The Giants had driven inside the Patriots' 20 when something happened to Manning for the first time in these playoffs --- he was intercepted, albeit through no fault of his own. Smith bobbled a low ball, and it popped up, right into the hands of Hobbs. The Giants' defense held the Patriots, but then the offense nearly turned the ball over a second time before Ahmad Bradshaw recovered his own fumble.
Coming into the game, the key matchup appeared to be the New York pass rush -- which produced a league-high 53 sacks in the regular season -- versus the New England offensive line. In the Dec. 29 meeting between the two teams, Brady was sacked only once, and that was minus two starters.
With all five regular starters in, the Giants sacked Brady on back-to-back plays midway through the second quarter. Kawika Mitchell feigned a drop-back posture and blitzed. He and Strahan both got a piece of Brady for a 6-yard loss. On the next play, defensive end Justin Tuck blew inside left guard Logan Mankins and leveled Brady.
The Giants had a terrific opportunity to make it a one-point game, but a crazy circus play worked against them. Patriots' linebacker Adalius Thomas knocked the ball loose from Manning, and Bradshaw tried to knock the ball out of bounds. It stayed in, and Smith recovered for what would have been a first down. But Bradshaw was flagged for an illegal touch and New York eventually was forced to punt.
New England was driving when Tuck hit Brady again, this time from behind, and knocked the ball loose. The Giants recovered, and a Hail Mary fell incomplete in the the Patriots' end zone to end a curiously quiet first half.
At halftime, the Giants had run 34 plays to 27 by the Patriots and had possessed the ball for 19 minutes and 27 seconds of the first 30 minutes. Yet they trailed, though only by the modest margin of 7-3.
Tuck, who recently signed a contract extension, had six tackles at the half, plus two sacks and a forced fumble. New York defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo created pressure with a variety of looks (one time, he blitzed two defensive backs), almost exclusively up the middle.
As a result, New England had a paltry 81 yards in the first half and the offense looked disjointed and unsettled.
With the "Spygate" scandal and new allegations that the Patriots had videotaped the St. Louis Rams before a Super Bowl, Belichick has been under fire for violating the moral spirit of competition. Just the same, his anal-retentive nature can be a plus. Early in the third quarter, Belichick successfully challenged a non-call, and a review showed that, indeed, linebacker Chase Blackburn was the 12th man on the field for a punt. New England retained possession, but a Strahan sack eventually led Belichick to pass on a 49-yard field goal attempt.
And so, New York continued to hang around.
On first down at the Giants' own 20, Manning flipped a pass to rookie tight end Kevin Boss. Boss caught it at the 39 and, when safety Rodney Harrison missed the tackle, it was good -- very good -- for a 45-yard play. A few plays later, Manning threaded a perfect 5-yard pass through traffic to David Tyree, and the Giants, almost inexplicably, led 10-7 with 11:05 remaining.
It was Tyree's first touchdown of the season.