Patriots 23, Cardinals 12
-- The New England Patriots won their 17th game in a row on Sunday, 23-12 over the Arizona Cardinals, but the emotional day at Sun Devil Stadium belonged to a fallen American soldier.
Former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who left the NFL two years ago to become an Army Ranger and was killed by friendly fire during combat in Afghanistan on April 22, was honored before the game and during an emotional halftime tribute in which his widow, Marie, and his family were given his retired jersey. Every NFL player wore a sticker bearing No. 40, Tillman's jersey number, on their helmets Sunday as well.
Before the game between the Patriots and Cardinals, two F-14 fighter jets flew over the stadium and an American flag was draped over the entire playing field. At halftime, a video tribute featured comments from President Bush and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and highlights from Tillman's playing days, as well as the names of other soldiers from Arizona who have died in the war. At the end of the tribute, Tillman's widow thanked fans for their support, and the crowd of 51,557 gave Tillman one last standing ovation while fireworks shot off from the top of a nearby hill.
"It's been 147 days, almost five months now," said Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law. "We were fortunate enough to know how special he was, but I had no idea people from Texas to Boston knew how special he was."
Tillman, who was 27 when he died, was perhaps the most beloved player on one of the NFL's most inept teams. A native of San Jose, he was a star linebacker at Arizona State, and the Cardinals chose him in the seventh round of the 1998 draft (the 226th pick out of 241 players chosen). By his third pro season, though, the hard-hitting safety had cracked the starting lineup and set a franchise record with 224 tackles in 2000.
Before the 2001 season, the St. Louis Rams offered Tillman a lucrative free agent contract, but he chose to remain in Arizona, where he never played on a winning team after the Cardinals finished 9-7 during his rookie season. Before the 2002 season, he stunned the Cardinals when he rejected a $3.6 million contract extension so he could join the Rangers with his younger brother, Kevin, a former minor league baseball player.
Tillman was the first NFL player killed in combat since the Vietnam War. On April 30, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and was promoted from specialist to corporal in the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment based in Fort Lewis, Wash. During the video tribute on Sunday, Bush called him "courageous and humble" and a "fierce defender of liberty."
"The fans in Arizona loved him, the fans around America respected him, not because he was born a great football player, but because he made himself one," Bush said in the video. "As much as he loved football, he loved America more."
Added McCain: "America has lost an honorable man. While many of us may live a longer life than Pat Tillman, few of us will live a better one."
On the field, the Patriots overcame two interceptions thrown by quarterback Tom Brady and 12 penalties to win their 17th consecutive game dating from last season. The win moved them within two victories of setting a record for the longest winning streak in pro football history. The record of 18 is held by six teams, most recently the Denver Broncos of 1997 and 1998. The Patriots are off next week, then play at the Bills on Oct. 3 and host the Dolphins on Oct. 10.
"Our team hasn't really looked at the winning streak," said Patriots wide receiver David Givens, who caught six passes for 118 yards after Deion Branch, the team's top wide receiver, injured his leg on the final play of the first half. "It doesn't mean much to us, but as long as it continues, it's great."
It may be tough for any team to beat the Patriots as long as Corey Dillion keeps running the way he has in his first two games with New England. Dillon ran 32 times for 158 yards after gaining 86 in New England's opening 27-24 victory over the Colts on Sept. 9. He helped Brady overcome a slow start, as the Pro Bowl quarterback was only 8 of 17 for 92 yards with two first-half interceptions. Dillon's running helped the Patriots open up their passing game in the second half, though, as Brady went 7 of 9 for 125 yards in the final two quarters.
"I thought the play-action had a little more bite to it than it would have had if Dillon wasn't running the football," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "I thought Corey ran hard. I thought he got a lot of yards on his own and moved the pile. It was a hot day and he carried a lot on his shoulders and stayed in there until the end. He was a workhorse."
Brady threw touchdowns of two and 19 yards to tight end Daniel Graham early in the game, but the Patriots never found the end zone again. On the opening possession of the second half, Dillon scored on a one-yard run, but the touchdown was nullified by a penalty. Brady was sacked on the next play and the Patriots had to settle for the first of Adam Vinatieri's three field goals and a 17-6 lead.
The Cardinals got as close as 17-12 after Emmitt Smith's one-yard touchdown run with 1 minute 33 seconds left in the third quarter, but Vinatieri kicked field goals of 28 and 24 yards in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
"We had too many penalties and turnovers, but it turned out the way we wanted," said defensive end Willie McGinest, who had two of the Patriots' five sacks. "We can always get better, and we're going to get better."