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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Brady's sidestep a telling sidelight

FOXBOROUGH -- The quarterback -- on second thought, upgrade that to the, ahem, franchise quarterback -- surveyed the landscape of third and 9 from the Chicago 25-yard line in a 10-10 game in the fourth quarter, determined his receivers were covered, and did the only thing that seemed logical at the time.

Tom Brady took off. He took off with the league's most ferocious defender, Brian Urlacher, hurtling toward him with the explicit purpose of reducing him to holiday mincemeat.

Brady, you might recall, isn't really all that fast. Urlacher, to refresh your memory, is big, quick, and devastating.

The potential for a truly gruesome collision was unfolding, and the quarterback had a split-second decision to make. He could slide to the safe haven of his newly minted turf, acutely aware that if he did, he would be short of the first down.

"If I slid, my teammates would have killed me," Brady said.

Urlacher surmised Brady was smart enough to realize that not all first downs are worth it. Sometimes, it's wiser to live to see another day. As Brady kept coming, Urlacher hesitated, anticipating the slide, and adjusted his speed to make sure he was in enough control of his body not to draw a flag for unnecessary roughness once he made contact.

What happened next will be remembered for the balance of this season. The quarterback suddenly stopped, juked, and sidestepped the most imposing defender in the NFL altogether.

"He duped me," a chagrined Urlacher said.

By the time Brady gladly sank to the turf relatively untouched, he had gained 11 yards, kept his team's drive alive, and had defied, for the moment at least, the notion that he is not mobile enough to create havoc outside the pocket.

"He's no Michael Vick," offered defensive lineman Richard Seymour, "but he's a very savvy guy who understands the things he can do."

"As a slow guy myself," chimed in Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, "I can tell you sometimes if you aren't running real fast, and you are running right at someone, it can actually help you."

Indeed. Brady stunned everyone by not only eluding Urlacher, but then leaping to his feet and roaring his approval as he signaled another . . . Patriots . . . first down.

"Must be the turf," cracked Brady, in the afterglow of escaping with his life, a win, and a new brand of credibility in his locker room. "That was pretty cool. At least I can tell my kids one day that I shook Brian Urlacher. They probably won't believe me, though."

Sure they will. While yesterday's 17-13 win over the Bears was riddled with mistakes, miscues, and muddled offensive series, when the game was on the line, the quarterback did what he always did when he was amassing those Super Bowl rings a couple of years back: He systematically constructed an offensive assault to win the ballgame.

You want Brady at his finest yesterday? Then merely peruse the drive highlighted by his jaunt up the field with Urlacher in pursuit. It started at New England's 27, and ended after the Patriots had chewed up 6:31 of the clock and seized their lead back on Brady's 2-yard touchdown toss to Benjamin Watson.

On that drive, Brady was 3 for 3 for 51 yards. He was also 3 for 3 in third-down conversions, although none was quite as dramatic as his move on Urlacher. The two superstars exchanged words following the play, but they were not acrimonious. It was merely respectful banter among two elite players who dominate different sides of the ball.

"He said, 'You made me look bad,' " Brady reported. "I told him, 'You make our whole team look bad.' "

Asked to describe his maneuver, the quarterback smiled.

"The uncoordinated stutterstep," he answered. "I'm not an athletic guy."

What always has set Brady apart is his ability to manage the field, adjust instantaneously, and remain ever aware of where his teammates are and where he needs to be. In this case, he needed to be 9 yards upfield -- no less.

"It's a game of inches," said Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, in the quiet of the Chicago locker room. "One more inch, and Brian has him. But that's why Brady is a prime-time player. He always knows where he needs to be."

Indeed, as the drive continued, and both Heath Evans and Laurence Maroney were wrapped up on consecutive running plays, the Patriots were looking at third and 2 from the 6. The quarterback called his own number, forged into the teeth of Chicago's defense, and put his head down. Brady wound up with the first down, but not before he bobbled the ball, fumbled it for a millisecond, then gathered it back in.

Two plays later, he found an untouched Watson in the corner of the end zone.

This was not particularly surprising to any of his offensive teammates, who had witnessed Brady pacing the sideline just before that drive, imploring his offense to stay in the game.

"Tom was telling us, 'Let's get some points,' " Watson said. "He was walking up and down challenging the troops. He's a great leader that way."

If his teammates had any reservations about what could have been had Urlacher tossed Brady to the turf, they were gamely keeping them private late yesterday. One of the more remarkable components of Brady's impressive dossier is his ability to stay healthy. Most days, he accomplishes that by avoiding people like Urlacher.

"I've been here eight years," said running back Kevin Faulk, "and when the situation arises, and we need a touchdown, Tom says the same thing every time. He says, 'We're going to get the ball and score.'

"Tom will do just about anything to make that happen."

Yes, he will. The stats told you he completed 22 of 33 passes for 269 yards and 2 interceptions, but the play that mattered most wasn't captured by the numbers.

It was about the quarterback who saw daylight, and wasn't going to stop until he felt its warm embrace.

Sure beats the one Urlacher had planned for him.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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