EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Losing the final game of the regular season may have been the stepping stone for the New York Giants' improbable ride to the Super Bowl.
Sound odd? It's not.
In making the New England Patriots work hard for a 38-35 win on Dec. 29 that capped a perfect regular season, the Giants proved to themselves that they could compete with anybody.
That should prove extremely valuable a week from Sunday, when New York (13-6) gets another crack at the Patriots (18-0) in the NFL title game in Glendale, Ariz.
``We had played in some tough games and had some bad weather conditions the couple weeks before, and we weren't playing our best football, and all of a sudden that week we had a great mind-set,'' Eli Manning said. ``We were going in to try to beat an undefeated team and we played good football. We gave ourselves a shot to win; we fell short, but it got our confidence going.''
In the ensuing three weeks on the road, the Giants beat the Buccaneers 24-14, knocked off the Cowboys in Dallas 21-17, and overcame Brett Favre and frigid temperatures in Green Bay to beat the Packers 23-20 in overtime.
``It got us playing good football, it got us back in a rhythm and from then on we have been on a hot streak,'' Manning added. ``We have been playing great football and finding ways to win.''
What made the performance in the loss to the Patriots so memorable: New York had nothing at stake in the game at Giants Stadium. Win or lose, the Giants were locked into a wild-card playoff game at Tampa.
There was nothing to gain and everything to lose, especially if players got hurt. That's exactly what happened to three starters: linebacker Kawika Mitchell (knee), cornerback Sam Madison (stomach) and center Shaun O'Hara (knee).
Mitchell saw limited action the following week. O'Hara missed the Buccaneers game and Madison didn't play again until last weekend.
Coach Tom Coughlin insists the Giants never thought about relaxing.
``We have a statement in our meeting rooms that we want to prepare, practice, and play as if we lost our last game,'' Coughlin said. ``It is just a mentality which tells you to keep the pedal to the metal.''
That focus has not wavered in a season in which New York lost its first two games and gave up 80 points in the process.
It also was the key to the season's two other crucial turning points.
The first came on Sept. 23 against Washington in the third game. Down 17-3 at the half, the defense allowed 81 yards in the second half and staged a last-minute, goal-line stand from the 1-yard line to preserve a 24-17 win.
After Washington spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock, Jason Campbell misfired on a pass and Ladell Betts was stuffed on third and fourth down.
``If I put you in that huddle, your ears might bleed,'' defensive tackle Barry Cofield said after the game. ``At that point, it's not about technique, it's not about the call, it's all about getting fired up and realizing what's at stake. We just came off the ball and did what we had to do.''
It was the first sign that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive, blitzing defense would work. The following week, New York tied an NFL record with 12 sacks, including six by Osi Umenyiora in a 16-3 win over the Eagles.
The consecutive wins sparked a six-game winning streak that got the Giants in the playoff hunt.
The second half of the season was not as solid. The Giants didn't clinch a playoff berth until rallying from a 14-0, first-quarter deficit against the Bills on a snowy afternoon in Buffalo for a 38-21 win in their next-to-last game.
Outscoring Buffalo 38-7 over the final three quarters, the Giants avoided going into the New England finale facing a must-win situation to make the postseason for the third straight year.
``To me, this is the best team in the NFL with their backs against the wall, and when everybody throws everything at them,'' middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. ``We don't need any pats on the butt at all.''
Now the Giants get the Patriots again - with a little something on the line for both teams. In the first meeting, New York held a 28-16 third-quarter lead before Brady engineered three touchdown drives, with the key play a go-ahead 65-yard TD pass to Randy Moss.
Madison aggravated an abdominal muscle on the play, one which turned the game.
``We thought we played pretty well against them, but we didn't play perfect,'' said Manning, who tied his career high with four touchdown passes. ``We made enough mistakes to put us in a situation where they won the game.''
The Giants, however, know they are capable of playing with the Patriots.
``This is the position you want to be in,'' Manning said. ``We like making things tough on ourselves. We like the tough situations. You are going against a team that is undefeated in the Super Bowl, and it is not going to be easy. It is going to be a tough game, but that is when we have been playing our best football.''

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