FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Giants missed Saquon Barkley’s presence all night. It took 51 1⁄2 minutes for his absence to cost them the game.
Trailing by seven with the ball in their hands midway through the fourth quarter after forcing a turnover on downs, the Giants had a chance to drive and tie the score in what was shaping up to be an improbably close matchup with the Patriots.
On third-and-9 from the Giants’ 33, Daniel Jones threw a screen pass to the running back at his right. But it wasn’t Barkley, who sat out the game with a high ankle sprain. It wasn’t even Wayne Gallman, Barkley’s experienced backup, who was sidelined with a concussion.
It was rookie Jon Hilliman, who started the season on the practice squad, who caught the short pass. And it was Hilliman who fumbled it.
Jamie Collins hit Hilliman, forcing the turnover, and Kyle Van Noy picked up the ball and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown with 8:33 left to give the Patriots a two-TD lead in their 35-14 win at Gillette Stadium.
“That was a winnable game,” Hilliman said. “If it wasn’t for that series of unfortunate events, it still would have been a winnable game. That’s my fault, period.”
The shorthanded Giants played the game without Barkley, Gallman, wide receiver Sterling Shepard (concussion) and tight end Evan Engram (knee). That lack of star power on the field led to their being the largest underdogs in their history at 17 points.
For most of the night, they were able to compensate for it with a stingy defense and some timely plays . . . despite Jones’ three interceptions. Eventually, though, it caught up to them.
“We had guys out there who are capable of making plays,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “We made some. We just didn’t make enough.”
The easiest play of the night would have been for the Giants to point out their missing pieces and shrug off a strange loss that somehow managed to be both a 21-point trouncing as well as an inspired showing. They refused to do so. “We didn’t win,” Shurmur said, dismissing any moral victories.
They didn’t even cover, either. A 1-yard quarterback sneak by Tom Brady for his second touchdown run of the game with 3:49 made it 35-14.
It was a few fanciful moments in the first half that led the Giants and the watching (and wagering) world to believe they might have a chance.
Trailing 14-0 midway through the second quarter, Jones launched a 64-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate. The receiver juggled the ball before securing it and then walking backward into the end zone to make it 14-7 on the first passing points allowed by the Pats this season.
Three plays later, Lorenzo Carter sacked Brady and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Markus Golden and returned 42 yards for a TD. In a span of 1:27, the Giants scored 14 points to tie it.
But the Patriots embarked on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took up most of the rest of the half and ended with a 1-yard TD run by Brady.
The Giants started with the ball in the second half and moved it well until Jones tried to hit Rhett Ellison on a pass from the Pats’ 30. It was intercepted by Stephon Gilmore for Jones’ third pick of the game.
“We’re a good team,” center Jon Halapio said. “We just can’t afford to have that many turnovers versus a great team.”
Both teams started sluggishly. The teams traded seven possessions without points — including interceptions by Jones and Brady on back-to-back plays — before the Patriots scored first. Brandon Bolden drove Giants special-teamer Nate Stupar backward into a punt, and the ball bounced off Stupar’s back and into the air before Chase Winovich caught it and returned it 6 yards for a TD with 1:41 left in the first quarter.
Jones threw his second pick with 9:26 left in the second quarter; Danny Shelton hit his arm as he tried to throw the ball toward the sideline and the fluttering football was intercepted by Duron Harmon and returned to the Giants’ 20. That led to a 1-yard TD run by Bolden that made it 14-0.
“We just screwed up more times than they did,” Tate said. “It’s as simple as that. We were right in that game for most of it. We had a chance to upset them on their home turf. But there were times when we couldn’t get out of our own way. Against good teams, it’s going to be hard to win.”
Especially when the Giants are without their good players.