While arguably playing their best game in the "Saturday Night Live" event that was so much more than a game against the undefeated New England Patriots, the Giants allowed a 28-16 lead to evaporate in the final 19 minutes and lost, 38-35.
That drove their record down to 10-6, but didn't harm their fifth seed in the playoffs, which for them begins Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. in Tampa against the 9-7 Buccaneers, who are nevertheless the NFC South champions and therefore the home team.
Head coach Tom Coughlin played it to the hilt, refusing to rest regulars and/or older players for the chance to get them "even more ready" for the playoff game, and one could make a case for the fact that he "paid the price."
Four players left the game injured. One of them, rookie safety Craig Dahl, suffered an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury to his knee and will not return. Another, starting right cornerback Sam Madison, experienced what was described as an abdominal strain, although he later discounted it in the locker room, and he will probably play.
"We'll know more in a day," said Coughlin. "Both said they felt better Monday, so we'll just have to see."
Someone asked the head coach if he felt it was a result of playing the regulars. "We're at that again?" he said. "You have to tell me what that means. I would again challenge you to tell me which starters to play and which ones to bench. I feel bad for young Dahl, and I am hopeful about the others. It was how we decided to approach the game, to prepare for it and to play it as we would any other game."
If O'Hara doesn't play, the center will be reserve guard/center Grey Ruegamer, who played well, according to Coughlin, in his emergency role. The weakside linebacker, similarly, became young Gerris Wilkinson, and he played exceptionally well when he came in for Mitchell.
Did Coughlin do the right thing? "There was no other way," he insisted. "The Patriots were undefeated and we owed it to our players and our fans to try to win the game. We didn't, but we played probably the best team in the league this year to a standstill for most of the night. Our guys can take solace in that. There were no negatives coming out of this game."
--QB Eli Manning admitted that the offense "needed a good showing, it was overdue," and as has become his custom, shrugged off individual credit and dispensed it instead to the team: "The receivers made some great catches on tough balls, the line played very well and I thought we finally got a good game without the additional challenge of bad weather."
--Rookie SS Craig Dahl, an undrafted free agent, suffered a torn ACL and will miss the rest of the playoff season. "He got hurt on special teams," said head coach Tom Coughlin. "I feel badly for him. Craig played hard and made some major contributions." In fact, Dahl started for two games when James Butler, the starter, was injured.
--The last time a Giants team started its season 0-2 and made it to the playoffs was all the way back in 1934, when they overcame that 0-2 beginning and beat the Chicago Bears for the NFL championship.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--CB Aaron Ross, the team's first-round draft pick, was exploited by Patriots WR Wes Welker and his inexperience was highlighted. Welker caught 11 passes for 122 yards and had no TDs, but he did miss a tackle on RB Laurence Maroney at the Giants' 1-yard line when Maroney scored from the 6-yard line in the third quarter, narrowing the Giants' lead to 28-23.
--SLB Reggie Torbor, who replaced the injured Mathias Kiwanuka (injured reserve, fractured fibula) had another strong game with seven tackles, three QB hits and the Giants' only sack.
--WR Amani Toomer played in his 174th regular-season game, moving him past both LB Harry Carson and DT Keith Hamilton into seventh place on the team's all-time career list. Toomer also caught four passes for 41 yards. He just completed his 12th season, all with the Giants.
--RB Brandon Jacobs became only the seventh Giant in team history to surpass 1,000 yards in a season. He gained 67 yards vs. New England and finished the season with 1,009 -- despite missing five games and a half of a sixth. The previous 1,000-yard rushers were Ron Johnson, Joe Morris, Ottis Anderson, Rodney Hampton, Gary Brown and Tiki Barber.
REPORT CARD VS. PATRIOTS
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- It wasn't exactly a breakout game for QB Eli Manning but it was the best he has performed in several weeks. He says it was because the weather was good, "not like the past three or four weeks," he said, and not having to deal with what he termed "an additional challenge" was good for the entire offense. He credited the wide receivers, especially Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, for making "extraordinary" catches that led to big plays. Each WR had four catches, Burress for 84 yards, Toomer for 41. Half of Burress' four receptions were TDs. Rookie TE Kevin Boss emerged as a viable threat as well, catching four for 50 yards that included a 19-yard TD. "He's blocking really well, too," Manning noted. The 6-6, 265-pound Boss was a fifth-round pick via Western Oregon University. The O-line was adept at handling the confusing Patriots pass rush and limited the Pats to just one sack.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- RB Brandon Jacobs carried 15 times for 67 yards, scored one TD (on a pass from Manning) and showed more improvement on his blitz pickups and running wide. His tendency to look for a tackler to run over seems to have subsided and it has made him more effective, as well as healthier. He was the only RB used, with the exception of one carry for a minus-one result, by veteran Reuben Droughns. The O-line, especially RT Kareem McKenzie and RG Chris Snee, played well and drew some comments from the Patriots' D-linemen. The absence of rookie Ahmad Bradshaw curtailed the running attack devised by offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who had envisioned an inside-outside plan. But only four of the team's 13 first downs were generated by the run.
PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- It is probably unfair to award a low grade to defenses attempting to stop the Patriots passing game, but there were costly slips in both performance and decision-making that leads to a less-than-average score. The go-ahead TD, a 65-yard pass from Tom Brady to Randy Moss, was the second of two consecutive identical plays and head coach Tom Coughlin said that there was a breakdown in communication on the second one. "The possibility for that to happen," he said, referring to the identical back-to-back calls, "is always anticipated and should be built in to the reaction of the formation." In all, the pass defense allowed 32 completions in 42 attempts by Brady for 356 yards and a pair of TDs. WR Wes Welker had 11 catches for 122 yards, Moss six for 100. Rookie CB Aaron Moss was repeatedly exploited, and afterward just shrugged: "A good lesson," he said.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- This was better, although the Patriots seemed disinclined to use the run more than absolutely necessary to achieve some sort of balance, although it wasn't close. New England ran the ball 26 times (including four by Brady) and threw it 42 times. RB Laurence Maroney, finally healthy after a series of minor injuries, carried 19 times for just 46 yards. DT Barry Cofield, SLB Reggie Torbor and WLB Gerris Wilkinson (filling in for the injured Kawika Mitchell) played with exceptional discipline, while MLB Antonio Pierce was busy calling formations and signals and still had time for seven tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Rookie Domenic Hixon returned a kickoff 74 yards for a TD and, in all, took back eight for 221 yards. His TD was the 19th such score in the team's 83-year history and the first since a 95-yarder by Willie Ponder vs. Arizona on Sept. 11, 2005. P Jeff Feagles kicked four times for a 37.5 average (30.0 net), allowing only two punts to be returned for a total of 10 harmless yards. The Giants returned just two punts for two yards and K Lawrence Tynes was held without a field-goal attempt. The Patriots returned four kickoffs for 88 yards, but none were costly.
COACHING: B -- Head coach Tom Coughlin indicated that he would play the regulars and make every attempt to win the game, despite the team's impending playoff debut and the fact that there was nothing to be gained or lost with respect to playoff placement. He also instructed offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to "come out throwing," which appeared to catch the Patriots off balance (the second play of the game resulted in a 52-yard down-the-middle pass-and-catch from Manning to Burress. The defensive game plan was sound although not noticeably effective against the New England passing attack. But the running game was stifled.