By now, their faces would have been on money.
By now, middle schools would have been named after them, and inside, children would spend mornings writing sonnets about their legacy. By now, they would be aging legends, gathering on the sideline of other very good teams that did not measure up to them.
By now, the 2007 New England Patriots were supposed to have been immortal.
By now, they were supposed to have been perfect.
As it is, they were just another team in a nation that doesn't bother to remember runnersup. If the conversation is about the best team that didn't win a Super Bowl, well, the Patriots are the trivia for you. Otherwise, the legacy that could have been has faded away with their imperfection.
More than anything, that is what the Giants stripped away from the supposedly unbeatable Patriots four years ago. There have been a lot of Super Bowl champions, and time has swallowed most of them. But this was a chance at perfection. This was a chance at forever.
Instead, the Giants left them looking ordinary, like the '68 Colts or the '90 Bills or the '01 Rams. They made perhaps the finest regular season of all time a footnote. They made one of the finest-played games in Super Bowl history unwatchable to Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots' fans.
Understand, then, despite all the chatter, Sunday's Super Bowl game isn't really about revenge. If the Patriots win by 30, they don't get to erase the loss four years ago. If they win by 40, they don't regain perfection. If they win by 100, they don't get to take that season's Lombardi Trophy away from the Giants. This Super Bowl isn't double or nothing.
Nor is this a sequel. For crying out loud, the Patriots have only eight players left who played in that Feb. 3, 2008 game. The Giants have only 16. Randy Moss is gone, and Michael Strahan. Tedy Bruschi is gone, and Antonio Pierce. Richard Seymour is gone, and Plaxico Burress.
Nope, it isn't exactly Godfather II. What this is is a championship. And while that would feel good enough to win all on its own, it won't change a thing that happened back then.
There are those who suggest that the Patriots want this Super Bowl even more than their previous Super Bowls because, grr, they get another shot at the Giants. There are those who act as if Tom Brady is Wyatt Earp, waiting for another shot at the Clantons.
That's silly. I am certain that Brady, fierce competitor that he is, wants to win this game with a burning passion. And if he were playing the 49ers or the Packers, he would still want to win with a burning passion. It's odd. We talk all the time about payback and revenge, but that's not really accurate. It's the Super Bowl, silly. It's not a Rocky sequel.
It is, however, the Patriots and the Giants. Again. If they can play the way they did last time, that ought to be enough.
Remember how cool it was last time? It was one of the most entertaining games, with one of the most memorable outcomes, with one of the most outstanding plays. It was the 18-0 Patriots, who everyone thought was going to be in the title game, against the 13-6 wild-card Giants, who no one thought would be.
It is "spooky'' how much this season parallels that one, says former Giants receiver David Tyree. If anyone should know, it is him.
After all, it was Tyree who made that incredible fourth-quarter reception that sparked the Giants on their winning drive. You remember. Quarterback Eli Manning pulled out of heavy pressure, rolled to his right and heaved a long, high lob downfield, and Tyree leaped and cradled it with one hand against his helmet while New England safety Rodney Harrison was draped all over him. That play, often referred to as the greatest in Super Bowl history, defined a game and a player.
These days, football is just a memory for Tyree, who never caught another pass. He was injured the next season, and he wound up on the Ravens squad the next year. Now, he is out of football.
"Knowing as great as that catch was, as great as that moment was in my career,'' Tyree said on a conference call last week, "the truth of the matter was I was never going to have another moment in my career that was going to eclipse that.
"I look at that catch as a memorial, a treasure, and I'm grateful for the experience. But you have to move on.''
True, but wouldn't you have thought there would be more moments for Tyree ahead?
And maybe that's the underlying point to the Super Bowl. No one knows what lies ahead. Not for those who make the big play, and not for those who fail to do so.
There are some similarities, of course. Once again, the Giants are a team that spent much of the season looking as if they were going nowhere. Once again, the Patriots are a potent offensive team preparing for a fierce pass rush. Once again, players are playing for their legacies.
"You got the building of something epic, almost like an Ali-Frazier type of thing,'' Tyree said. "It should be good.''
Ali, too, was undefeated going into the first Frazier fight and lost.
He won the next two. It didn't restore perfection to him. It just made him a champion.
Most of the time, that's enough.