FOXBOROUGH - Maybe Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green was prescient when he purchased the team T-shirts hailing them as 60-minute men. The Patriots needed almost every minute last night to prevent time from running out on their perfect season.
But the clock is still ticking on the status of Don Shula and his 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated team in NFL history. The Patriots rallied from a 28-24 fourth-quarter deficit to continue their run at the record books with a 31-28 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last night at Gillette Stadium in front of 68,756.
“Hey, man, 60-minute men, that’s what it had to be in Indianapolis. That’s what it had to be [last night]. That’s what it’s going to have to be for the rest of the season,” said Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
This game was less about perfection and more about survival against a game Eagles (5-6) squad that pushed the Patriots to the limit. New England (11-0) took the lead for good with 7:20 to go on a 4-yard run by Laurence Maroney, who got an assist from Logan Mankins. The Patriots’ rugged left guard practically shoved Maroney into the end zone and New England back into the lead, 31-28.
“I didn’t see it, but I’m glad he did,” said wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth.
Mankins also propelled the Patriots into the record books, as the 31 points gave them 452 for the season, besting the franchise mark of 441, set in 1980.
But it wasn’t another relaxing record-setting night for the Patriots in prime time like last Sunday night’s 56-10 victory over the Bills. The Eagles were primed to cancel their perfect season like a subpar sitcom.
New England survived a career night from A.J. Feeley, who was subbing for an injured Donovan McNabb. Feeley was 27 of 42 for a career-high 345 yards and a career-high-tying three touchdowns. His completions were also a career high, but he also uncorked three interceptions, two to cornerback Asante Samuel.
The first was returned 40 yards for a touchdown on Philadelphia’s first possession and the second, an over-the-shoulder grab Samuel made in the Patriots’ end zone with 3:52 remaining, prevented the Eagles, who had advanced to the New England 29, from attempting the tying field goal.
“He came up with a couple of big plays,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He doesn’t let too many get through his hands. That’s what a great playmaker does.”
Philadelphia put Tom Brady’s assault on Peyton Manning’s touchdown mark for a season on temporary hiatus, as it snapped Brady’s NFL-record streak of 10 straight games with at least three touchdown passes, holding him to 34 for 54 for 380 yards and just one scoring pass, a 19-yarder to Jabar Gaffney with eight seconds left before halftime that erased a 21-17 Philadelphia lead and gave the Patriots a 3-point halftime advantage. Brady now has 39 on the season, 10 short of Manning’s mark.
After the score, Gaffney, who had six catches for 87 yards, flapped his arms as a derisive gesture. He was released by the Eagles out of training camp in 2006. But it was Wes Welker who grounded the Eagles. The slippery slot receiver had a career highs in receptions (13) and receiving yards (149).
Those in the Gillette Stadium crowd who had planned on an early exit and a full night’s rest before reporting to work were foiled by a game that had them restless for a different reason - it was actually still in doubt during the second half. That was something new, as the Patriots’ average margin of victory at home entering last night was 29.3 points per game.
Any team intending to hand the Patriots their first loss was going to need some luck and the Eagles got it in the third quarter, when Stephen Gostkowski, who had made 11 straight field goals, missed a 32-yarder wide left, just his second misfire of the season.
That allowed the Eagles to head into the final frame with a 28-24 advantage on an 8-yard TD pass from Feeley to Reggie Brown with 1:34 left in the third quarter.
Hobbs said the Patriots’ string of blowouts has spoiled many. They’re just happy their undefeated season wasn’t spoiled as well.
“I think guys done got spoiled,” said Hobbs. “This is the NFL. It’s the NFL. It’s been a very weird season where the fans and the people that are going against us, the bettors, are like we should expect a blowout every time, but that’s not how the NFL works now, and those guys came out and played a great game. They have a good team over there, man. I’m just glad we won.”
Say this for the Eagles, they knew the best defense against the Patriots, regardless of whom was at quarterback, was a good offense.
Undaunted by an opponent averaging 41.1 points per game, the Eagles actually outgained the Patriots, 230-207, in the first half. The Patriots’ defense was picked apart by a journeyman backup for most of the game.
“Feeley did a good job like we’ve seen him against us before,” said Belichick.
Philadelphia let it be known it would pull out all the stops to try to hand New England its first loss in the Eagles’ first regular-season visit to Gillette.
In the first half, Eagles coach Andy Reid went for it on fourth and 1 from the Patriots’ 15, eschewing a field goal to set up Philadelphia’s first touchdown, a 1-yard Brian Westbrook run; called a wide receiver throwback pass; and ordered a second-quarter onside kick, which his team recovered.
The Patriots offense, which scored on its first seven possessions last week against Buffalo, picked up where it left off against the Eagles, scoring on all three of its first-half opportunities.
But it was the defense that struck first with Samuel, who had his third regular-season interception return for a TD.
Philadelphia struck back with Westbrook, who had 17 of his 24 touches in the first half - he finished with seven receptions for 40 yards and 17 rushes for 52 yards.
It was back and forth from there.
“I anticipate more games like this,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “You come down the stretch in December and teams start playing their best football. I anticipate all teams to play us hard. I anticipate good players on the other side of the ball to make plays.
“I want the games to be close so we can win them in the fourth quarter because that’s the way it has to be ... That’s the way we have to anticipate it. Let’s take last week. Is it going to be like that every week? I doubt it. We’re going to be in battles for the rest of the year.”