Tom Brady, New England Patriots pass another test vs. Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Bill Belichick was already in his gray suit and pink tie and still pacing in the narrow hallway that leads to the press conference room, such was the energy generated and anxiety produced whenever the New England Patriots play the New York Giants. Once he finally got to the lectern, Belichick downplayed the significance of having won two Super Bowls as a Giants assistant and having lost two while opposing them. But however inconsequential the residual psychological impact is, particularly of those two epic championship games, the reality is that the Patriots rarely encounter a foe so resolute, and the Giants rarely rise to the occasion quite as often, as they do in this series.

So maybe the next time they play -- though another Super Bowl meeting this season appears unlikely for the Giants -- everyone should take a tip from Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who revealed that he hums a song in his head to block out the cacophony just before he kicks a critical field goal. He may never have kicked one as critical as the one he booted Sunday night, a 54-yarder that sailed narrowly into the night to nip the Giants 27-26 with one second remaining, preserving the Patriots' unbeaten season.

It was the defining moment of Gostkowski's career, which had been in need of one, because despite his steadiness and reliability, he is routinely overshadowed by the brilliance around him. But because of Gostkowski and his quirky pre-kick ritual, it is no longer too early to wonder if the Patriots can complete it this time, especially since they are showing resourcefulness common to them and uncommon to the rest of the league.

Take the team in the other locker room, for instance. Coach Tom Coughlin was seething with frustration at the Giants' inability to finish off a game. When the Giants, who still lead the NFC East but had a chance for a season-defining victory, reflect on this game, they may not focus on the dropped touchdown catch by Odell Beckham Jr. or the dropped interception by Landon Collins -- both in the game's final two minutes -- or even the head-scratching play calling that failed to bleed more seconds off the clock on the Giants' final drive. Instead, the totality of the missed opportunity, of being so close to knocking off the NFL's best team, just as they were so close to beating the Cowboys and Falcons earlier this season, may be what haunts them.

"Finish the game," Coughlin said. "Just get the game over with."

"The other guy finished the game."

The other guy was practically in the same mood, too. Tom Brady was terse and irritated afterward. Perhaps that is a reflection of the fact that he got hit often and threw what was nearly a back-breaking interception at the goal line and must know the Patriots probably can't keep going like this, with critical players getting injured and attrition starting to take its toll. The drop-off after Julian Edelmanhurt his foot was glaring. When Edelman was on the field early in the game, the Patriots converted five of six third-down chances. Then he went out, and they finished the first half converting only one of four on third down. Still, the Patriots are winning when their best wide receiver is out of the game, when their top running back is out for the season, when their offensive line is a weekly jigsaw puzzle that leaves Brady vulnerable, when they are locking down one of the NFL's most dynamic receivers despite having a suspect secondary.

"We've got to find different ways," Brady said. "Guys stepped in when Julian got hurt. We're down a bunch of tackles and guys are playing out of position, and I think we just keep grinding our way through it. You've got to find different ways to win."

Nobody does this better than the Patriots, of course. A year ago, they scuffled through the first month of the season, mixing and matching the offensive line, until they settled in to start their championship run. This season, the Patriots keep passing tests -- this was the biggest so far, considering they trailed by 10, their biggest deficit of the season -- and keep defying injury reports. Matthew Slater called it a character-building win, because of the way the Patriots had to battle back. Brady was not at his best -- Collins' dropped interception was the kind of throw you don't see Brady often make, up for grabs in the middle of the field -- but when he took the ball with just under two minutes and no timeouts, there were few in the stadium, even when he faced fourth-and-10 from his own 20, who doubted Brady was going to at least give Gostkowski and the ditty in his head a reasonable chance to win the game.

"That game definitely built some character," said Rob Gronkowski, who had a 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown that, in a normal game, might have been the biggest play. "Being down, being up and then being down again with two minutes left. We just showed some resilience."

NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported that Edelman has a broken bone in his foot, but he could return before the end of the season. The Patriots now have eight days to get healthy before a Monday night showdown with the Buffalo Bills. But perhaps more comforting is this thought: The Giants did practically everything a Patriots opponent wants to do -- they pressured Brady, they mostly held Gronkowski in check, they completed passes against the weaker members of the secondary -- and still could not finish the Patriots off. There aren't many teams left on the Patriots' regular-season schedule that can hope to do much better. Brady is grumpy now, but, along with Gostkowski, they can sing all the way into the playoffs.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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