EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For 58 minutes, they sputtered and staggered like a punch-drunk fighter who was hanging onto the ropes, avoiding a knockout by sheer will power.
So it was for the Patriots last night at Giants Stadium, as they grimly refused to let New York put them away. But in the end, despite a final flurry that brought them within 17 yards of tying the game, the Patriots finally went down, dropping a 17-10 decision that put them at 4-4 in the parity-dominated AFC East, where a winning record seems to be a mark of dishonor.
The Patriots’ final flurry woke up the remnants of the crowd of 73,817 that had witnessed a defensive struggle only occasionally interrupted by flurries of offense.
Trailing, 17-7, at the start of the fourth quarter, the Patriots looked dead.
The only offense they had managed had come in the third quarter. Trailing, 14-0, New England received its first break when Giant running back George Adams fumbled on his own 17.
Patriot quarterback Steve Grogan, who had no miracle comebacks in his pocket, quickly took advantage of the Giant letdown by zipping a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Baty.
But in this game, which was dominated by long drives (most of them by the Giants), a touchdown seemed insurmountable. And when Raul Allegre ended a 73- yard, 16-play, 8-minute-1-second drive with a 19-yard field goal to increase the Giants’ lead to 17-7, the Patriots seemed destined to lose their second post-strike game in three weeks going away.
But the Patriot defense, which was on the field for nearly 36 minutes, held on grimly.
Grogan (18 of 36 for 175 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions) finally was able to generate some offense. With 2:22 left, he brought the Patriots to the Giant 29, ending the drive with a 46-yard field goal by Tony Franklin, which
cut the deficit to 17-10.
Suddenly, the New England defense, particularly Garin Veris -- who played the second half with a broken left thumb -- Johnny Rembert and Lawrence McGrew, started getting as nasty as its New York counterpart.
Giant quarterback Jeff Rutledge, who did a more-than-adequate job filling in for an injured Phil Simms, went backward instead of forward.
Four plays sent the Giants from their 18 to their 3, and when Irving Fryar returned a Sean Landeta punt 15 yards to the Giants 45 with 1:42 left, the Patriots seemed to have a chance.
Two passes to tight end Lin Dawson brought the ball to the Giant 17. But then Grogan went for it all, spotting Cedric Jones breaking loose.
But the ball never got to Jones, as Lawrence Taylor picked it off at the 12, ending the rally.
“I saw him (Taylor),” conceded Grogan. “But I saw Cedric breaking open. I just didn’t wait long enough for Cedric to clear and that was the end of it.”
The Patriots are now struggling for survival as well as supremacy in the topsy-turvy AFC East.
“We just didn’t make enough big plays,” said Grogan. “In a game like this, the quarterback has got to make them. And I didn’t make enough of them.”
At first, no one did. Neither the Giants nor the Patriots could seem to get on track.
But then, led by Rutledge, who was a winning quarterback for the first time in seven tries, got the Giants in rhythm.
A 16-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bavaro and a 9-yard scoring toss to Adams made it 14-0 at halftime.
The Patriots weren’t playing poorly, but they weren’t playing well enough to win, either.
“We wanted to find out where we are,” said Patriot coach Raymond Berry. ‘’We found out we’re not good enough to beat the New York Giants with their second quarterback.
“We didn’t stop them. We didn’t score enough. We got beat on both ends.”
While the offense was sputtering, the defense was sagging, bending when it needed some steel reinforcement.
“We’re not consistent enough,” said Veris, who played with a cast on his left thumb. “We have to start being more consistent. If we’re going to win some games, we have to put whole games together.”
Last night, the Patriots put together a game for a little less than two minutes. And that was not enough. Not nearly enough.