By Larry Fine
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - A few critical mistakes was all it took to open the door for another New York Giants Super Bowl win and slam shut another opportunity for the New England Patriots to soar in the record books.
A tension-filled struggle between two exquisitely matched teams turned on a safety taken on New England's opening play, and a string of fourth-quarter mishaps - a fumble that was not recovered, two ill-timed penalties and a missed pass connection that could have helped ice the game.
Still, the biggest game in North American sports was decided in the last seconds, just as it was four years ago when the Giants broke New England hearts by keeping the Patriots from an unprecedented 19-0 season with a 17-14 upset victory as 12-point underdogs.
The quarterbacking duel between New England's Tom Brady and New York's Eli Manning, the first match-up of former Super Bowl MVPs, lived up to expectations with the game coming down to the final drives.
Manning set a Super Bowl record by completing his first nine passes, while Brady established a new standard in the National Football League title game by connecting on 16 consecutive passes, but the mistakes made the difference.
"We had too many errors and too many mistakes, and when you make mistakes early on they catch up to you later in the game," said tight end Aaron Hernandez.
"It's frustrating. We lost and if we would've made those plays we would've come out with a victory."
Every missed opportunity can change the course of a game as tight as Sunday's contest, which lived up to the hype and proved a worthy encore to the NFL title tilt last waged between the teams, which was considered a Super Bowl classic.
But one play stood out as a golden opportunity for the Patriots to give coach Bill Belichick a Super Bowl record-tying fourth win to match Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and allow Brady to equal his boyhood idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with a fourth ring.
Driving in the fourth quarter for a touchdown that would have iced the game, New England receiver Wes Welker was suddenly wide open in the New York secondary and Brady spotted him.
Two-time Super Bowl MVP Brady threw it a touch high and behind the sprinting Welker, who strained to make the catch deep in New York territory only to have the ball splatter off his hands.
"It's a play I've made a thousand times in practice," Welker said. "It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it. It's discouraging."
The Patriots failed to produce the clinching touchdown and punted the ball to the Giants, who took possession on their own 12-yard line with 3:46 to go and trailing 17-15.
On their first play, Manning lofted a throw that Mario Manningham hauled in, tip-toeing along the sideline for a 38-yard gain that put them into scoring range on a drive that finished with a six-yard touchdown burst by Ahmad Bradshaw for the go-ahead points.
Brady tipped his cap to Manning for coming through.
"The first play that they made on our sideline was a phenomenal throw and catch," said Brady. "That got them going"
"He made some great throws there in the fourth quarter and they deserved to win. They did a better job than we did."
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said the Super end-game was just another example of his team's tenacity and their steadfast dedication to the team theme of "finishing strong" after two late-season swoons.
"We've won so many games like this, at the end of the game, the fourth quarter," Coughlin said.
"We talk about finishing all the time and winning the fourth quarter, being the stronger team, making the plays in the fourth quarter. It happened again tonight."