EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - If anything is going to undo the perfect Patriots in the playoffs, it's there tendency to walk the fine line between supreme confidence and arrogance.
The Patriots constantly pay lip service to humility, but their actions on the field aren't always consistent with their locker-room jargon. In their 38-35 win over the Giants on Saturday, they were guilty of taking a few celebrations too far and it cost them.
Rodney Harrison deflects a poorly thrown Eli Manning pass and acts like he just won American Idol. And Junior Seau pumps his fist any time he's in the same area code as a tackle. That exuberance may fire up the defense, but it also contributed to costly penalties by both players (Seau's delay of game that helped the Giants score before the half, and Harrison's face-mask in the fourth quarter).
After Randy Moss caught a four-yard touchdown to set the single-season points record, the Pats were flagged for excessive celebration, setting up a 74-yard kickoff return for a Giants touchdown on the next play. If anyone should act like it's been in the end zone before, it's this New England team.
Last season, the Patriots' immature antics following their divisional playoff win over the Chargers didn't fit with the image of the team that won its first Super Bowl as one of the biggest underdogs in NFL history. The following week, they had even more uncharacteristic meltdown in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts.
This year, the Patriots have been defined by their resolve to avenge the Championship Game loss and their defiance in the Spygate aftermath. The scandal galvanized the team and helped them completely dominate opponents in the first half of the season. Then that inspiration died down a bit and they had to scrap to beat mediocre teams like the Ravens, Eagles and Giants.
After the game, Moss said it took the Pats a long time to match the Giants' intensity on Saturday. That feels like a familiar tale in the second half of this season. Maybe these close wins will help them re-focus. Who knows, a loss to the Giants may have been the best thing that could have happened to New England.
Even if the Patriots are 16-0, there's no margin for error in the playoffs. They have to play like the hungry, focused team that won three Super Bowls and didn't mess around with trivial things like celebrations.
(I realize I sound like a Hate-riot, and am fully prepared for the wrath of rightfully proud New England fans. Bring it on. The Patriots haven't won anything yet. As Tom Brady said Saturday night, their biggest game of the season is yet to come.)