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The victory was as unsightly as Bill Belichick's ratty gray sweatshirt, and though Tom Brady had helped secure it by evading one of the league's most feared defenders in the open field, he didn't dodge the truth. Driving from Gillette Stadium to his home in Boston's Back Bay on Sunday night, the New England Patriots' quarterback contemplated his team's 17--13 triumph over the NFC-leading Chicago Bears and decided it was less a cautionary message to potential postseason opponents than a salient in-house teaching tool. Brady knew that Belichick would be as tough on the Pats' offense this week as Brian Urlacher and the other battering Bears were on Sunday. "You don't always need to lose to learn your lessons," Brady said. "We learned plenty today. If we eliminate the turnovers and mistakes, we're a very tough team. But if we do what we did tonight, we're very ordinary."
As strange as it is to label a team led by the 21st century's first football folk hero as prosaic, New England is pretty damn far from extraordinary right now. The Pats have been on edge all season, beginning with the bitter summer holdout and eventual trade of Brady's favorite target, wideout Deion Branch, and continuing into early November with a shouting match between a future Hall of Fame linebacker and a feisty assistant coach. On Sunday they got a jump on the holiday season by giving away five turnovers in Bears territory, including three in the red zone. They got away with it because the Bad News Bears served up four of their own. Though it was ugly, the win--which ran New England's record to 8--3, for a two-game lead over the New York Jets in the AFC East--left 68,756 fans in Foxborough conjuring visions of another glorious football winter in New England.
Are the Patriots on track for a fourth Super Bowl title in six seasons, a run that would rank among the greatest in NFL history? It depends on how you look at Sunday's triumph. 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--with the league's second-stingiest scoring defense--got three interceptions from cornerback Asante Samuel, the last of which, with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter, sealed the win. Special teams contributed a blocked field goal (by defensive end Richard Seymour, who also had a sack and a fumble recovery), a partially blocked punt and a 52-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. "Bottom line?" said Seymour. "When the games get big, our playmakers show up." That's certainly the case with Brady (22 of 33, 269 yards, one touchdown), who traditionally begins carving up opposing defenses with scary precision at this time of year. He is now 34--6 lifetime in games played on Thanksgiving or later.
Now for the gristle: Sunday's victory was the Pats' first this season against a team that celebrated Thanksgiving with a winning record, and they are still looking up at the Colts (10--1), Ravens (9--2) and Chargers (9--2) in the AFC. Further, the game against the Bears bore an unwelcome resemblance to New England's 27--13 playoff loss in Denver last January, which ended the Pats' NFL-record streak of 10 consecutive postseason victories. Then, as on Sunday, there were three lost fumbles and a pair of Brady interceptions--though to be fair, both picks, by Chicago's Charles Tillman, came after receivers got their hands on the ball.
Another blow came when inside linebacker Junior Seau, the 12-time Pro Bowl selection who came out of retirement to sign with the Pats before the season, suffered a broken right arm after making a hard tackle with 8:35 left in the first half. The injury will weaken New England at two positions: Left outside linebacker Mike Vrabel will most likely have to move inside to replace Seau, with right outside backer Rosevelt Colvin shifting to the left side; Colvin's spot will be taken by new starter Tully Banta-Cain, a pass-rush specialist.
Like strong safety Rodney Harrison, whose broken right shoulder blade will likely keep him out until late December, the wily and intense Seau provided Belichick's defense with a major boost. He certainly livened things up in practice. According to several veterans and other team sources, Seau, a legendary defensive freelancer, deviated from Belichick's strict script during drills a few weeks ago, prompting an angry rebuke from line coach Pepper Johnson. Seau held his ground, and the two began a loud argument that resumed in the parking lot, where they eventually had to be separated. "It was two emotional people having the kind of arguments families have," says one veteran. "That's what happens when you're very close and you all want to win."
If Seau is the most accomplished linebacker of his generation, Urlacher, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, is competing for a similar designation. Yet for all the havoc the 6'4", 258-pound middle linebacker caused on Sunday, he was unable to stop one of the league's least nimble ballcarriers when it mattered 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, where Urlacher was waiting to clock him. But Brady feinted left, planted hard at the 23 and slipped to his right. Urlacher whiffed on the tackle, and Brady had an 11-yard gain and a first down. When Pats owner Robert Kraft made the midnight decision two weeks earlier to spend a cool million replacing Gillette's ravaged grass field with synthetic FieldTurf, he probably didn't anticipate that Brady would produce the first memorable juke on the new surface. "That might be the first time I've ever made anybody miss, let alone one of the best middle linebackers ever to play the game," Brady said. "That was the longest 11-yard run, in terms of seconds, in NFL history."
Brady was giddier than Frank Costanza at Festivus when he got up, making an emphatic first-down gesture, head butting tight end Ben Watson and engaging in some good-natured banter with Urlacher. ("You're making me look bad," the linebacker said; "You've been making me look bad all day," Brady replied.) Three plays later, on third-and-two from the Chicago six, Brady pulled one of his favorite tricks, audibling to a quarterback sneak when he recognized a defensive 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 Maroney and floated a two-yard touchdown pass to the uncovered Watson for the winning points.
It has been a challenging season for Brady, who in his 100th career start on Sunday ran his record to 76--24, passing Steve Grogan for most victories by a quarterback in Patriots history. Dismayed by the departure of Branch and so many of his other targets from 2005--of the 10 wideouts and tight ends who played for the Pats last year, only Brown, Watson and Daniel Graham remain-- Brady has had to be a patient tutor who bites his tongue while continually covering for the mistakes of less experienced teammates. What keeps him going is the knowledge that if and when the Patriots do put it all together, bigger and better victories than Sunday's are likely to follow.
"The way our defense is playing, we feel like we're in every game," Brady said shortly before arriving at his condominium on Sunday night. But he knows he and the offense must produce, or more tight games are in store. "[That's] the difference," he says, "between putting up 35 or 42 and scoring 17."