EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Somehow, the Giants always play to their name when they face New England. Even when they're not very good (which is quite often), they rise to the challenge of facing New England, one of the NFL's most consistently successful teams.
Superman had his Kryptonite, Achilles had his heel, and the Patriots have the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning Giants.
You should have expected this kind of game. Because when the Patriots face the Giants, bad things happen.
Like Julian Edelman being lost for the evening – and perhaps much longer – with a left foot injury on the last play of the first quarter… after he had gone on a tear in the opening stanza. Reports after the game indicate he broke that foot. Maybe he'll be back for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, New York's Eli Manning became the NFL's all-time leader in close-your-eyes-throw-it-deep-and-pray-your-receiver-catches-it completions. He did it again – several times – on Sunday evening. None more stunning than his first one – an 87-yard catch-and-run by his best receiver, Odell Beckham Jr.
David Tyree. Mario Manningham. And now OBJ.
Like I said, bad things happen.
And it's not like this is even remotely the same team that the Patriots last faced in Super Bowl XLVI. Only three players, including Manning and long snapper Zak DeOssie, remain from that squad from four years ago.
But it's still Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin…
"I think it comes down to their head coach," defensive end/co-captain Rob Ninkovich remarked afterward. "Their mental toughness, for four quarters they play tough... You just understand that when you play the Giants, it's a tough football game."
Boy, was it ever.
How many times did the momentum change? New England had the game won and lost, it seemed, several times in the second half.
The Patriots looked like they were going to change the woeful narrative that has defined the last three meetings with the G-Men. Tom Brady led a methodical opening drive that went more than eight minutes and ended with a touchdown pass to Scott Chandler.
Yet, whenever the Patriots play the Giants, New England just can't seem to get out of its own way.
When it looked like New England was going to claw its way back, Duron Harmon took down Danny Amendola (albeit mistakenly) as the latter was about to take his first NFL punt for a touchdown. New England's offense finished the job a few plays later, but the punt return disaster was indicative of how the game went for the Patriots.
Bad things continued to happen.
In the second half, the Giants, who haven't gotten much pressure on opposing QBs this season, started to look like the Giants of old, getting heat on Brady and strip-sacking him twice (three times total).
Ninkovich then came up with a tremendous play to sack Manning and move the Giants out of field goal range. New York wound up punting, and when the Patriots got the ball back, Brady hit his favorite target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, on a seam pattern that went 76 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Just when it looked like the Patriots were going to pad their tenuous 1-point lead, Brady threw his third interception of the season at the Giants' 1-yard line.
And of course, Manning marched the Giants nearly the length of the field to engineer a go-ahead field goal drive. Because that's what happens when the Patriots face the Giants. Bad things happen.
Except, this time, New England overcame them.
They did so by sticking together, not pointing fingers, and trusting in one another no matter the score or the situation on the field. It was the kind of challenging win, in dramatic fashion, that tests the mettle of a champion.
"We were down, we fought for four quarters, 60 minutes, and we never gave up on each other," wide receiver Brandon LaFell observed. "We stayed encouraging guys and when we needed it, we made plays. We lean on the guys who've been here before. You've got a guy like Brady, he's been through it all. Just lean on him and everything should be okay."
"I was looking at Nate Ebner when we got the ball back [at the end] and I said, 'Hey, I wouldn't want any other quarterback in this situation,'" said special teams co-captain Matthew Slater with a smile. "At the end of the day, 12 made plays he needed to make and the receivers made plays they needed to make, the o-line protected. And then Steve, the machine, kept being the machine."
The unflappable Stephen Gostkowski, calm as could be under duress, drilled the game-winning kick from 54 yards out, and setting the franchise record for career field goals made (264) in the process.
"Can't even describe how proud I am to be part of this football team," added Slater. "The character of the guys in this locker room. It was far from perfect, a lot of things didn't go our way, but we just kept playing and kept believing in one another. It's a great feeling. Builds character. We can't expect every week to just come out and have things go our way and roll out. This was a character-building win for us against a very, very good football team."
"That definitely built some character," tight end Rob Gronkowski agreed, "being down, being up, being down with two minutes left. We just showed some resilience out there. We played 60 minutes. That was a team win. Unbelievable win, that was."
And a crucial one in the AFC playoff picture. With Denver being embarrassed at home Sunday and preparing to host the Patriots in two weeks, New England maintains a two-game lead, along with undefeated Cincinnati (who play Monday night), over the Broncos for the top seed in the AFC.