INDIANAPOLIS - For the second time in four years the Giants got the better of the Patriots on the game's biggest stage. And for the second time the reason the Patriots fell just short was the offense.
New York's 21-17 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium was eerily reminiscent of the game that took place in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLII as the Giants came up with a last-second touchdown to win. As was the case four years ago, the Giants defense managed to keep New England in check for the balance of the game, holding the unit well below its 32-points-per-game average.
There was one difference this time, however. Unlike four years ago when the Patriots were at full strength, Sunday's game featured a severely limited Rob Gronkowski, and that in turn severely limited the New England attack.
Gronkowski was nursing a high left ankle sprain and he played in pain throughout. Deion Branch said 75 percent of NFL players wouldn't have played in the condition the tight end suited up in. To his credit, Gronkowski gave it a go and was on the field for a full workload.
But unlike the other 18 games in which he was largely dominant, he barely made an impact on this one. He finished with just two catches for 26 yards and was a non-factor.
To their credit, the Patriots refused to use Gronkowski health as a factor in their defeat.
"I thought he played well and was able to do some things out there," was how Bill Belichick described his All-Pro tight end's effort.
"We need to find other ways to move the ball and score points," Tom Brady said when asked how Gronkowski's health limited the offense. "We didn't do that well enough tonight."
They won't use the excuse but it's more than fair to say that Gronkowski's ankle was the single biggest issue in the game. There's little chance that an offense with a healthy Gronkowski puts just 17 points on the board, and even a touchdown more would likely have meant a fourth Super Bowl Trophy heading back to Foxborough.
Even still, without the All-Pro tight end, the Patriots still appeared poised to win. They led 17-15 with less than eight minutes to play and seemed ready to grind the clock into oblivion. Brady mounted a drive that was effectively chewing clock and yards and faced a second-and-11 from the Giants 46 with 4:06 to go.
He sent Wes Welker down the seam on a play the pair has connected on countless times this season. Making things more promising was a coverage breakdown in the Giants secondary that left the slot receiver in the clear. But Brady's pass was behind Welker and the wideout failed and corral the pass after twisting in the air.
It would have been a difficult catch but he got both hands on it and he felt he should have brought it in.
"The ball is right there," he said disconsolately. "I've just got to make the play. It's a play I've made 1,000 times in practice and everything else. It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it. It's discouraging."
Had Welker come down with the ball chances are the Patriots at least add a field goal to their lead and perhaps even kill the remainder of the clock with a clinching touchdown. But the ball bounced off Welker's hands, and soon the Giants marched for the winning score.
It was all so familiar — and not in a good way.