by Scott Benson
There. Now the Patriots have beaten a good team.
In spite of themselves.
The Patriots defense responded to five turnovers by the New England offense by forcing four of its own to lead the Pats to a crucial late-season 17-13 win over the NFC-leading Chicago Bears on Gillette Stadium’s brand new, surprisingly lifelike carpet tonight.
The atmosphere was playoff-like, but the play was not. Tom Brady had two tipped passes intercepted and Laurence Maroney, Reche Caldwell and Corey Dillon all lost fumbles as the Patriots offense spent most of the night playing right into the hands of the NFL’s top ranked defense.
But each time, the undermanned Patriots defense had an answer. Asante Samuel tied a team record with three heady picks of Rex Grossman, and Richard Seymour recovered a Grossman muffed snap after blocking an earlier Chicago field goal attempt. The Bears finished with 325 yards of offense but were only able to dent the scoreboard late in the game when aided by 70+ yards in marginal pass interference penalties.
For all their faults today, and there were many, the Patriots offense became the first team to gain 300 yards on the Bears defense, and had two long drives produce touchdowns and eat nearly twelve minutes of clock. One of those drives came in the fourth quarter after Chicago had tied the game at 10, after two straight New England turnovers. But Brady, Watson and Maroney atoned by driving the Pats 70 yards for the touchdown that provided the margin of victory.
Make no mistake, though. The Patriots offense is damn lucky to be a winner tonight. Their fat would once again be in the fire were it not for their defensive teammates. Playing without Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Chad Scott, the Patriots bent, but never broke. Unless it was to break the Bears with another game-saving takeaway.
Chicago’s 2nd ranked scoring offense took the ball inside Patriots 30 on five occasions but came away with just 13 points and two Grossman turnovers. One hundred yard days by Thomas Jones and Bernard Berrian registered barely a ripple.
It was all timing. Three times the Patriots defense made a big play on the heels of a Bears takeaway – in the first quarter, Seymour knocked down a 46 yard Robbie Gould field goal after a Brady pick, then fell on a Grossman fumble after Maroney had coughed up one of his own. Later, Samuel grabbed his second pick deep in New England territory shortly after a bizarre – yet oddly typical – third quarter Patriots pass play on which both Ben Watson and Reche Caldwell fumbled the ball away.
I shudder to think where the Patriots would have been without these turnarounds tonight. The New England defense persists, allowing the second-fewest points in the league while losing players at an all-too-famliar rate. Tonight, it was linebacker Junior Seau, who left with what appeared to be a broken arm. Even with another crippling injury, the league (and perhaps some Patriots fans) would be well advised to note this defense. At times they may struggle to get off the field (as they did during an early Bears drive), but look, isn’t eleven games enough to prove that these guys simply do not give up points? Is there another statistic that would make you feel better about their playoff readiness?
Mike Vrabel moved inside to cover for Seau as Tully Banta Cain took the edge, and the linebackers held it together (with a strong night from Rosevelt Colvin). The defensive front racked up an impressive stat sheet (Seymour, joined by Vince Wilfork with 8 tackles and Ty Warren with 7) but tonight, it was all about Asante Samuel.
The veteran corner, nursing a sore knee (he missed last week), became the first Patriot since the great Roland James (1983) to snag three picks in a regular season game. And each one was a thing of beauty; while tightly covering the intended receiver, Samuel showed great awareness by flashing to the ball at the last instant, grabbing position, then possession. His last interception came as the Bears – down by four – took a last ditch shot deep downfield. Samuel ran step for step inside Rashied Davis and grabbed the ball to seal the win. They were the best plays made by a Patriot corner this year.
Hey, just a thought – did the new turf enable Samuel and the other defenders to break more sharply on the ball? I don’t recall Samuel ever moving that confidently to the football. In any event, his six interceptions are the most by a Patriot since Ty Law had six in 2003.
Any offensive highlights are marred by another big game filled by turnovers. The Patriots offense has turned the ball over 12 times in their last three home games. Even their resourceful defense will eventually buckle under the weight of the Patriots shoddy ballhandling. Fixing this problem – and fast – must be the greatest priority for the coming weeks.
To be fair, the Bears don’t get lucky breaks – they make them. Fumbles were caused by hellacious hits (Maroney) and clever strips (on Watson, then Caldwell, on the same play – Watson was stripped after a completion, and it was picked up by an alert Caldwell, who immediately lost it himself). Brady can only be blamed for one of his interceptions (a bad throw that careened off Troy Brown), as a wicked hit on Watson broke up an early completion and possible touchdown at the Bears goal line, popping the ball straight into the air, where it was grabbed by Charles Tillman.
Watson led all receivers with 6 catches, including a leaping 40 yarder on the final scoring drive (on a crucial 3rd and 3) that set up his own short touchdown on a play action fake by Brady. it was the quarterback’s 20th TD of the season. Brady twice had rare runs to convert big third downs on the drive – one an 11 yard scramble past Brian Urlacher on 3rd and 9.
Nonetheless, the Patriots couldn’t run the ball worth a damn today, but to their credit, they kept trying. They finished with 34 rushes to 33 pass plays (which they carried off without a sack). Play calling wasn’t an issue today – but execution was.
Thankfully, that was not the case for the Patriots ballhawking defense. Finally, the Patriots break through the ‘can’t beat a good team’ barrier. They just did it in the unlikeliest of ways.
A crazy sequence late in the first half led to Stephen Gostkowski’s biggest field goal as a Patriot.
Mike Wright got a small piece of a Chicago punt, and the Patriots set up their two-minute offense at the Bears 39. After two first downs, Brady had two consecutive completions overturned by replay (one to Caldwell, and the second to Watson). Deterred at the Bear 34, the Pats ran out their rookie kicker for a 52 yard attempt, and Gostkowski left it right despite getting plenty of distance. But the kick went away after the Bears had called timeout, giving the rookie a reprieve. His next try was not hit as well, but this time he had the accuracy, and the Patriots went to halftime with a two-minute score, and a touchdown lead, on the league’s best defense.
Ken Walter had the hold on that one, but was uninspiring in his return as Patriots punter.
The Patriots are now 3-0 against the NFC North, and they welcome the fourth entry from that division, the Detroit Lions, next Sunday.