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Jackie MacMullan

Somehow, some way, survival

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / November 26, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - The inevitable happened.

And still the New England Patriots survived.

Through 10 games, except for a scare from the Colts, this charmed football team gave us absolutely no reason to ponder the possibility it might actually lose a game. The Patriots didn't just win, they dominated. They didn't just produce points, they concocted thrilling, acrobatic, otherworldly touchdowns.

They were equally intimidating on both sides of the ball. They exhibited depth, talent, guts and humility. And yet last night, with 7:30 left on the game clock, they trailed, 28-24 - outplayed, outsmarted, and outmuscled by an unlikely opponent.

If New England is able to run the table on this remarkable 2007 season, the Patriots will glance back at this grueling evening with the Philadelphia Eagles and gratefully recall a football game in which they scratched out a victory despite a porous secondary, a continually harassed franchise quarterback, and a negated star receiver who was relegated to the role of decoy down the stretch.

In other words, they will remember this as the game they should have lost, but still managed to pull out anyway.

"You guys have gotten spoiled," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "You've got to understand this is the NFL. You can't expect a blowout every time."

"We expected their best shot," said offensive lineman Stephen Neal. "There's a reason they call them the Screaming Eagles. They come from everywhere.

"But you can't ever get too worried. We don't panic. If you've got No. 12, then you've got a shot."

That's the point, isn't it? If Randy Moss is dealing with being bumped at the line of scrimmage, and facing double coverage, and seeing precious little daylight, then quarterback Tom Brady - he's No. 12 in your program - must go to Plan B. In this case, that was Wes Welker, the "other" new receiver who has served the role as the less glamorous go-to guy in this ever expansive and complex offense.

It was Welker who connected with Brady on three key receptions down the stretch, which culminated in a Laurence Maroney 4-yard touchdown run, and a 31-28 Patriots advantage that would - finally - hold. Although the players in the New England locker room said they never felt as if they were in trouble, to a man they agreed this was a close call that might have gone the other way.

"We played terrible, but we still got it," said Asante Samuel, whose interception in the end zone sealed it for the Patriots in the final minutes.

"We won," said veteran Rodney Harrison. "We're not happy about it, but we won."

The Patriots survived some truly disconcerting omens, among them Eagles defensive end Jacqua Thomas leveling Brady with a vicious hit in the first quarter, one of three sacks Brady would absorb on the night.

Then there was the successful onside kick that Philadelphia coach Andy Reid called for early in the second quarter, just after his team knotted the score, 14-14.

It was a gutsy gamble, reminiscent of the kind of unorthodox strategy Bill Belichick has been known to use himself, and it worked.

And, if that didn't qualify as cause for concern, consider that kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has misfired only once during this season, hooked his 32-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter wide left.

As each of those events unfolded, the Eagles became more and more convinced this was their night. After all, they had pinned 345 passing yards on the Patriots secondary, and had "limited" Brady to 380 yards and one TD pass. They stalked Moss throughout, bumping him and hitting him and doubling him and holding him to five catches and 43 yards.

They frequently knocked the vaunted Patriots out of rhythm and out of sorts.

"I thought we had 'em," conceded receiver Greg Lewis, who had four catches for 88 yards. "It really stinks. We played so well, so focused, and we just couldn't finish. It was kind of eerie, in a way. It reminded me of the Super Bowl [XXXIX]. We just couldn't finish."

Even the most cautious experts breezed right past the possibility the Eagles would be the one to spoil New England's season of perfection, and Moss's season of redemption.

They were a 24-point underdog, for crying out loud, and their glitzy quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was on the sideline in street clothes because of thumb and ankle injuries.

And when Samuel jumped quarterback A.J. Feeley's tentative, ill-advised sideline pass to Brian Westbrook and ran it 40 yards into the end zone less than two minutes into the game, who could have possibly imagined the Patriots would find themselves embroiled in a tense battle with a team that had raised the ire of New England's veterans by daring to suggest their 2005 Super Bowl victory over the Eagles was tainted by SpyGate?

"Hey, they get paid, too," Harrison said. "We showed a lot of character and heart tonight. We stuck together as a team."

So, was Harrison ever worried?

"Not worried, but we became a little concerned," Harrison said. "But we knew sooner or later something was going to break. We didn't make the plays we normally make, and we still won."

The final score, 31-28, is in the books. New England is 11-0, still unbeaten, and tomorrow everyone will be looking ahead to Baltimore and Pittsburgh and all the other pitfalls that await them.

The Patriots don't care. They survived the night that should have gone up in flames, and have walked away without a scratch.

Again.

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

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