It's that Calvinistic guilt, man.
All week long, everybody in Boston was saying it--the guys on the radio were saying it; the guys on the TV were saying it; the guys in the paper were saying it; hell, even I was saying it: the Bears game was a huge test for this year's Patriots squad. If they lost to the Bears, it would be the fourth loss--and the third at home--to a quality team, and a sign that your 2006 Patriots are probably fraudulent. The corollary: if they could hang with the NFL's No. 1 defense and the team to beat in the NFC, then it would serve as Pats fans' official permission to hope.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my friend Brian, a native of the Chicago area and an avid Bears fan, had been talking shit to me literally all season about football in general, the Patriots specifically, and in the weeks leading up to this particular showdown, about the game. Going in, I knew I was in for a world of hurt if the Bears won--the crap I would have to take from Brian was sure to be immediate, unending, and merciless. He and I had also struck a bet that involved respective No. 54 jerseys and cubicle-decorating for the loser, as well as pride, honor, glory and satisfaction for the winner.
So. The game happened. And we won. And all day on the radio today, on the TV, in the papers, the talk was not of our promised permission to hope, but--what else?--how the Patriots got lucky, all the turnovers, Seau being broken, and woe is me.
I marched right up to Brian in the office and handed him my Bruschi jersey to wear. I put my Brady bobblehead on his desk. I took his picture and posted it on the Internet for all to see. He was a really good sport about it, and by the end of the day...I kind of felt bad.
Like I said. It's funny, how much we New Englanders enjoy kicking ourselves in the ass.
And it's true--it was a sloppy game. Nine turnovers in all, though that appeared to have been the game plan from the Chicago side, and you could see it as encouraging that the Patriots all but matched them in forcing fumbles. And then there was the officiating--the disastrous, outrageous officiating. Don't even get me started. The Patriots offense still stalled at times--note Brady's run for a pivotal first down in the third quarter. Brady is not, to understate things wildly, a scrambling quarterback. The US Postal Service is faster. A snail with a safe on its back is faster. I'm no offensive coordinator, but Brady having to scramble into the jaws of Brian Urlacher doesn't seem like it should be a scripted part of the game plan.
But--maybe because I was actually there at the game, as Patriots fans sent spittle and Sam Adams flying fieldward from the third deck after every horseshit pass interference call, and hollered things like "Break his neck!!" on every third down. Maybe it's because I knew so much was riding on the game that I found myself willing thoughts like "Block the field goal. Block the field goal. Block the field goal." at the field (that one actually worked!). Maybe it's because visions of being forced to wear a Rex Grossman jersey at the office were dancing in my head...
It was a great game. Experientially, anyway--it was an utterly fantastic football game.
Basically, there are two ways to look at it: as a sloppy game, from the offensive side, or as an intense, brutal, hard-nosed defensive masterpiece.
As the game ended on Asante Samuel's third interception of the afternoon, I thrust both fists in the air while screwing up my face in a primal scream of victory, and chose the latter.
Brady's first down--my favorite moment of the season so far, and among my top five favorite Patriots moments ever--can be looked at in two ways, too. The oh-shit scramble of an offense falling apart at the seams, and, yes, a lucky play...
Or a perfect microcosm of the stupendous, inspiring, often magical way Tom Brady makes us believe. Because even if he had to do it his damn self, the Patriots were gonna get that crucial first down. Even if he had to do it his damn self while juking Brian Urlacher, i.e. staring Death directly in the face.
If Urlacher had gotten hold of Brady, I guarantee you we'd have been watching Matt Cassell for the rest of the night, if not longer. Brady had to know this when he read the field and saw no choice but to run, and had to be keenly aware of how slow and unused to running he is. He had to know before he took the first step that he had no business whatsoever doing what he was about to do.
And then he did it.
He faked out the best linebacker in the game, dodged a few other pursuing Bears, and plowed forward toward the red zone with his long, loping, slow-motion strides. After the whistles finally blew, he dropped theatrically to one knee (while beside him, Ben Watson split his sides laughing) and gestured, "FIRST DOWN!"
He just up...and did it.
It's moments like that where that Calvinistic guilt and Irish Catholic pessimism and bleak, wintry self-doubts that form the collective psyche of New England have no choice but to drop, if only for a moment. It's moments like that that sell No. 12 jerseys all over town.
And it's moments like the one where Brian told me about his plan to make me wear not an Urlacher jersey, but a Peyton Manning jersey, that make me stop feeling bad about making him pay up on our bet. And also make me wish I'd picked up the Globe this morning, the better to wallpaper his cubicle with the sports section.