FOXBORO -- They were so close.
On Sunday night, the Patriots defense was seven minutes away from being the story of the game, specifically, a redemption tale.
Their performance against Pittsburgh just one week earlie looked like rock bottomr. New England let Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers complete 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, convert 10 of 16 third-down plays, and control almost 40 minutes of ball possession. It was an embarrassment.
After the 25-17 loss, pressure for Week 9's match up against the Giants was immediately heaped upon Tom Brady and the offense. With the Patriots' 'D' close to useless and New York's barely better, the game was billed to be a shootout.
Nobody expected what happened.
The Patriots and Giants entered halftime tied at zero. Zero points. Nada. Zilch. What they did have was 10 combined punts, six being New York's. New England's defense finally looked alive, which was impressive in itself, but more so because the offense needed them. Brady went three- or four-and-out on three first-half drives; the defense held the Giants to 1-for-7 on third-down conversions. Brady threw an interception; Eli Manning was held to 8-for-18 passing. The Patriots -- because of consistently terrible field position -- only saw the red zone once; the Giants never did.
Finally, it looked like they stopped 'hoping' for improvement and improved.
So what changed?
"Eli Manning made some pretty good throws," cornerback Kyle Arrington shrugged. "That's all I can say."
Some good throws and some better breaks. Once some New England fumbles and bumbles got the Giants' scoring going, the fault lines started to appear. One major fissure was the pass-interference call on Arrington in the fourth quarter. New York got 35 yards and an automatic first down. The field position was too good to mess up and Manning found Mario Manningham for a third-and-5 touchdown. Arrington's coverage wasn't bad, but the throw was perfect. The Giants, after being limited 1-for-11 by New England's 'D', converted on its final three third-downs.
"It's tough," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "As a defense you hate giving up any touchdowns and toward the end of the game we know there's only a few possessions left and we've just got to get those stops.
"There's nothing we can do about it now, but this'll happen again. Close games like this, once you get toward the end of the season -- it seems like they happen each week. We've got to just learn from this game and be prepared when it happens again."
With the defense's weaknesses being so obvious -- the secondary's painfully so -- opponents know how to game plan against the Patriots. After Pittsburgh's 25-17 win, injured receiver Hines Ward admitted he didn't feel the need to push through his ankle ailment that week.
"I probably could have forced it and played but we have some great wideouts," Ward said. "I wasn't really concerned. And against the Patriots, we felt we could exploit their secondary."
The Giants did when it mattered. Now New England's forced to scrutinize back-to-back losses, the first time that's happened since 2009. With a meeting against the Jets in New York on the horizon, the streak could reach three unless the leaks get plugged.
They keep saying it's possible.
After each loss the Patriots promise to study their flaws, the problem seems to be in applying those lessons to game-day scenarios. No minor thing. For all the early improvement the defense seemed to show Sunday, in the fourth quarter it twice needed to preserve the lead and didn't -- couldn't. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich stood up to answer for the performance.
"We've got to do exactly what we did last week: come in, watch the tape, see the things we didn't do right, and can't dwell on the things in the past. It's in the past now. We've just got to . . . improve and go from there for next week. Next week's a division game and we've got to make sure we go into New York and do a good job on defense."
Another week to work things out. One more week before visiting the AFC East's first place Jets. If they don't stop trying and start doing, the Patriots' 2011 story could end a lot sooner than they want it to.