Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants

Pats defense fails at the end in 24-20 loss to Giants
November 7, 2011, 12:43 am
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FOXBORO -- The parallel is impossible to ignore, and you can be sure few will be ignoring it.

Summary and statistics WATCH: Best & Worst from the game

Patriots move ahead in the final minutes. Patriots merely need to stop the Giants from driving the length of the field to win the game. Patriots instead can't make third-down stops when they need to, commit critical mistakes at crucial times, and allow a touchdown with only seconds remaining, giving Tom Brady and the offense -- which had just authored a late fourth-quarter drive that had seemingly won the game -- no time to pull off a miracle finish.

But this isn't Glendale, Arizona, in February 2008. This is Foxboro, Massachusetts, in November 2011. The Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants on Sunday at Gillette Stadium may not echo down the corridors of time, as their 2008 defeat will, but it starkly demonstrates the dilemma facing coach Bill Belichick and his staff as the season heads into the second half.

For -- just as they did in February 2008 (told you it was impossible to ignore) -- the Pats blew not one, but two fourth-quarter leads on Sunday. Even though the Giants were playing without their top running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, and one of their top wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, the Pats still allowed them to put together back-to-back scoring drives of 85 and 80 yards in the final nine minutes, erasing deficits of 13-10 and 20-17.

The problem is clear: When it counted the most, they were the same big-play-surrendering, key-penalty-committing, can't-get-off-the-field-on-third-down crew that's had Patriots Nation in a panic since last Sunday's gashing at the hands of the Steelers.

The standard New England explanation -- "They made more plays than we did" -- is true enough, but it also glosses over critical errors by the defense, the types of errors they've been making all season:

Kyle Arrington -- who, to be fair, had made some crucial plays earlier, including an end-zone interception that prevented New York from building a 17-3 lead -- committed a pass-interference penalty against Mario Manningham during the first of the fourth-quarter drives that enabled the Giants to move from their 25 to the Pats' 40. Then, on a third-and-five from the 10, Manningham burned Arrington for the touchdown that put New York in front, 17-13.

After Brady had driven the Pats 64 yards for the go-ahead score with 1:46 left, Giants tight end Jake Ballard got behind linebacker Tracy White -- playing because Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes left the game with injuries -- and caught a 28-yard pass on third-and-10 that put New York on the New England 39.

Two plays later, Sergio Brown committed his own pass-interference penalty -- this one against Victor Cruz at the goal line -- that put the Giants on the Patriots 1. Brown said he was surprised by the flag ("I was playing the ball . . . I didn't think they were going to call it"), but he appeared to run into Cruz as the pass was arriving.

Then, on third-and-goal, Eli Manning threaded the needle to Ballard in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

"At the end of the day, we take it on our shoulders," said linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We have to close the game, and we didn't execute when we needed to."

"It's frustrating," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, "to let things slip away after a strong first half."

And it was a strong first half for the defense; in fact, it was a strong three-plus quarters. They held the Giants scoreless in the first half, and only allowed one touchdown in the first 45 minutes even though New York got into the red zone three times. When New England went ahead, 13-10, on a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 7:13 to play, there was even a feeling the Pats would be able to protect that lead. After all, they'd held the Giants to 229 yards total offense through the first three quarters, limited Manning to 12 completions in 26 attempts for only 157 yards and had even made a big play: The Arrington end-zone interception with 2:15 left in the third quarter after the Giants, leading 10-3, had moved to the New England 5.

But when the game was on the line, the defense folded . . . as it has all too often this season, and in recent seasons past (or have you forgotten the 2006 AFC championship game, in addition to the Super Bowl against the Giants)?

Coach Bill Belichick cryptically complained about the two interference calls -- "The last two calls were tough . . . That's a lot of yards on those two plays." -- but neither seemed to be a particularly egregious mistake by the officiating crew. Nor can they totally be blamed for the 165 yards the defense surrendered while trying to hold a fourth-quarter lead.

The breakdowns denied Brady his 33rd career fourth-quarter comeback victory. He and the offense were held in check throughout the first half, but they found their rhythm in the final quarter-plus.

Trailing 10-3, Brady completed passes of 27 and 28 yards to Wes Welker, then hit Aaron Hernandez with an 11-yard toss that moved the ball to the Giants 5. On the next play, he found Hernandez for the early fourth-quarter touchdown that tied the game at 10-10.

Later in the quarter, New England took its first lead in three weeks as Brady moved the Pats from their 21 to the Giants 26, setting up the Gostkowski field goal.

And then, after the Giants re-took the lead, Brady drove the Pats 64 yards with just under three minutes to play, hitting tight end Rob Gronkowski with a 14-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-nine play with 1:36 left that put New England in front, 20-17.

But it was Manning, not Brady, who'd be credited with the fourth-quarter comeback on this day . . . which led to a little bragging by Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.

"To me, Manning's better than 12 Brady," said Jacobs. "12 couldn't get it done today. 10 got it done."

Except, unlike 10, 12 didn't get to play against the Patriots defense.