There have been times the last two seasons when Bill Parcells wondered why he got back into coaching. Now he knows.

His New England Patriots are rolling into the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak, and all is right with his world."This is about as happy as I've been in a long time," Parcells said after Saturday's 13-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, who despite the defeat also clinched a postseason spot. "This is personally gratifying. Yes, very much so."

Parcells cited health concerns in retiring as New York Giants coach after winning the 1991 Super Bowl. He certainly wasn't feeling very well after going 5-11 last season, his first in New England, and starting 3-6 this year.

Though he never thought his Patriots (10-6) still had a chance to win the AFC East - as they will if Detroit beats Miami on Sunday night - he never surrendered.

"The lesson is that it's always a little premature to talk about the contenders or the (non-contenders) because a lot could happen," Parcells said. "This is perfect evidence . . . where you can win seven straight and make something on the last day of the season."

The Bears (9-7) know what Parcells means. They went into December in first place in the NFC Central and thought they'd be the host of a playoff game.

But they lost three of their final four games and qualified through the back door only because of victories by the Giants over Dallas and by Atlanta over Arizona.

"Being in the playoffs was our goal back in training camp," Chicago coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But you're saying this after a loss and it's tough to be overly excited today. I think tomorrow, when we wake up and assess the whole year, we'll know we're still alive and we'll go from there."

A victory would have kept the Bears alive for the NFC Central title. Instead, they'll go on the road against the division champion - either Minnesota, Detroit or Green Bay - in next weekend's opening round.

"I was so emotional, so psyched to play, to do the right thing, to win," Chicago defensive end Alonzo Spellman said. "When you don't do that, it kind of messes with you a little bit."

Twice in the second half, Chicago failed to tie the game with field goals. With 3:10 left in the third quarter, Kevin Butler's 38-yard attempt was blocked by Troy Barnett. Then, with 8:05 to play, Butler's 36-yarder sailed wide left.

Butler, who earlier Saturday became the first Chicago player with 1,000 career points, missed an overtime 40-yarder in the Dec. 1 loss at Minnesota that began the Bears' current 1-3 slump.

The Patriots finally iced their playoff bid with 2:32 remaining, when Drew Bledsoe threw a 3-yard TD pass to Leroy Thompson.

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Bledsoe capped his record-setting second season by passing for 277 yards.

"I'd like to think that there isn't too much on the field that's really going to rattle me," he said. "In big games, that's when you have to play better.

Bledsoe finished 23-of-38. His 691 passes this season moved him past Warren Moon's 1991 record (655). His 400 completions fell four shy of Moon's record in that category.

Bledsoe connected three times with Ben Coates, just enough to give Coates the NFL record for receptions by a tight end in a season, 96. Todd Christensen caught 95 passes in 1986.

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