Patriots get caught in end

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the somber New England Patriots locker room, where quarterback Tom Brady sat in his full game jersey with a towel draped over his head while staring straight ahead, veteran defensive lineman Gerard Warren described the palpable emotion in the air this way: "It's like almost getting to the top of Mount Everest and then falling back down."

To lose this way to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, it was a déjà vu punch in the gut from four years ago.

"You get to the peak of the mountain and can't take that last step to get all the way to the top, to put your flag up and crown it," Warren said.

Warren and the Patriots' defense were in position to do so. All they needed was one final stop, leading 17-15 when the Giants took over at their own 12-yard line with 3:46 to play.

Up to that point, the defense had done its job despite spending too much time on the field. If you were to ask any Patriots follower how they'd feel about holding the Giants to 15 points through the game's first 56 minutes, they'd have to like their chances.

But then it all came crumbling down. The defense couldn't deliver the big stop when it counted.

In Super Bowl XLII, Giants quarterback Eli Manning connected with David Tyree for a miraculous on-the-helmet catch on a game-winning drive. This time, it was Manning to Mario Manningham -- first play, 38 yards, down the left sideline, with Manningham keeping his feet inbounds despite cornerback Sterling Moore's tight coverage.

"They were in a Cover 2 and usually that is not your matchup," Manning explained, referring to Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung playing as deep safeties. "They had us covered pretty well to the right. I looked that way. I saw the safety cheated in a little bit and threw it down the sideline. Great catch, keeping both feet in -- a big, big, big-time play."

"He made a great play on the sideline," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who unsuccessfully challenged the catch, which came right in front of the New England bench. "The coverage was tight, but it was a good throw and a good catch. Still wasn't much space there. Sometimes you play good defense and they make a great throw and a great catch."

The play was the longest allowed by the Patriots' defense all day, which highlighted their game plan. Mostly playing with two safeties splitting the back half of the field, they wanted to keep everything in front of them, while also ensuring the Giants' running plays didn't get to the outside.

"The Giants are an explosive team, making a lot of plays downfield. We just tried to make them earn everything they got," cornerback Kyle Arrington explained. "Eli did a lot of nickel-and-diming, dinking-and-dunking, however you want to phrase it.

"We had our opportunities. They put the ball on the ground a few times. We normally come up with those plays, but it's just the way the cookie crumbled."

True, the Patriots forced three fumbles, two of which were recovered by the Giants with the other negated by a costly 12-men-on-the-field penalty. Linebacker Brandon Spikes, a physical presence who finished tied for the team high with 11 tackles and forced one of those fumbles, said part of the Patriots' plan was "to put pressure on the ball."

If one of those balls ball bounced the other way …

"Close doesn't get it, man. Almost doesn't get it either," said Chung, whose hard-hitting play provided a spark. "They played a good game. They finished the game and we didn't."

The way the defense finished was unusual, with the coaching staff calling for it to let the Giants score on second-and-goal from the 6. With the Patriots trailing 17-15 and 1:04 on the clock, Belichick felt the best chance to win was to get the ball back to the offense with as much time as possible.

Otherwise, the Giants could have run down the clock and kicked a short game-winning field goal without Brady having a chance to mount a last-gasp drive.

"It killed me," Spikes said. "When the call came in to let them score, I was kind of like 'What?' I'm here to do a job and it's my job to play the defense and let them score. It was definitely tough."

So tough that one of the leaders of the defense, Vince Wilfork, left Lucas Oil Stadium without addressing reporters. Others, such as linebacker Rob Ninkovich, whose costly fourth-quarter offside penalty negated a third-and-7 stop deep in Giants territory and played a big part in shifting field position in the final quarter, stood up and held themselves accountable.

For a defense that had been much-maligned all year, it was hard to pin this result solely on them. Holding the Giants to 21 points should have been enough. Through three quarters, the unit won the crucial plays -- third down, inside-the-20 -- while going outside the box in playing a lighter seven-man box with speedy linebacker Tracy White the seventh man in.

Then, in sub situations, they tapped Moore and seldom-used Antwaun Molden as outside cornerbacks, moved Arrington to the slot, then had McCourty and Chung at safety.

The plan, for 56 minutes, came to life as it was drawn up. But then came the Manning-to-Manningham connection. And heartbreak, as the defense, in the words of Warren, couldn't put the flag up and crown it.

"It's a tough day, a tough pill to swallow," Warren said.

"We had opportunities to make big plays when it counted," Spikes added, "but we just couldn't come up with it."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.