FOXBOROUGH -- There was jubilation when cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted his third pass of the game to seal the victory, then dejection in the locker room when coach Bill Belichick asked his players to keep injured linebacker Junior Seau in their prayers. There was also relief in several corners, with quarterback Tom Brady calling the Patriots lucky.
The contrast in emotions reflected the many twists and turns packed into the Patriots’ physical, mistake-filled, yet entertaining 17-13 victory over the Bears yesterday before 68,756 at Gillette Stadium.
There were tremendous highs, then sudden lows, and plays that simply don’t take place in many football games.
Perhaps nothing summed it up better than when Brady scrambled 11 yards for a key first down in the fourth quarter, leaving linebacker Brian Urlacher in his wake to extend the team’s clinching scoring drive. Brady for 11? Outrunning and outfaking Urlacher?
Then there was the time the Patriots fumbled twice on the same play in the third quarter. Or the time the Bears called timeout just before Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a just-before-the-gun second-quarter 52-yard field goal, only to see Gostkowski nail the kick with his second chance. And at one point, there were two referee’s reversals on instant replay in three second-quarter plays.
In all, the teams combined for nine turnovers, the Patriots with five and the Bears four. The Bears also relied on a most unusual offensive play as their bread and butter - long passes that were essentially jump balls, which two times led to penalties on Patriots defensive backs.
So it’s no wonder that when Belichick summed up the team’s victory, he simply said: “It’s not exactly the way you draw them up.”
No, it certainly isn’t, but in authoring their second straight victory the Patriots improved to 8-3 as they begin their traditional post-Thanksgiving push. Samuel was one of the game’s biggest stars with the three interceptions, while Brady finished 22 of 33 for 269 yards and led two 11-play scoring drives against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. One of Brady’s favorite targets was tight end Benjamin Watson, who finished with six catches for 89 yards and one touchdown.
The Patriots have now won 18 of their last 20 games against NFC teams, and Brady improved to 20-1 on artificial turf, as the contest was the first on Gillette Stadium’s new FieldTurf. Meanwhile, the Bears - the top team in the NFC - dropped to 9-2.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who finished with seven tackles, believed the Patriots needed a win against such a quality opponent, legitimizing their hopes to be a Super Bowl contender.
“As the year goes along, you notice and see who the best teams are in the NFL, and obviously the Chicago Bears, how do you not notice them?” Bruschi said. “They’re one of the best teams in the league. As the schedule goes on, you see them coming up, and it’s a game you’re looking forward to, and you see you’ll be tested a little bit. So to come out on top is great.”
At the same time, Bruschi made it clear there was no celebration in the locker room after the win.
“We feel good about the victory,” he said, “but we have to work on glaring negatives we had on penalties and turnovers.”
Yesterday’s see-saw game came down to the fourth quarter. The Patriots broke a 10-10 tie with an impressive 11-play, 73-yard drive that chewed up 6:31. It was one of their most impressive marches of the season, including three third-down conversions against a defense that entered the game leading the league in third-down defense (26.8 percent success rate).
The first big play came on third and 3 when Brady hit Watson for 40 yards - a play in which Watson appeared to stop running his route, then picked it up again when Brady kept the play alive by sliding out of the pocket. After the Patriots lost 8 yards on a double reverse, Brady found Kevin Faulk for 9 yards, then raced 11 yards on third and 9, leaving Urlacher behind.
When Brady capped off the run, he popped up and signaled a first down with his right arm, the emotions bubbling over.
Five plays later, Brady found Watson for a 2-yard score, putting the team ahead, 17-10.
Yet the frisky Bears responded with their own impressive drive, moving 66 yards on 10 plays, with a 30-yard pass interference call on Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs helping advance the ball. Facing a fourth and 6 from the Patriots’ 14, the Bears elected for a 32-yard Robbie Gould field goal with 3:31 left. That made it 17-13.
“I thought that was the right thing to do at the time,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith of the seemingly curious call. “I felt like we would get the ball back - which we did - and have an opportunity there. To win the football game, we were going to need two scores. That’s why I [went for the field goal].”
The Patriots appeared primed to either run out the clock, or at least be in position to kick a field goal, when running back Corey Dillon lost a fumble at the Bears’ 22 with 1:52 left.
On the next play, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman (15 of 34 for 176 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs) lofted a long, high pass that Samuel picked off to seal the game. Players mobbed Samuel in celebration.
The fourth quarter wasn’t the only stretch in which the teams had such sudden turns.
On the Bears’ first possession of the game, Samuel intercepted Grossman on the third play. But on the Patriots’ next drive, the Bears got the ball back when Brady fired a long pass to Watson, who was crunched by Todd Johnson as the ball arrived, popping it straight up into the air and into the arms of cornerback Charles Tillman.
Chicago then put together its longest drive of the game, a 15-play string that advanced to the Patriots’ 22. Gould came on for a 40-yard field goal, which was good, but the kick was nullified by a false start. Gould’s ensuing 45-yard attempt then was blocked by Richard Seymour.
On the Patriots’ next drive, which advanced to the Bears’ 11, rookie running back Laurence Maroney lost a fumble, capping off a turnover-turnover-blocked field goal-turnover sequence that was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
The Patriots got on the scoreboard first, with Maroney powering in from the 1 at 9:07 of the second quarter. The run capped an 11-play, 92-yard drive that gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
The Bears countered with a 46-yard Gould field goal, before the Patriots beat the halftime gun with a career-long 52-yarder from Gostkowski. That made it 10-3 at the break, and the teams traded turnovers in a scoreless third quarter, before the thrilling fourth began with the Bears tying the game at 10 on Cedric Benson’s 2-yard run.
Although it was an entertaining game, it wasn’t one Belichick or Smith will cue up as an example of solid play.
“I’m sure neither team feels like they played their best football,” said Belichick, whose team hosts the Lions next Sunday. “All that being said, fortunately we were able to make a couple more plays than they did and that’s why we won.
“There were plenty of mistakes to go around out there, all the way around, every phase of the game for both teams. But we had some guys step up and make some big plays at the right time.
“That’s what ended up being the difference in the game.”