FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New York Giants took possession of the football at their own 20-yard line, trailing by three points with 1:36 remaining in Sunday's game, the mindset of the New England Patriots' defense did not change.
The Patriots weren't just trying to hold the Giants to a field goal as a worst-case scenario. They wanted to stop New York cold, as they had for the first three quarters.
"You just play defense," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "Every time we take the field we say we want to get off the field as fast as possible, three-and-out, four-and-out, whatever. That's what we try to do all the time."
This time, though, the Patriots' defense failed miserably in its mission, coughing up a touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Eli Manning to Jake Ballard with 19 seconds left, capping a game-winning 80-yard, eight-play drive that catapulted the Giants to their exhilarating 24-20 triumph at Gillette Stadium.
When it came down to crunch time, New England was outmanned on the final drive. Linebacker Tracy White, whose playing time generally comes only on special teams, was thrust into the lineup because of injuries to Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton, and was burned on two big catches by Ballard, including the TD grab.
White, who was the team leader with six special-teams tackles heading into Sunday's game but had only one tackle with the regular defense, had not played a single down in any of the defensive packages Sunday until being sent out onto the field for the Giants' final possession, in place of Guyton.
"I wasn't surprised to be in there," said White, a 6-foot, 230-pounder in his ninth year in the NFL. "You work hard in practice so when your name is called you are prepared. I knew the defenses. I was prepared. They made plays."
White wasn't the only member of New England's defense unable to make a play. A key pass-interference call on safety Sergio Brown at the goal line also hurt, gift-wrapping 20 yards for the Giants and setting them up with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line with 30 seconds remaining, allowing them to turn their sights from a tying field goal to a winning touchdown.
"It's not a good feeling [to give up a touchdown] when you're in position to win," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said.
The Giants' last-ditch drive began with Manning connecting with ex-UMass star Victor Cruz on a 19-yard pass that moved the ball to New York's 39. Two incompletions left New York staring at a third-and-10. After a New England timeout, Manning found Ballard down the left seam for 28 yards, moving the ball to the Patriots' 33.
Ballard beat White, and Manning was able to float the ball over White to his tight end before safety Patrick Chung could pinch in.
After Manning scrambled for 12 yards to the 21, he tried to hit Cruz at the goal line. But Cruz and Brown got their feet tangled up. They both went down, and the yellow penalty flag flew. Brown was called for interference.
"We got tangled up," Brown said. "I was looking at the ball the whole time. They say if you have your head around looking for the ball you can make a play on the ball. I was looking for the ball. I was surprised at that penalty. But there's nothing I can do about it now."
Manning was pressured into an incompletion on the next play, and, with Guyton back in, Brandon Jacobs was stopped at the goal line on a run. Guyton, though, was banged up on the play, after which the Giants called their final timeout with 19 seconds left.
When the Patriots lined up again, White was on the field, and he got toasted again by Ballard, who sneaked off the line, headed to the left side of the end zone, easily beat White and cradled the accurate bullet from Manning.
"I've got to play the run first. It was third-and-1," White said. "There was a little hesitation, he got off the line and the quarterback made a good pass. That was it. It's pretty tough. We were up with the game on the line and seconds to go."
That White was on the field for the pivotal drive could be traced somewhat to the Pats' injuries, said a tight-lipped coach Bill Belichick.
"Spikes went out, so that had a little bit to do with it," Belichick said.
Of course, the loss was a total team effort, the Pats were quick to point out. No way were they using White as a scapegoat or injuries as an excuse.
"The offense put it in our hands, and we just couldn't make enough plays," cornerback Kyle Arrington said.
"We just couldn't stop them," Brown said.
"It was very frustrating," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "At the end of the day we take it on our shoulders. We have to close the game and we didn't execute when we needed to."
Steven Krasner is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.