As a veteran head coach with an old-school philosophy, Tom Coughlin knows there is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL.
But in the wake of the New York Giants' admirable effort against the New England Patriots on Saturday night, it might have been impossible to convince Coughlin or his players that their effort in a 38-35 defeat represented anything but a positive.
Thanks to a furious New England fourth-quarter rally led by quarterback Tom Brady, the Giants lost the game, and might have lost three starters to injuries for the playoffs. But the Giants also rediscovered the swagger with which they played earlier in the season. And despite the disappointment of squandering a 12-point lead to the Patriots in the fourth quarter, New York players insisted they will enter Sunday's wild-card playoff game against Tampa Bay on an upswing.
"It is a confidence builder," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "That is the best team in the league and I thought we played toe-to-toe with those guys. So I think we'll go into the playoffs totally ready and unafraid of any team. The way we played [Saturday], I don't see us backing down from anyone."
Indeed, in the New York locker room late Saturday night, collective determination seemed to trump disappointment, and there was a feeling of pride at having played so well and so hard with nothing on the line. The Giants went into the game knowing they could not improve on their No. 5 seed in the NFC postseason bracket, and were already scheduled to face the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Much of the debate preceding the game was whether Coughlin should play his regulars against the undefeated Patriots, and for how long into the contest. The subject of playing time never became an issue, however, as the Giants scored on their opening possession and were either tied or led for all but 11 seconds of the game's first 50 minutes.
I don't know any better way of being prepared for the playoffs than to go against a team that is 15-0. And I really think this [provides] the momentum we were looking forward to.
-- Tom Coughlin, after the Giants' close loss to the Patriots
The only downside for New York, besides the final outcome, was the potential loss of center Shaun O'Hara and weakside linebacker Kawika Mitchell to medical collateral ligament sprains and cornerback Sam Madison to an abdominal strain.
"I will say this: There is nothing but positives about this game, nothing but positives," Coughlin said. "I told the players that in playing this game and against this team, there would be no negatives. And that is pretty much the way that I feel. I don't know any better way of being prepared for the playoffs than to go against a team that is 15-0. And I really think this [provides] the momentum we were looking forward to."
That clearly was the overriding message delivered by Coughlin to his charges. Because, as if rehearsed, no fewer than six New York players employed the same term, "momentum builder," in describing the game. The words were, in fact, almost like a mantra. Yet there was nothing contrived about them, because it seemed the Giants were actually energized by the bitter defeat.
"You always want to measure yourself against the best, and see how you stack up, and we played the best team in the league and played them tough," said wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who had two touchdown catches against the Pats.
"This was kind of a gauge game for us. And we definitely showed something. You never want to lose any game, but especially one that was as [emotional] as this one, but we still feel good about ourselves. We're in good shape."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.