FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was an unintentional fashion statement, but the words scrawled on the front of linebacker Tracy White's hoodie seemed fitting following the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Scrawled in black on a gray sweatshirt was "Where the [thick black line] is the finish line?" The popular running shirt allows the beholder to mentally insert their own exclamation, but you can probably guess the one that members of the New England defense were uttering Sunday.
The Patriots had put together perhaps their best all-around defensive effort of the season -- save for a Week 5 win over New York's other football giant -- but, beset by injuries, watched the Giants cover 80 yards on eight plays over an 81-second span, culminating with White chasing tight end Jake Ballard on the winning 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining.
"We were up with the game on the line and seconds to go," White said. "We have to execute the plays a little better."
Forget the eerie similarities to Super Bowl XLII (the most jarring of which was Ballard's 28-yard catch over White on a crucial third-down play with less than a minute to go). This is about the 2011 Patriots and a defense eager to prove it is better than the historically bad pace it's on at the midseason checkpoint.
And for much of the first 58 minutes Sunday, they did that. Not only did the Patriots keep the Giants off the scoreboard in the first half, they had limited New York to 281 yards of total offense before the winning drive. What's more, after all their struggles to get off the field last week in Pittsburgh, the Patriots allowed only 4-of-14 third-down conversions (29 percent) and the Giants punted a whopping eight times.
Unfortunately for New England, none of that success mattered as they weren't the ones crossing the finish line first on Sunday.
"It was very frustrating," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, a defensive captain. "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."
Echoed safety Patrick Chung: "First half, second half, doesn't matter. We've got to play 60 minutes."
For Chung, the game was especially frustrating. He appeared to tweak an ankle defending a deep pass near the Patriots' sideline early in the Giants' winning drive. After watching New England's other starting safety, Josh Barrett, hobble off the field just moments earlier, Chung attempted to tough it out, staying on the field for a couple of more plays before heading to the sideline for a one-play respite.
It was there that he watched reserve safety Sergio Brown get flagged for a key pass interference penalty that set up the winning score.
Asked if it was tough to be off the field at that moment, Chung said, "Yup, really tough. But it is what it is, man."
What it was was a chance to take some heat off a defense that has performed better than the statistics might suggest. Yes, teams have thrown at will against New England, but the Patriots have limited the damage on the scoreboard. On Sunday, New England held Eli Manning to modest numbers (20-of-39 passing, 250 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 77.9 rating) and 24 points typically isn't enough to beat the Patriots' offense.
If Sunday's finish line had been a little closer, headlines would be celebrating the way in which the defense rebounded from a tough outing in Pittsburgh. Instead, it faces more scrutiny in being unable to produce the late stop.
"This group knows it's expected -- when you lose, everybody is going to criticize you and pick you apart," said cornerback Devin McCourty, another defensive captain. "When you win, everything is going well. So right now our job is to be competitors and come in here next week, work hard and nip it in the bud, and get another win under our belt and try to string them together."
Echoed Mayo: "Same attitude, keep working, keep chipping at the rock. We don't lose too often around here and when we do it's tough. We still have a good football team. You don't become a bad football team over a couple of weeks, so we still have good players and a good football team."
And therein lies the bright spot for the Patriots. This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. And there's no reason for the ultimate finish line to be in sight just yet. Yes, the Patriots have stumbled at the midpoint of the 2011 regular season, but Sunday's defensive effort should be something to build off.
"Obviously it is going to be frustrating," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "But, we still have a lot more games to play. We are halfway through the season. We have to continue to not let anything affect us or change how we are going to play. We have to continue to get better so toward the end of the year we can be in a good position for the playoffs."
And that's the only finish line that ultimately matters.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.