Asante Samuel returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown and had a second pick to shut off a late Philadelphia drive as the Patriots beat the Eagles 31-28 Sunday night to run their record to 11-0.
It was only the second truly competitive game of the season for New England, which trailed 28-24 midway the fourth period. A 69-yard drive, capped by Laurence Maroney’s 4-yard run, put the Patriots ahead of the 22-point underdog.
Then Samuel’s second interception finished the job. James Sanders added an interception in the final seconds to officially close it out.
“Asante has great hands, good instincts. He doesn’t let too many get through his hands,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s what a good playmaker in the secondary does. He’s been very good at that since he’s been here.”
But at least the Eagles were competitive against a team which had won its first 10 games by an average of 25 points. The Patriots had a seven-point lead twice, 7-0 and 14-7 but that was as large as either team led all game.
And the Eagles led for much of it in a contest in which A.J. Feeley, a career backup replacing the injured Donovan McNabb at quarterback for the Eagles, outplayed Tom Brady for most of the game. Philadelphia cornerback Lito Sheppard turned Randy Moss, moving in on Jerry Rice’s single-season mark for touchdown receptions, into nothing more than ordinary.
“I went into the game expecting the unexpected,” said Feeley, who may be back on the bench next week when the Eagles play Seattle—Coach Andy Reid said he expected McNabb to be back.
It was the Patriots’ smallest margin of victory this season, and it comes just a week after a huge blowout of the Buffalo Bills and their largest victory margin.
“Three points, man. Three points. The Patriots and three points,” said Reid whose team also lost the 2005 Super Bowl to New England by three. “They’re killing me with it.”
The Patriots had clinched the AFC East earlier in the day when Buffalo lost, but that didn’t seem to be a factor.
But Brady struggled at times against Philadelphia’s blitzes, making up for the blanket coverage on Moss by throwing underneath to Wes Welker, who had 13 receptions for 149 yards. They also needed both of Samuel’s interceptions, the second coming in the end zone with 3 minutes and 52 seconds left after the Eagles (5-6) had reached the Patriots 29, well within range of a tying field goal by David Akers.
“You got to give it up to Philadelphia, they played their hearts out and laid it out there,” Welker said.
The Patriots, on a quest to become the first unbeaten team in the NFL since the 1972 Dolphins, go for 12 in a row next Monday night in Baltimore, against the Ravens, who have lost five straight. Then they come back to Foxborough in two weeks to play Pittsburgh, which enters Monday night’s game with winless Miami at 7-3.
The only time New England’s streak was in more jeopardy than Sunday night was three weeks ago in Indianapolis, when the Patriots rallied from 10 points down with less than 10 minutes left to beat the Colts. That game was sandwiched between two routs—52-7 over Washington and 56-10 over Buffalo—in which Belichick kept trying to score well into the fourth quarter.
To Reid, this win and the one over the Colts proved the Patriots’ credentials. “Good teams do that—winning close games,” he said.
Feeley finished 27-for-42 for 345 yards, with three touchdown passes, two to Greg Lewis and the three interceptions. Brady completed 34-for-54 for 380 yards and one touchdown, the first time this season he has been held to fewer than three TD passes in a game.
When Samuel picked off Feeley’s pass for Brian Westbrook just 1:38 into the game and took it back 40 yards, it looked like another rout was on.
But the Eagles marched right down the field on their next possession, Westbrook scoring on a 1-yard run at the end of a 77-yard drive. For the rest of the first half, they matched the Patriots score for score, finally taking the lead at 21-17 on Feeley’s 18-yard TD pass to Lewis with 3:01 left in the half.
New England, however, restored order on a 19-yard TD pass to Jabar Gaffney with 12 seconds left in the half after a nine-play, 54-yard drive. Gaffney made the catch on the end line, just getting his feet in, making the halftime score 24-21, the same score by which the Patriots beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots struggled again in the second half.
A 42-yard completion from Brady to Welker gave New England a first-and-goal at the Philadelphia 4 on its first possession. But Moss, who had five catches for just 43 yards, was called for offensive pass interference on Sheppard, who blanketed him all game, negating a touchdown. Then Stephen Gostkowski ended up missing a 32-yard field-goal attempt.
The Eagles went 80 yards after that, scoring on an 8-yard TD pass from Feeley to Reggie Brown.
But the Patriots finally made the big play at the end.
“That’s what it’s about in the NFL, making plays,” Samuel said. “That’s how you get here and you stay around.”
It’s also about winning, no matter how close the game.
“The goal is to win the game and we did that,” Brady said. “I wish we could have played better. I wish everybody could have played better. We won so we can be happy.”
Welker’s catches and yards were both a career high. He played three seasons in Miami before coming to the Patriots in the offseason. … Feeley beat the Patriots 29-28 on Dec. 20, 2004 when he was with the Dolphins. It was one two losses that year for New England, which went on to beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl. … New England lost linebacker Rosevelt Colvin with a foot injury and cornerback Randall Gay with a back injury. Neither returned.