FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots were so close to pulling off a come-from-behind win against the Giants yesterday, but a critical pass interference call against the defense on the Giants’ final possession led to New York leaving Gillette Stadium with a 24-20 victory.
The loss was the second straight for the Patriots - something that hasn’t happened since Games 11 and 12 of the 2009 season, when New England lost back-to-back games in New Orleans and Miami, and was also the first regular-season home loss for Tom Brady in almost exactly five years.
It was also the third straight game the Patriots and their once-potent offense have been held to 20 points or fewer.
And Sunday night, the Patriots head to the Meadowlands with first place in the AFC East on the line to face a Jets team that has won three straight since losing to New England at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 9. Yesterday the Jets won in Buffalo, and the Patriots, Bills, and Jets are all tied atop the division at 5-3.
“We’ll see what our team is made of this week,’’ Brady said.
After a 14-yard Brady to Rob Gronkowski touchdown pass with 1:36 to go, the Patriots held a 20-17 lead, with all of the game’s points coming in the second half.
New York needed just 81 seconds to answer, with Eli Manning, who has been enjoying a career season, guiding his team to the winning 80-yard touchdown drive.
The play that broke the Patriots’ back came on first down from the New England 21, when Manning looked to UMass product Victor Cruz at the goal line and Sergio Brown was flagged for pass interference.
The Giants got a fresh set of downs at the 1-yard line, and after a failed pass to tight end Jake Ballard and a failed run by Brandon Jacobs, Manning went back to Ballard. Covered by special teamer Tracy White, who had played just a handful of snaps at linebacker this season and was forced into service because of an injury to Gary Guyton, Ballard and Manning this time connected.
Ballard also had a tremendous 28-yard catch over the middle on third and 10 to keep the drive going.
“The offensive line pinched and I ended up getting off [the line] quick and breaking it out because I knew I had to get separation from the linebacker,’’ Ballard said. “As soon as I turned around Eli threw it and it was there. I was just concentrating really hard to make sure I caught the ball.’’
White was the third man up - Brandon Spikes suffered a knee injury earlier in the game, and Guyton also was shaken up, leaving White as the only linebacker remaining.
“I was just standing there and they just called me up. It was time to go in,’’ White said. “[Ballard] ran a basic ‘seven’ route to the back of the end zone. He was barely open, so that’s basically it.’’
In this case, barely open was more than enough.
“I got my head back looking at the ball - tried to make a play on the ball and I guess we got tangled up,’’ Brown said of the pass interference call. “I was looking at the ball trying to make a play on it. Our feet got tangled up and they called the penalty on me.’’
With just 15 seconds to manufacture a touchdown, the Patriots weren’t able to get into the end zone and the Giants began to celebrate.
“It was unbelievable, it was a big win for us. Nobody gave us a chance to win,’’ said defensive lineman Osi Umeniyora, sounding a bit like former Patriot Rodney Harrison. “We came out with a victory.’’
Manning didn’t have a stellar statistical day, going 20 for 39 for 250 yards, two touchdowns, and an end-zone interception, and New York was 1 for 11 on third downs through its first 13 possessions. But on the final one, the Giants were 3 for 3.
The eighth-year veteran took some heat earlier this year when he said he believes he is in the same elite class as Brady, but yesterday there was no arguing that.
“To me, he’s better than ‘12’ [Brady],’’ running back Brandon Jacobs said. “Twelve couldn’t get it done today. Ten [Manning] got it done.’’
“He just beat what is probably the best quarterback in the league in his house,’’ Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said.
The back-and-forth finish was the opposite of the first half, when neither team was able to score and they combined for 10 punts.
Given that the Giants have been allowing more than 130 rushing yards per game, the Patriots began the game by trying to attack that weakness, and were successful off the bat: on their first offensive play of the game, Brady handed the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who found the hole created by Logan Mankins and picked up 18 yards.
But New England couldn’t keep the drive going, and went three-and-out on its second possession as well, with Danny Woodhead taken down in the backfield by safety Deon Grant on third and 1.
The Giants had early success by taking advantage of the Patriots’ defensive weakness, against the pass, gaining 14 yards on a Manning-to-Mario Manningham play on the first snap of the game. But they, too, could not sustain their initial drive.
After two punts, New England gave the ball back to the Giants a different way on its third possession: sparked by a 25-yard catch by Wes Welker, the Patriots had second down from the New York 29 when Brady looked to Deion Branch over the middle.
The pass was tipped by Michael Boley and Boston College product Mathias Kiwanuka was in perfect position to snatch the ball for the interception.
Fortunately for New England the Giants did little with the turnover.
Neither side made much progress until the Patriots’ final possession of the half. Big plays by Woodhead (twice), Welker, and Rob Gronkowski all helped them get well inside the red zone. They got as close as the 8-yard line, but a third-down end-zone pass for Aaron Hernandez was too far in front of the tight end and he couldn’t make the catch.
Stephen Gostkowski lined up for the 27-yard field goal and pushed it wide left.
The Patriots got the ball to start the third quarter, but it wasn’t long before Grant struck again: this time he intercepted Brady on a pass that appeared to be intended for Gronkowski. The Giants turned the pick into the first points of the game, a 22-yard field goal.
New York forced another turnover on the very next drive. Boley came in from the left side and whacked Brady’s arm just as he was releasing the ball; Jacquian Williams scooped up the loose ball.
Starting at the Patriots’ 10, the Giants needed just one play to get the first touchdown of the day. Jacobs, who started in place of the injured Ahmad Bradshaw (cracked bone in foot), was given a sizable hole and ran nearly untouched into the end zone.
Still, the Patriots persevered, taking their first lead of the game, 13-10, in the fourth quarter on a 45-yarder from Gostkowski.
The Giants scored with just over three minutes to play for a 17-13 lead, the Patriots answered with the Gronkowski score, and then Manning took over for the final possession of the game.
“We battled for 60 minutes,’’ Brady said. “They played us tough. It was just a battle out there. We made some plays and they made some plays and it just kept going back and forth. I’m proud of our resiliency. There’s no quit in this team.
“We’re going to keep fighting.’’