The Patriots' defense took it lumps earlier this year -- particularly in the passing game -- but seemed to make strides as the season progressed.
Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes got healthy and started hitting. Sterling Moore emerged as a cornerback with a knack for big plays. Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork were steady and sometimes spectacular.
For a time during Super Bowl 46, the Patriots' defense looked like it might be championship-caliber. After all the Giants had just 15 points through the first 58:56, nine came early, including Tom Brady's inexcusable safety and the ensuing momentum-charged drive.
But just as in Super Bowl 42, the Patriots' defense couldn't finish at the end.
Eli Manning led the Giants on a winning final drive that began with a 38-yard bomb to Mario Manningham, moving New York from its own 12 to midfield on a single play.
"He had both feet down,'' safety Patrick Chung said of Manningham's sideline acrobatics. "Good throw, good catch, man.''
Manningham had two more catches on the drive, Hakeem Nicks had two, and the Giants were so methodical in the drive that the Patriots let Ahmad Bradshaw score from 6 yards out with 1:04 remaining just so they'd have enough time on the clock to try to win the game.
"Yeah, we were trying to let them score,'' said Jerod Mayo, who had 11 tackles. "That was the smart play to make. Let them score, and hopefully give the offense the ball. It was situational football.''
Manning won his second Super Bowl MVP award, completing 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and one touchdown. And once again, he trumped the Patriots defense with the game on the line.
"I still feel like defense wins championships,'' said linebacker Brandon Spikes, who like Mayo had 11 tackles. ''We had our chances. We were right where we wanted to be as a defensive unit. I just felt like I let the guys down myself. There were a few plays I could have made myself and I was just a step late. It just hurts right now. I can't really sum it up with words.''