The victory wasas unsightly as Bill Belichick's ratty gray sweatshirt, and though Tom Bradyhad helped secure it by evading one of the league's most feared defenders inthe open field, he didn't dodge the truth. Driving from Gillette Stadium to hishome in Boston's Back Bay on Sunday night, the New England Patriots'quarterback contemplated his team's 17--13 triumph over the NFC-leading ChicagoBears and decided it was less a cautionary message to potential postseasonopponents than a salient in-house teaching tool. Brady knew that Belichickwould be as tough on the Pats' offense this week as Brian Urlacher and theother battering Bears were on Sunday. "You don't always need to lose tolearn your lessons," Brady said. "We learned plenty today. If weeliminate the turnovers and mistakes, we're a very tough team. But if we dowhat we did tonight, we're very ordinary."
As strange as itis to label a team led by the 21st century's first football folk hero asprosaic, New England is pretty damn far from extraordinary right now. The Patshave been on edge all season, beginning with the bitter summer holdout andeventual trade of Brady's favorite target, wideout Deion Branch, and continuinginto early November with a shouting match between a future Hall of Famelinebacker and a feisty assistant coach. On Sunday they got a jump on theholiday season by giving away five turnovers in Bears territory, includingthree in the red zone. They got away with it because the Bad News Bears servedup four of their own. Though it was ugly, the win--which ran New England'srecord to 8--3, for a two-game lead over the New York Jets in the AFCEast--left 68,756 fans in Foxborough conjuring visions of another gloriousfootball winter in New England.
Are the Patriotson track for a fourth Super Bowl title in six seasons, a run that would rankamong the greatest in NFL history? It depends on how you look at Sunday'striumph. New England moved the ball impressively against Chicago (9--2),becoming the first team in 2006 to exceed 300 total yards (the Pats had 354)against the league's stingiest scoring defense. Meanwhile the Patriots--withthe league's second-stingiest scoring defense--got three interceptions fromcornerback Asante Samuel, the last of which, with 1:46 left in the fourthquarter, sealed the win. Special teams contributed a blocked field goal (bydefensive end Richard Seymour, who also had a sack and a fumble recovery), apartially blocked punt and a 52-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. "Bottomline?" said Seymour. "When the games get big, our playmakers showup." That's certainly the case with Brady (22 of 33, 269 yards, onetouchdown), who traditionally begins carving up opposing defenses with scaryprecision at this time of year. He is now 34--6 lifetime in games played onThanksgiving or later.
Now for thegristle: Sunday's victory was the Pats' first this season against a team thatcelebrated Thanksgiving with a winning record, and they are still looking up atthe Colts (10--1), Ravens (9--2) and Chargers (9--2) in the AFC. Further, thegame against the Bears bore an unwelcome resemblance to New England's 27--13playoff loss in Denver last January, which ended the Pats' NFL-record streak of10 consecutive postseason victories. Then, as on Sunday, there were three lostfumbles and a pair of Brady interceptions--though to be fair, both picks, byChicago's Charles Tillman, came after receivers got their hands on theball.
Another blow camewhen inside linebacker Junior Seau, the 12-time Pro Bowl selection who came outof retirement to sign with the Pats before the season, suffered a broken rightarm after making a hard tackle with 8:35 left in the first half. The injurywill weaken New England at two positions: Left outside linebacker Mike Vrabelwill most likely have to move inside to replace Seau, with right outside backerRosevelt Colvin shifting to the left side; Colvin's spot will be taken by newstarter Tully Banta-Cain, a pass-rush specialist.
Like strongsafety Rodney Harrison, whose broken right shoulder blade will likely keep himout until late December, the wily and intense Seau provided Belichick's defensewith a major boost. He certainly livened things up in practice. According toseveral veterans and other team sources, Seau, a legendary defensivefreelancer, deviated from Belichick's strict script during drills a few weeksago, prompting an angry rebuke from line coach Pepper Johnson. Seau held hisground, and the two began a loud argument that resumed in the parking lot,where they eventually had to be separated. "It was two emotional peoplehaving the kind of arguments families have," says one veteran. "That'swhat happens when you're very close and you all want to win."
If Seau is themost accomplished linebacker of his generation, Urlacher, the reigning NFLdefensive player of the year, is competing for a similar designation. Yet forall the havoc the 6'4", 258-pound middle linebacker caused on Sunday, hewas unable to stop one of the league's least nimble ballcarriers when itmattered most. With 11:34 left in the game and the score tied at 10, Brady,facing third-and-nine at the Chicago 25, scrambled up the middle, whereUrlacher was waiting to clock him. But Brady feinted left, planted hard at the23 and slipped to his right. Urlacher whiffed on the tackle, and Brady had an11-yard gain and a first down. When Pats owner Robert Kraft made the midnightdecision two weeks earlier to spend a cool million replacing Gillette's ravagedgrass field with synthetic FieldTurf, he probably didn't anticipate that Bradywould produce the first memorable juke on the new surface. "That might bethe first time I've ever made anybody miss, let alone one of the best middlelinebackers ever to play the game," Brady said. "That was the longest11-yard run, in terms of seconds, in NFL history."
Brady was giddierthan Frank Costanza at Festivus when he got up, making an emphatic first-downgesture, head butting tight end Ben Watson and engaging in some good-naturedbanter with Urlacher. ("You're making me look bad," the linebackersaid; "You've been making me look bad all day," Brady replied.) Threeplays later, on third-and-two from the Chicago six, Brady pulled one of hisfavorite tricks, audibling to a quarterback sneak when he recognized adefensive front that left Dan Koppen, his center, uncovered by a Bears tackle.First down. Two plays later he faked a handoff to running back Laurence Maroneyand floated a two-yard touchdown pass to the uncovered Watson for the winningpoints.
It has been achallenging season for Brady, who in his 100th career start on Sunday ran hisrecord to 76--24, passing Steve Grogan for most victories by a quarterback inPatriots history. Dismayed by the departure of Branch and so many of his othertargets from 2005--of the 10 wideouts and tight ends who played for the Patslast year, only Brown, Watson and Daniel Graham remain--Brady has had to be apatient tutor who bites his tongue while continually covering for the mistakesof less experienced teammates. What keeps him going is the knowledge that ifand when the Patriots do put it all together, bigger and better victories thanSunday's are likely to follow.
"The way ourdefense is playing, we feel like we're in every game," Brady said shortlybefore arriving at his condominium on Sunday night. But he knows he and theoffense must produce, or more tight games are in store. "[That's] thedifference," he says, "between putting up 35 or 42 and scoring17."
Don't look now,but a certain quarterback is ready to run. Just ask Brian Urlacher.
The Patriots have been ON EDGE all season. They'redamn far from extraordinary.
"Bottom line?" said Seymour. "When thegames get big, our PLAYMAKERS show up."
Photograph by Al Tielemans
Brady's juke on Urlacher gave the Pats a critical first down on thegame-winning drive.
Colvin (59) & Co. laid a licking on Rex Grossman, but Seau's injurydepletes the Patriots' linebacking corps.
CRACKSIN THE WALL
He'd never show it, but Belichick (below) had to be pleased at how Maroney andthe Pats eluded Bears tacklers.