistake leads to another, spiraling into a gyre beyond our meager control. Other times, like Brady, we grit our teeth, and play a nearly flawless game otherwise. We don’t know until the end that it is our earliest error that controlled us. We may escape a thousand mistakes and poor choices, yet we know that our past will come back to haunt us. Americans are particularly forward-looking people. We leave the past for historians and ESPN Classic. We rarely look upstream in the river of time, and we are blindsided by our previous mistakes. And unlike the great plays of Shakespeare, we the audience did not experience the dramatic irony of knowing the ending at the beginning. It was not until the ending that we knew the beginning of this tragedy.
There are lessons here, surely, but I’m not concerned about lessons today. It is enough to see a tragedy unfold, and mourn.