FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The question was to have been this:
At what point should Patriots coach Bill Belichick pull All-World quarterback Tom Brady in last night's game with the Eagles?
With a 30-point lead? How about 40?
It was a foregone conclusion that the Pats simply would rout the Eagles, thumb their noses at NFL convention about rolling up the score, and trot off the Gillette Stadium field having barely broken a sweat.
The only element of suspense would be how frosty would the postgame greeting be between Belichick and Andy Reid.
Instead, the Pats were tested to within an inch of their undefeated lives.
Make that their barely undefeated, 11-0 lives, after they outlasted the Eagles, 31-28.
And it took a fourth-quarter come-from-behind effort, capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by Laurence Maroney with 7:20 to play, to accomplish that much.
That, and a pair of interceptions by Pats cornerback Asante Samuel, including one for a touchdown.
Not that the Pats were buying into all the hype.
"We want to win the game," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Period. No matter how we do it. Whether by one point, or 10 points, or 20. As long as we get that victory at the end of the day, that's all we care about."
Said Brady, "I think everyone wished we'd played better, and everybody could have played better. But we won. We clinched the AFC East championship [their fifth in a row], we've won 11 straight games. There's a lot to be happy about."
Still, no one counted on the Pats having to eke out a three-point win.
Brady was not supposed to be outdone by A.J. Feeley.
Randy Moss was not supposed to be outshone by Greg Lewis.
And the Patriots - who are (make that were) being proclaimed in these parts as the best team in football history - were not supposed to have any trouble putting away the Eagles.
Yet, all of that happened for much of the night.
Even so, the Pats weren't bothered much by being pushed so hard.
Quite the contrary.
"It builds up your character," said receiver Donté Stallworth, a former Eagle. "It builds your emotions at the end of the game. We need those kind of games. They can only help us."
Playing from behind is not exactly a Patriots strong suit.
But that's only because they rarely have had to do it.
The Eagles made them do that twice.
New England had trailed just three times all season, and one of those deficits, against the Dallas Cowboys, lasted a mere 1:48.
Indianapolis was the only other team to hold a lead on the Patriots - twice, in fact - and we all know how that turned out.
So for the Pats to actually have to fight their way into a 24-21 halftime lead rated as something of a news flash.
What's more, it was very un-Patriotlike for Brady to march his team on an extended drive early in the second half, down to the Eagles' 4, and still come away empty-handed.
But such was the case when Moss was flagged for offensive interference while hauling in a TD pass, when Brady misfired badly on three subsequent passes, and ultra-reliable kicker Stephen Gostkowski (11-for-12 entering the game, 6-for-6 inside the 40) shanked a 32-yard gimme.
The Patriots' defense, which had preserved leads previously, found that containing Feeley and Co. was tougher than anyone would have thought.
Even with Samuel's 40-yard scoring pick of Feeley on the third play of the game thrown in.
But Brady is, after all, Brady, and did find the means to drive his team downfield to the winning score.
And the Patriots are, after all, the Patriots.
Which is probably why, in the end, they did manage to snuff out Philly's upset hopes.
"I think a lot of people got spoiled," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, "and have expected so much out of us. I think you saw some resiliency. Every game's not going to be a blowout. We just have to go out there and play, and that's what we did tonight."
Stallworth, who left the Eagles after one season to sign with New England last offseason, enjoyed a fine night, grabbing four balls for 54 yards.
He admitted to being especially psyched to play, and beat, his old mates.
As if he needed any extra inspiration, he had his old Eagles jersey hanging in his locker to pump himself up.
"I just wanted to bring it in," he said, "as a reminder of who I was playing. Nothing special." *