EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Bill Belichick's return to the scene of the crime completed the task - the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history.
Somehow it was fitting.
The rally by Belichick's New England Patriots to beat the New York Giants 38-35 Saturday night came at Giants Stadium, where on Sept. 9, one of his employees was caught taping the Jets' defensive signals.
It was, by all accounts, the incentive that sent the Pats on their way to a 16-0 season, making the half-million bucks it cost their coach simply an incidental expense.
And that's what is was - 16-0. Although Belichick never could quite get himself to say the ``U'' word, as in unbeaten. He's clearly saving that for the real ``U,'' 19-0, which is what New England will be if it wins the Super Bowl.
``You play every game to win,'' was the best he could do. ``We managed to win every game we played.''
Belichick showed perhaps a smidgen more emotion than usual after the game - a smile here, some uncommon praise for his players there. He also was every bit the old Bill Belichick - some of his post-game commentary was, as usual, about mistakes that allowed the Giants to make this one of the scarier of New England's wins.
But it was left for Tom Brady to use the ``U'' word - ``It's hard to be unbeaten all season,'' was his comment.
``Hats off to us. I know a lot of people didn't think we were going to do it. A lot of people didn't want us to do it,'' Randy Moss added. ``In this game of football, it's hard to go 16-and-0. As a football player and a fan of the game, my hat's off to this organization.''
This was not a game like so many in the first half of the season, when Belichick seemed to enjoy running up scores with impunity on overmatched opponents. Often, it seemed, it was retribution for suggestions by players and coaches around the NFL that perhaps the three previous Super Bowls the Patriots won were tainted by spying.
There was none of that against an opponent that played and played hard, despite having nothing at all to gain by beating New England, other than the satisfaction of handing the team its only loss.
The Giants, headed for Tampa for a playoff game next week, were willing to sacrifice their bodies in what was basically an exhibition game: center Shaun O'Hara, linebacker Kawika Mitchell and cornerback Sam Madison all sustained injuries that conceivably could keep them out of the postseason.
This turned out to be one of four games - maybe five - that Belichick and the Patriots could have lost but didn't.
The first was in Dallas, where they beat the best team in the NFC 48-27 on Oct. 14 - a game that the Cowboys led, 24-21, in the third quarter. That's the ``maybe.''
The most impressive came on Nov. 4, when New England came from 10 points down with 10 minutes left in Indianapolis to beat another unbeaten team, Indianapolis.
The others were 3-point wins over Philadelphia and at Baltimore and then this one, the return to the scene of the crime. The Giants stayed with the Patriots throughout and even moved down the field for a touchdown on their first possession of the second half to take a 28-16 lead. Those 12 points were the most New England had trailed by all season.
But that really is nothing to a Belichick team, especially one that has Brady and Moss. The go-ahead touchdown came on a Brady-Moss 65-yarder that set single-season records for TD passes by the QB and catches for Moss.
It was s similar play to one the Patriots had tried a play earlier when Brady underthrew Moss and it hit the receiver's hands and bounced away.
That's Belichick's philosophy: Deep right was open and should have worked.
So why not try it again - it wasn't the same play but it was to the same spot.
One thing Belichick seemed to enjoy was bookending the season at the Meadowlands.
``I don't have any complaints that what happened today was here,'' said Belichick, who spent 12 seasons with the Giants as an assistant coach, a period in which they won two Super Bowls. ``I don't have any complaints about that. I have a lot of ties to this stadium and to the Giants.''
He never said a word about the three other years he coached at the Meadowlands.
They were with the Jets, the team that caught the Patriots taping their signals and, against what is sort of an unspoken code, turned him in to the NFL.
He did indicate that he's mended one fence.
Unlike numerous times in the past, he actually quoted Bill Parcells, describing him as ``a coach I used to work for,'' and later saying ``Bill,'' a name he has always omitted when asked about people who influenced him.
Maybe being back at the scene of the crime made him sentimental.

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