FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The stage is set for the New England Patriots.

They play Sunday on a bright green synthetic field that replaced a divot-filled mudpit. They have the NFL’s best post-Thanksgiving record the past five years. And Tom Brady is on target again.

But here come the Chicago Bears with a very good chance to spoil the show.

“It’s been a pretty interesting couple of days watching these Bears,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It might actually be fun if we didn’t have to play them.”

He’s seen video of some of their league-high 29 takeaways, and very few touchdowns by opponents. The Bears have allowed the fewest points and yards in the league. Only one team has scored more.

Their record reflects that.

At 9-1, they’re tied with Indianapolis for the NFL’s best record. The Patriots are 7-3 after last Sunday’s 35-0 win at Green Bay that stopped their first losing streak in four seasons. Brady threw four TD passes in that game after being intercepted five times in the previous two.

“We have to play better than we’ve played at home this year and we’re playing against a very, very good team,” Brady said. “This is when the good teams really start to rise up.”

The Patriots are 33-6 after the last five Thanksgivings, including playoff games, and have won four AFC East titles and finished second once. Three of those seasons ended in Super Bowl victories.

“Whenever you get a chance to go against a team like that, you are anxious to see how you match up and especially on the road in a hostile environment,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “You have to play the best to see exactly where you are.”

New England is 17-2 in its last 19 games against NFC teams. The Bears’ only loss this year has been against Miami of the AFC East. But the Patriots are just 2-3 at home, although they installed the new surface after a 17-14 loss to the New York Jets on Nov. 12 that followed a heavy rain that created a sloppy field.

“We’ve just got to go out and play hard, regardless if we’re playing in the parking lot or we’re playing on FieldTurf or grass or Bermuda grass or my front lawn,” Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. “You’ve got to get it done.”

Easier said than done.

Seven of Chicago’s nine wins have been by at least 18 points. They started the season with a 26-0 shutout at Green Bay and added a 10-0 win at the Jets last Sunday.

The last time two teams met one week after holding opponents scoreless the previous week was in Week 15 in 2003 when New England and Jacksonville did it, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Patriots beat the Jaguars 27-13, part of a 15-game winning streak that ended with their second Super Bowl victory.

This year, the Patriots have allowed the second-fewest points, 11 more than Chicago’s 120, and fourth-fewest yards in the NFL. Pretty good, but not as good as the aggressive Bears. And New England has 11 fewer takeaways than Chicago.

“That’s all that our coaches talk about for the most part,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “We just run to the football, that’s the No. 1 thing. If you don’t run on defense, you’re not going to play.”

The Bears have returned two fumbles for touchdowns.

“They’re like a school of piranhas,” Belichick said. “You make one mistake and they pounce on it.”

They even do it on special teams, where Devin Hester has two returns for touchdowns. On offense, Rex Grossman will throw against a secondary that probably will be without three injured starters.

“Rex is definitely about the next play,” Smith said. “He has been under fire before and when he does do something not as good, he can’t wait for that next opportunity to get it right.”

After losing 31-13 to Miami, he came back with a 38-20 win over the New York Giants in which he threw three touchdowns and one interception.

Chicago’s secondary will be without safety Mike Brown, who is on injured reserve, and cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., who was suspended one game by the NFL on Wednesday for his role in a restaurant altercation.

Chicago has allowed 12.0 points per game compared to the 12.4 average of the 1985 Bears who beat the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl.

“We’re reminded of that all the time. Everyone’s talking about the 1985 Bears around here,” Urlacher said. “But, at the same time, it’s 2006 and we’ve got to look forward to what we’re trying to do this year.”

The Patriots have scored 23.6 points per game, ninth in the league, and have Brady to throw and Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon to run.

The new field should help them cut.

“I like FieldTurf,” Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. “We’ve played on it the last two weeks, so I think we’re used to it.”

To Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs, though, his team’s performance will affect the outcome more than the new field or road teams’ success in the stadium.

“I don’t care if they’re on the road. I don’t care if they’re at my Momma’s house,” he said. “The main thing is, we need a win.”

AP-ES-11-22-06 2123EST


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