By Ernie Palladino
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The Giants had the Patriots, again.

And then, with the swiftness of a 54-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, they didn’t.

Just the same, Tom Coughlin’s 5-5 group will head into this week’s bye on top of the NFC East, thanks to Philadelphia’s loss to Miami. But they’ll get little comfort from that, considering the chances they missed to put away the Pats in Sunday’s 27-26 loss.

They left MetLife Stadium — or at least they should have left that locker room — with a distinct feeling that they can play with the biggest of the big boys in the NFL, but just aren’t good enough down the stretch to beat them. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be good enough to beat their weak division brethren and win the NFC East.

And all who have paid any attention to their recent history knows that when the Giants get into the playoffs, anything can happen.

Especially if they face New England.

On Sunday, though, they failed to finish them off even as Tom Brady struggled through one of his least-dominant days of a season of big numbers. In fact, had it not been for some Giants’ flubbery throughout, Bill Belichick’s 9-0 bunch would certainly have been deflated before the 81,000 and change that showed up.

Start from the end, where a defense that has failed them repeatedly this season, starting from the opener in Dallas, fell flat again. Holding a 26-24 lead with 1:28 to go off Josh Brown’s field goal, the defense had Brady in a fourth-and-10 situation at his own 20. One play, one breakup, one tipped ball, was all they needed.

Crank up the same heat that produced three sacks and a Brady fumble earlier, and the Giants walk out two games over .500. Instead, Danny Amendola came free for a 12-yard pass and a first down. And that opened the door for two more Amendola catches, including the nine-yarder that pulled them into the Gostkowski Zone.

Work back a bit more. Make one play, like rookie safety Landon Collins’ dropped interception on the first play of that drive. It’s hard to blame him for it, as he was shaken up on the belly-flop landing. But still, he had the ball in his hands and ultimately failed to hang on — another chance to close out the Pats blown.

Go back a bit more. Trumaine McBride had kept the Pats, leading 24-23, from breaking the game open with the interception he returned to the 3, and the Giants had marched all the way to the New England 5 on a 30-yard throw to Dwayne Harris and then a brilliant back-shoulder toss to Harris for 18.

The Giants should have scored a touchdown there to go up by six. And indeed, Odell Beckham, Jr. seemed for a moment to have Manning’s end zone throw well in hand, until he didn’t. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler jarred the ball loose and an initial touchdown call was reversed on review.

They still could have run it, but Manning looked to the air on second and third down, too. Second down went long to Harris, and then the Pats’ pressure defense closed in on him on third down to force him down for one of the cheaper of their season’s 30 sacks, six yards short of scrimmage.

The Giants settled for a field goal that ultimately cost them the game.

Other plays that weren’t made — safety Craig Dahl’s takeout of fellow safety Brandon Merriweather on Rob Gronkowski’s 76-yard touchdown catch that put the Pats up 24-23 early in the fourth; the failure to snag Amendola on an 82-yard, third-quarter punt return to the 7 that turned into LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown to tighten a Giants lead to 20-17.

All missed opportunities.

Another fourth-quarter failure.

A lost chance to beat the best.

There were better ways for the Giants to hit their bye, even though they’ll remain safely in first place for another week.

Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino

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