Going in to week 16 of the 1996 season, the New England Patriots were riding a three-game winning streak. They had handled the Indianapolis Colts, then routed the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets. The winning streak was brought to a halt in Dallas, however, in a hard-fought, 12-6 loss to the Cowboys.

The Patriot defense had limited Dallas’ high-powered offense, led by the famed “Triplets,” quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, to just 251 yards and four field goals. “They did a tremendous job shutting off our running lanes,” said Smith, who rushed for just 85 yards on 27 carries. “That’s a very aggressive defense.

It wasn’t enough to secure a win in “Big D,” although some wondered if playing the defending champions close on their turf constituted a moral victory. Patriots guard William Roberts saw things differently. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “Maybe for some guys in here {there is solace}, but I play to win.”

Despite the loss, New England was still 10-5, and when the Buffalo Bills lost 16-14 to the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, the Patriots won the AFC East. Assured of their first home playoff game in eighteen years, the Patriots turned their attention to the New York Giants. New England was neck and neck with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the hunt for a first round bye, which the Patriots could secure with a win over the Giants in their final game.

The New York tabloids were more interested in Bill Parcells’ return to his old stomping grounds. The December 21 meeting with the Giants would be the first time Parcells coached in Giants Stadium since January 13, 1991, when he led New York to a 31-3 rout over the Chicago Bears in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. After a road win over San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game a week later, Parcells and the Giants defeated the Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV.

Parcells tried to downplay the significance of his return to the Big Apple. “I don’t really have any emotions {about facing the Giants for the first time since the Super Bowl win over Buffalo},” he said. “That was a long time ago. {Six} years ago is a long time ago in football. I can’t say that I don’t have any warm feelings, because that was a very important part of my life. But I’m just worried about getting my team ready to play this game, and that’s it.

If Parcells was totally focused on defeating the Giants, his team did not come out of the gates with the same level of intensity. The Patriots quickly fell behind the 6-9 Giants, and by halftime trailed 22-0. The trouble started late in the first quarter. After All-Pro punt returner Dave Meggett fair-caught a Giants punt on his own 22, New York was flagged for an illegal man downfield and Parcells elected to have the Giants re-kick. The second punt was short, but took a New York bounce and was downed at the 4.

“I wanted them to re-kick,” Parcells said after the game. “Meggett should have picked the ball up. He said he couldn’t get to it, but I told him he needed to try harder.

Two Curtis Martin rushes produced all of one yard, and the Patriots faced third and 9 from their own 5. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan pressured New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe on the play, forcing him to throw the ball into the turf. Bledsoe was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, which resulted in a safety for the Giants.

The safety wasn’t even Bledsoe’s worst throw of the day. That dubious distinction went to a second-quarter pass that was picked off by Jason Sehorn and returned 23 yards for a touchdown. In addition to the two scores off Bledsoe miscues, the Giants added two Brad Daluiso field goals and a 1-yard touchdown run by Charles Way. The Patriots looked very much like a team looking ahead to the postseason as they trotted toward the locker room down 22-0.

It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the Patriots finally scored on a 40-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. They came right back and scored again early in the fourth, this time on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to Terry Glenn. Meggett then redeemed himself, taking a New York punt sixty yards to the house. Vinatieri’s extra point made it 22-17 and suddenly the Patriots were right back in the game.

After the teams traded punts, Bledsoe and company drove to the Giants’ 13. Then Bledsoe connected with tight end Ben Coates on a touchdown pass that vaulted New England into the lead. The Patriots failed to convert their two-point conversion attempt, but the defense held on to secure the improbable comeback win.

“I didn’t think we could come back,” said Parcells, who was emotional while talking about the win. “When we got the field goal I got a faint glimmer of hope just to get a score before the end of the third quarter.” He went on to say that his team had the heart of a champion. “We may not be the best team, but this is as happy as we’ve been in a long time.

After their stirring victory in New York, the Patriots would have a week off to rest and watch the wildcard playoff round. By virtue of their 42-14 blowout win over the Colts, the Steelers earned the right to travel to New England for a divisional playoff game on January 5, 1997.