EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This is why they are the greatest. This is why they will go down as the most dominant, the most determined and, yes, the most clutch team of this or any era - better than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, better than the '85 Chicago Bears, better than the '98 Minnesota Vikings.

New England was pushed to the wall tonight, trailing on the road by its largest deficit of the season against a sharp New York Giants team, and yet the team didn't panic under the weight of expectation or a 12-point second-half deficit. The Patriots found perfection, grabbed hold of it midway through the fourth quarter, and celebrated it after the final gun.

What seemed an inevitability for much of the season became a reality when the Patriots came back to beat the Giants, 38-35, in front of more than 70,000 fans at Giants Stadium and a huge national audience watching on three television networks.

They finished the regular season undefeated, the first team to do so since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule, and joined the 1972 Dolphins as the most successful teams of the last 40 years.

It wasn't easy. It wasn't neat. But it was effective.

And now, the Patriots move into a three-game, five-week season they hope will end with their fourth Super Bowl trophy this decade.

After what we've seen from them this season, there's no reason to think the Patriots will finish out any other way than by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy into the Arizona sky on the first Sunday in February.

In beating the Giants, who admirably didn't rest their starters tonight despite having an immovable playoff seed and a forthcoming opponent that was planning to do just that today, the Patriots set several records. They became the highest-scoring team in NFL history. Quarterback Tom Brady surpassed Indianapolis' Peyton Manning with 49 touchdown passes this season, and wide receiver Randy Moss surpassed the great Jerry Rice with 22 touchdown receptions.

They are records that should stand for a while. Or at least until the Patriots play pass-and-catch next year.

New England also became just the fourth team in league history not to lose a regular-season game. The '72 Dolphins really set the standard, because in addition to going 14-0 during the regular-season, they finished with a Super Bowl win. The 1934 and '42 Bears went undefeated, but didn't win titles. Their achievements, while admirable, ultimately were hollow, something Bill Belichick's Patriots certainly will try to avoid when they begin their playoff run in two weeks, after a bye.

They will have everything - except possibly the weather - in their favor, with two home games at Gillette Stadium.

And the Patriots will have this: the confidence that they can absorb any opponent's best shot, and still win. Four times this season, including tonight, they trailed in the fourth quarter. Four times they won.

Check out this statistic, too: New England improved to 84-1 since 2001 when leading in the fourth quarter. It is as clutch a team as there ever has been. Just ask the Giants.

In the end, it was unrealistic to expect total dominance from the Patriots, not over the course of a grueling 16-game NFL season, not week after week. The line between success and failure just doesn't stretch that wide in a league structured for parity for the New England Patriots, or any team for that matter, to obliterate every opponent this 2007 season.

And so, on the night of what was billed as their coronation, New England had to stave off a team fighting to avoid being a footnote.

All week, Giants coach Tom Coughlin had fielded questions about the dominant Patriots with his usual mixture of indignation and indifference. And he never quite answered the crucial question: With the team's No. 5 playoff seeding secure, would Coughlin actually play his most vital starters, and if so, for how long?

Coughlin said he would try to win the game. He just never said how.

As it turned out, everyone of note played for both teams. No one took a pass. And for the first time all season, Giants receiver Plaxico Burress actually practiced during the week. A meaningless game, with nothing on the line? Not this one.

So the question has been answered. Yes, the Patriots ran the table. It's done. They're perfect. It wasn't easy, but it shouldn't have been. And now, the question invariably becomes: Can they win three more, and complete the run?

Contact staff writer Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.