EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - When the story of the Patriots' undefeated regular season is written, it likely will focus on blowouts and records and almost unprecedented dominance, but it was composure and resiliency - attributes ingrained in their gridiron ethos - that enabled them to make history Saturday night at Giants Stadium.
The perfectionist Patriots had to rally from their largest deficit of the season, 28-16 with 9:12 left in the third quarter, and maintain their calm in the face of a chippy New York Giants squad to score a 38-35 victory and a perfect regular season.
Just as they had when they trailed the Colts at the RCA Dome by 10 points with less than 10 minutes to go, or when they rallied from a 4-point fourth-quarter deficit against the Eagles, or pulled off an improbable win in Baltimore, the Patriots performed their best when the pressure was on.
That's been their modus operandi since 2001. It's why they're the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season (the league switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978) and the winners of an NFL-record 19-straight regular-season games. Saturday night's win broke their mark of 18, set during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
"I think what you saw was Patriots football," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "That's what I'm used to. I've never been used to all of those 52-14 [games] or anything like that. That's new to me. This is what I'm used to, and these are the games that we're used to winning."
It was clear from the outset that part of the Giants' game plan was to frustrate the Patriots, who were desperately seeking 16-0, with taunting, trash talking, and edgy play. Patriots left tackle Matt Light said the game featured a lot of late hits and called it a "dirty game."
"When you sit there and say is it difficult not to say anything, no, because it's in our nature [not to]," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "We've had guys talk trash. We've been the underdog. We know what it feels like to be talked down to all the time. We just go out there and settle it on the field and that's what we did."
It was 22 straight points that finally silenced the Giants (10-6).
After Eli Manning, who was 22 of 32 for 251 yards and a career-high-tying four touchdown passes, hit Plaxico Burress for a 19-yard score to give New York its 12-point lead, the Patriots came right back, marching 73 yards in eight plays to cut the score to 28-23 on a 6-yard run by Laurence Maroney.
Then the magnificence of Tom Brady and Randy Moss took over, with the duo connecting for a back-breaking 65-yard touchdown that gave them both their coveted season TD records and put the Patriots back in the lead, 31-28 - after Maroney's 2-point rush - with 11:06 to go.
Hobbs then picked a fine time for his first interception of the season, picking off Manning at the New England 48 on the following possession to set up a 5-yard Maroney TD run.
In the first half, when they trailed, 21-16, the Patriots were succumbing to New York's taunts.
Early in the second quarter, Moss and Co., picked up a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty on Moss's first touchdown, which came two plays after he was decked by New York safety Gibril Wilson. That set up Domenik Hixon's 74-yard kickoff return for a score.
Late in the quarter, Junior Seau was whistled for a 5-yard delay of game penalty on the Giants' final drive before the half for holding down running back Brandon Jacobs following a 7-yard completion to tight end Kevin Boss, who three plays later caught a 3-yard touchdown pass that gave New York its halftime lead.
During the scrum following Seau's tussle with Jacobs, nose tackle Vince Wilfork put his right index finger inside the facemask of Jacobs, appearing to poke him in the face.
Hobbs said the game - which for playoff seeding purposes was meaningless for both teams as the Patriots were locked into the No. 1 spot in the AFC and the Giants into the No. 5 seed in the NFC - was played with the ferocity of a postseason matchup.
"The physicalness, all the after-violence after the play, people getting swung around," said Hobbs. "I'm not even anywhere near the play, and I'm over there tussling with Plaxico or another receiver. That's just the nature of the game, when you get a lot of brothers out there in a competitive environment the competitive nature better come out of you or you're going to get ran over.
"They knew we were going to give it our best shot. We knew we were going to get their best shot. We went blow-for-blow, man."
And as most Patriots opponents have over the years, the Giants got KO'd in the clutch.
The Patriots' performance wasn't flawless, but it was placid under pressure.
"It certainly wasn't perfect," said coach Bill Belichick. "There were a lot of things that were not that good. The Giants made a lot of plays on us, but fortunately we made a couple more plays than they did, and again all the credit goes to the players. They are the ones that made the plays and they made them under pressure.
"They made them when there was little margin for error and when we had to make them, we made them."