• They had to earn this one. Work for it. Break an honest to goodness sweat. Pitch a tent and make a night of it.
But in the end, when they added up the pluses and stacked them against the minuses, the New England Patriots still protected everything that really matters. They lost nothing but a little aura of invincibility, and the truth is, that could wind up being a good thing. Their perfect record is intact at 11-0, and so is their clear-cut path to history, which just got narrowed to a five-game march through the month of December.
The Patriots were severely tested by the prideful Eagles in their 31-28 victory -- their closest game of this memorable season -- but ultimately the lessons they learned didn't cost them any of their goals. New England was reminded that no team, no matter how talented, can play its A game every week in the NFL. The league is too tough, the season too long. Some games you just survive, and tip your hat to an opponent that nearly had the measure of you.
There's no shame in that.
"It was just one of those games,'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said afterward. "A bad day. You ever wake up and just have a bad day? But we hung in there. We were very resilient. We showed a lot of character, a lot of heart. It wasn't going to be easy.
"You're not going to be able to play your best game each and every week. But the thing that's positive, the thing that's encouraging is that we were able to pull it out despite not playing particularly well. You can't take away from what (the Eagles) did. They came out and they handed it to us. They came into a hostile environment and they were able to make plays all over the field. But at the end, we were able to clinch, and that's the important thing.''
As close a call as it was for New England, the Patriots drove for the go-ahead touchdown on offense when they had to -- scoring midway through the fourth quarter -- and came up with the game-saving interception when they had to (by cornerback Asante Samuel, with 3:52 remaining). That's what the good teams do. Do it enough, and you're a great team.
Something tells me the Patriots have one or two more of these nail-biters coming this season, and Sunday night's tense unfolding of events might be a resource that New England draws on for positive muscle memory.
"It gives you confidence, confidence in the team and confidence in the other players,'' Harrison said. "You're not going to blow people out by 30 points every game. Especially in November and December, when it starts getting cold outside and you can't really pass the ball as much, and you have to do different things. It helps build confidence to know when a game is close we can pull it out.''
• For reasons weren't not entirely clear on, the Eagles (5-6) apparently didn't get the memo informing them that they were cast in the role of the Washington Generals opposite to the NFL's version of the Globetrotters.
This is what a moral victory looks like in today's NFL. You take the mighty Patriots the distance, and wind up standing tall and proud like Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed (at least in the first fight).
A point-spread of 24 points, huh? Vegas was only off by three touchdowns in this one. The Eagles came into the game determined not to be the Patriots' next tomato can, and they very nearly delivered a knockout punch themselves. New England beat Philly by three points in the Super Bowl almost three years ago, and from the looks of it, the gap hasn't budged.
"That was about the way we expected it tonight,'' Patriots head coach BillBelichick said, speaking for the distinct minority. "Philadelphia is a good football team.''
If the Eagles play like this the rest of the way, they might just go from 5-6 to the playoffs for a second consecutive December.
"We proved to ourselves what we can do,'' Philadelphia receiver Hank Baskett said. "I feel bad for everybody else, because right now we saw what we can do when we all play together, and we're going to finish off the season like this.''
Said Eagles coach Andy Reid: "We played a heck of a football team, and I think we are a heck of a football team. When we come into a game like this we expect to win the game. We just came up a little short. Three points, man. The Patriots and three points are killing me.''
• What a perfect game plan the Eagles concocted for this one. How do you begin to deal with a team that refuses to lose? You play it as if you have nothing to lose. You take chances galore. And then you take some more. You play aggressive on offense, aggressive on defense, and aggressive on special teams.
You onside kick early in the second quarter (the Eagles did, and naturally it worked). You throw pass after pass on offense, and you blitz Tom Brady on defense, throwing exotic looks at him all night long. And most crucially of all, you do everything as hard and fast as you know how. You hit, and chase, and throw your body around like there's no tomorrow.
The Eagles defensively were resourceful all night long. A long-standing 4-3 defensive team, they went into a 3-4 formation often, using linebacker ChrisGocong in a hybrid coverage-rusher role that Philly calls their "Joker.'' When the Patriots went to their four-wides formation almost exclusively in the first half, the Eagles brought their pass pressure and blitzed often. They wound up sacking Patriots quarterback Brady three times, but hit him on at least another six to eight pass plays.
"We felt we had to pressure them,'' Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "We didn't want to let Randy Moss get behind us. That was our No. 1 goal. And we pretty much did that (Moss caught just five passes for 43 yards, none longer than 11 yards). The other thing we wanted to do was pressure the quarterback.
"We disappointed we lost. But realistically we did some good things out there. But that's a good quarterback. He's smart, and he still made his throws.''
• Brady, who threw for 380 yards, but a season-low one touchdown, wasn't the only good quarterback on the field. If you're looking for reasons why the Patriots were nearly perfect no more, it starts with the astounding game that AdamJoshua Feeley had in his first NFL start since the 2004 season.
If A.J. Feeley was thought of at all coming into this game, he was an afterthought. At most. After all, it was A.J. Feeley, for crying out loud.
But guess what? He may not be the Eagles future (Kevin Kolb), and he's not their past (Donovan McNabb). But boy did he make a heck of a case for being their present. If Philly doesn't have a quarterback controversy after this one, it should. Does anyone think the Eagles put up this kind of showing if McNabb had started and played the whole game?
"He showed tremendous poise back there,'' Harrison said of Feeley, who threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, with three interceptions. "The guy looked like a Pro Bowler back there.''
Feeley has been through this career loop-de-loop before, of course. He failed in his starting chance in Miami after his first stint in Philadelphia, but he wouldn't be the first 30-year-old quarterback in the NFL to get a late-career shot and make the most of it. No matter what Reid says publicly about McNabb's job security -- and after the game he re-affirmed McNabb is the starter once he's healthy -- it's going to be hard to not keep running Feeley back out there for the foreseeable future. Feeley's veteran teammates can see the difference between where McNabb's at these days, and where Feeley was Sunday night.
"A win would have been great, but we can't talk about it,'' Feeley said. "It's something to build on for this team. Obviously it was a loss. It's tough to take, but I think we're going to build on some of the positives that came out of this game.''
• What a weapon Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker has grown into. For the lucky teams that some how manage to take away Moss, all that's waiting for them is death by Welker. When the Patriots traded for him in March, I said he could wind up being Brady's favorite target. And that's the territory he's headed for after his monster 13-catch, 149-yard game against the Eagles. Both were career highs. Welker now has a team-best 81 receptions for 878 yards, with seven touchdowns.
"Tonight was just my night,'' Welker said, in typical Patriot understatement.
But Welker's best move of the night? That came just after the game, during a live on-field interview with NBC's sideline reporter, Andrea Kremer. In mid-sentence, Welker noticed that Belichick was motioning him to wrap it up.
"Bill Belichick is calling me over,'' Welker told a surprised Kremer. "And he's the one man I take over you.''
• Think about this one, football fans: From the fourth quarter of their Week 9 game at Indy, until halftime of Sunday night, the Patriots totaled 12 possessions. They scored 11 touchdowns and one field goal on those dozen drives.