By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007
FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Nov. 25 -- The New England Patriots' march toward history nearly was halted Sunday night at Gillette Stadium by a distinctly unimposing opponent playing a backup quarterback. But after A.J. Feeley passed the Philadelphia Eagles into a fourth-quarter lead, the Patriots gathered themselves just in time to escape with a 31-28 victory that improved their record to 11-0.
The Patriots clinched their division and a spot in the playoffs earlier in the day. But they have their eyes on far loftier goals, and they managed to remain unbeaten on an evening when they were made to look ordinary far more often than usual by the Eagles (5-6).
Feeley, filling in for the injured Donovan McNabb, threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel on the Eagles' opening possession. But he rebounded to pass for three touchdowns, two to wide receiver Greg Lewis, and 345 yards.
Feeley "showed tremendous composure," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "The guy really looked like a Pro Bowler out there. . . . You ever wake up and have a bad day? That's just what it was. But we fought through it."
The Eagles also got a rushing touchdown by tailback Brian Westbrook and took a 28-24 lead into the fourth quarter. The Patriots failed on a fourth-down pass in Philadelphia territory early in the fourth quarter. But they got the ball back and, after abandoning their running game for much of the night, took the lead for good on a four-yard touchdown run by tailback Laurence Maroney with just under 7 1/2 minutes remaining. Samuel had another interception to halt an Eagles drive with just under four minutes left.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 380 yards and a touchdown for the Patriots, who set a single-season franchise scoring record, and wideout Wes Welker had 13 catches for 149 yards.
"We're trying to play as good as we can every week," said Brady, who was held to fewer than three touchdown passes in a game for the first time this season. "But the goal is to win the game, and we did that. Everyone wishes we could have played better, and everyone could have played better. But we won and we clinched the AFC East title."
The Buffalo Bills' loss earlier in the day gave the Patriots their fifth straight division crown. It matched the earliest that a team has clinched a division since the NFL went to a 16-game regular season in 1978.
These clubs were meeting for the first time since the Patriots' three-point Super Bowl triumph over the Eagles at the end of the 2004 season.
"We came up short and don't feel good about it," Eagles Coach Andy Reid said. "At the same time, we had some great efforts out there. Three points -- man, the Patriots and three points, they're killing me with it."
Feeley once beat the Patriots while with the Miami Dolphins, but he needed only two throws in this game to put the Eagles in a hole. Samuel stepped in front of Westbrook to make his first interception and coasted 40 yards to the end zone. But Feeley and the Eagles didn't wilt, responding with a 14-play touchdown drive. Reid left his offense on the field on fourth and one at the Patriots 15-yard line. Feeley got the first down with a sneak, and Westbrook eventually hurdled into the end zone on a first-down carry from the 1.
The Patriots were coming off their most dominant offensive performance in a season full of them, having scored on each of their first seven possessions in a 56-10 victory at Buffalo a week before. Brady went right back to work when the Patriots finally got their first offensive possession in this game with 6 1/2 minutes to go in the first quarter. Brady had to dust himself off after taking a rare heavy hit on a sack by Eagles defensive end Juqua Thomas, who sprinted around right tackle Nick Kaczur and slammed Brady to the turf. No matter. Brady calmly directed the Patriots downfield and they scored on a one-yard touchdown run by fullback Heath Evans.
The Eagles again had a reply, crafting a 76-yard touchdown drive. The Patriots looked disorganized on defense. Cornerback Eddie Jackson allowed Lewis to get behind him, and the wide receiver hauled in Feeley's 28-yard touchdown pass. The Eagles recovered an onside kick but couldn't move the ball on offense and had to punt, and the Patriots got only their second possession of the game nearly four minutes into the second quarter. They moved inside the Eagles 10 but had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
The Patriots couldn't stop Feeley, and his 18-yard touchdown pass to Lewis put the Eagles back in front. But the Patriots reclaimed the lead eight seconds before halftime on Brady's 19-yard scoring pass to wideout Jabar Gaffney, who made a tumbling catch in the back of the end zone and was ruled to be inbounds on a close call.
The Patriots actually had to punt on their opening possession of the second half. They forced a punt by the Eagles, and Welker went 42 yards with a third-and-12 screen pass for a first down at the Philadelphia 4. But wideout Randy Moss was called for offensive pass interference on a light shove to negate an apparent touchdown catch, and Gostkowski sent a 32-yard field goal attempt wide. The Eagles retook the lead on an eight-yard touchdown pass from Feeley to wide receiver Reggie Brown late in the third quarter.