FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The Patriots' record-breaking offense made headlines all season and made a pretty good defense into an afterthought.
Then they played the New York Giants in their final regular-season game and yielded 35 points.
The usually stingy group of veterans surpassed a season high for points allowed, reverted to porous ways in the red zone and let inconsistent Eli Manning tie his career high with four touchdown passes.
``There are plenty of things in the game that we can improve on,'' coach Bill Belichick said. ``That's in all three phases of the game, but certainly defensively.''
It wasn't until linebacker Mike Vrabel made a play on special teams, falling on an onside kick with 1:04 left, that New England's 38-35 win - and perfect 16-0 season - was secure.
The Patriots return to practice Thursday, but won't learn the identity of their first playoff opponents until next weekend's wild-card games are over; it will be the lowest remaining seed among No. 4 Pittsburgh, No. 5 Jacksonville and No. 6 Tennessee.
Jacksonville could pose the biggest threat with the powerful running attack of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Pittsburgh lost rushing star Willie Parker to a season-ending injury. Tennessee should be the easiest task for the Patriots' defense because quarterback Vince Young and running back LenDale White have never played in the playoffs.
New England set an NFL record with 589 points scored in a season and did have an outstanding defense, finishing fourth in fewest points and yards allowed and second in sacks. But it knows it must play better defense than it did against another playoff team, the Giants.
As soon as Tom Brady and Randy Moss hooked up on a 65-yard touchdown pass four minutes into the fourth quarter, giving the Patriots a 31-28 lead, linebacker Tedy Bruschi thought about what he had to do next. He didn't waste much time celebrating the NFL single-season records that came with that throw: Brady's 50th touchdown pass and Moss' 23rd scoring catch.
Here's what went through Bruschi's mind:
``What is the score? What does it do for us? Does it put us in the lead? Are we behind after the score? What do I have to do as a defensive player once they kick off the ball and get the return. That is how focused we are.''
On the very next possession, the defense came through. Ellis Hobbs intercepted Manning's pass, setting up the Patriots' final touchdown that turned out critical when the Giants scored again.
The thrilling game would have been a lot easier for the Patriots had they not allowed the Giants to score touchdowns on all four trips inside the 20-yard line. That's been a weakness for New England all season.
In its first four games, teams were 6-for-6 in the red zone, all touchdowns, against the Pats. In the first 12 games, opponents were 24-for-28 in scoring from that area: 20 touchdowns and four field goals.
Suddenly, things got much better.
In the three games before they faced the Giants, the Patriots were nearly perfect in the red zone: two field goals and no touchdowns in the nine times opponents got there.
``Two fourth-down stops in the red area,'' Bruschi said after a 28-7 win over Miami in the next-to-last game. ``It's nice to see improvement. We have been working hard on that.''
They have more hard work to do after regressing against the Giants. If they're lucky, they'll play Tennessee, the worst team in the league at scoring touchdowns from the red zone.
One of the Patriots' toughest stretches came in consecutive weeks when runners piled up the two highest yardage totals against them: Baltimore's Willis McGahee with 138 and Pittsburgh's Parker with 124.
New England still won both games to improve to 13-0.
``We played against two great backs,'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said, ``but at the end of the day it's (about wins). If you run the ball for 1,000 yards and we still win, guess what. They go home losers and we go home winners.''

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