Then, with two opportunities to beat the Giants in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Patriots stopped making plays, which resulted in a 24-20 loss at Gillette Stadium.
After quarterback Tom Brady orchestrated a pair of go-ahead scoring drives, the defense gave the points right back. They surrendered 14 points in the last two drives, allowing the Giants to traverse 165 total yards on 16 plays.
Bottom line: The defense showed plenty of promising signs before failing twice in the final minutes.
"It's tough," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "As a defense, you hate giving up any touchdowns. Toward the end of the game, when we know it's only going to be a few possessions left, we've just got to get those stops. There's nothing we can do about it now, but this [situation] will happen again. Close games like this once you get to the end of the season, it seems like they happen each week. We've got to learn from this game and be prepared when it happens again."
The defense was phenomenal in the first half, holding the Giants to zero points, 95 net yards and five first downs in seven possessions. The fundamental differences between Sunday and last week's loss to the Steelers were stark. Rather than playing in a soft zone, they were aggressive with much more man coverage, both with the cornerbacks and inside linebackers, and they used the safeties in a more traditional role to back up the play.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo played the entire game, and Brandon Spikes complemented him well. They were fluid, communicated well and didn't appear to be lost at any point. Again, the progress the defensive unit showed from last week was unfathomably impressive.
Things broke down later, though, and they couldn't make a play when it counted. Two pass interference penalties on the last two drives — the first by cornerback Kyle Arrington and the second by safety Sergio Brown — helped the Giants work their way down the field with ease. And outside of a very select amount of plays, the Giants were inconsistent on their own merit, making those free yards even tougher to stomach.
"We just didn't execute as well, I guess," Mayo said. "We went out there with a good plan and just couldn't finish the game."
In a twist of fate, part of the Patriots' undoing might have happened on one of their biggest plays. Arrington knocked away a third-down pass intended for wide receiver Victor Cruz in the end zone, but he also collided with Spikes, who immediately went into the locker room with a knee injury and never returned.
Without Spikes, who might have been playing his best game of the season, the Patriots turned to Gary Guyton, who was pulled in favor of Mayo in the second half against the Steelers (when it appeared Mayo was limited with his knee injury). Guyton was better in man coverage than he showed in the zone last week, but he was removed from the game for the majority of the final series, forcing special teamer Tracy White into action.
Naturally, Giants quarterback Eli Manning picked on White, beating him for a 28-yard pass to tight end Jake Ballard and then the game-winning, 1-yard touchdown to Ballard. White bit on the play-action and allowed Ballard to create enough space in the back of the end zone.
Now, the Patriots are left to pick up the pieces of a second straight loss. If nothing else, they proved they can be more effective in a man-based scheme, but they've also got to display an ability to make more plays. That was a resounding theme in the locker room after Sunday's loss.
To this point, one stat in that regard has been glaring. They've only forced 14 turnovers through eight games (1.8 per game). Last season, they forced 38 (2.4 per game).
That playmaking factor sounds like it could be a focal point this week as they prepare for the Jets. At this point, after a pair of defensive letdowns, it's got to start somewhere.
"It's not a good feeling," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "As a defense, we played a good, solid game. Obviously, we had two times where they scored. It's obviously not a good feeling when at the end of the game you're in a good position to win. We've got to come in [Monday] and watch the tape. It's going to be a hard tape to watch because we fought through the whole game. We did make some improvements, but obviously, we lost the game. In the end, we've got to make those plays to win the game."