It was a snowstorm powerful enough to deflate the Minneapolis Metrodome. But it could not deflate was the New England Patriots offense. The Patriots set a new season high with 475 yards of total offense, more than enough to carry them to a 36-7 victory over the Chicago Bears and clinch a spot in the playoffs. Combined with a New York Jets loss to the Miami Dolphins, New England now enjoys a two-game lead in the AFC East and is tied for the best record in the NFL at 11-2.
Patriots Score on Six Straight Possessions
The Patriots went three-and-out to open the game, perhaps giving the Bears some hope that they could hang with terrifyingly efficient Patriots offense. But any hope they might have felt after one defensive stand was killed on the next Patriots possession. Tom Brady could not be fazed by the snow, the wind or the starting field position (their own 15). He calmly marched the team 85 yards, capping off a drive in which he went 6/8 for 68 yards with a 7-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski, putting the Patriots up 7-0 with just under six minutes left in the first quarter. Gronkowski ran straight at the always-crafty and menacing Brian Urlacher, stopped in front of him and turned around. It required perfect timing for Brady to find Gronkowski, made all the more impressive by the gusting snow that sometimes reached whiteout conditions.
The key play on that drive was a 24-yard strike to Wes Welker, who was able to keep his footing enough to drag Bears defenders for almost 9 yards while being tackled, finally going down at the Chicago 10-yard line. Although the Patriots sometimes struggled to tackle on special teams (the Bears managed 28 yards per kickoff return), the Bears were the far weaker tackling defense. Numerous times the Patriots runners barreled straight through the teeth of the Bears defense for extra yardage. Numerous times the wide receivers dragged the corners behind them after making the catch.
After the defense forced a second-straight punt by the Bears offense, Brady went right back at it, this time starting even deeper, at the New England 13-yard line. This time it was the running game that did most of the work. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 38 of his 87 rushing yards, including a 17-yarder from the Chicago 20-yard line that broke a tackle. Then Danny Woodhead punched it into the end zone from 3 yards out, putting the Patriots up 14-0 in the second. The Patriots running backs combined for 126 total yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots next scored six points on two successful Shayne Graham field goals, then got the ball back one more time before the half. On third-and-9 from the New England 41-yard line, the Bears defense lined up casually, figuring the Patriots would not risk a deep ball through the storm. But that’s exactly what they did, since the Bears defense had played so anemically in the first half that it was hardly a risk at all. Deion Branch made a move on cornerback Charles Tillman at the line, and Tillman let him go by without trying to jam him. Brady then lofted an easy, floating pass to Branch, who then had a clear path to the end zone. Branch beat the pursuing safety and put the Patriots up 33-0 (Graham missed the point-after) at halftime. Branch finished the game with eight catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. Brady finished the game 27/40 for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
The Patriots ended their streak of scoring possessions at six, on a 29-yard field goal to put them up 36-0 with just under 11 minutes left in the third quarter. They didn’t score again, but they didn’t have to.
Turnovers Kill Bears’ Chances
The starkest contrast between the Patriots and the Bears was in turnovers. The Patriots committed none (except one on downs), and Brady has now thrown 268 consecutive passes without an interception. The Bears turned the ball over four times, and it hurt the team every time. First, Devin McCourty stripped wide receiver Johnny Knox after a 1-yard completion to the Chicago 39 in the second quarter. Gary Guyton, playing more this game due to Brandon Spikes’ four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug violations, grabbed the loose ball and ran it in for the touchdown, putting the Patriots up 21-0. Later in the second, defensive end Eric Moore stripped Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and Jerod Mayo recovered it at the Chicago 17. This lead to the second field goal, a 25-yarder that put the Patriots up 27-0.
Even when the Patriots were not scoring off Bears turnovers, they were still using them to kill Bears scoring drives and keep Chicago from getting back in the game. After a 61-yard Devin Hester kickoff return set up a 1-yard Chester Taylor touchdown run to cut the Patriots lead to 36-7, the Bears penetrated into Patriots territory again on their next possession, which came with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. But on second-and-10 from the New England 26, Guyton dropped back into coverage and intercepted Cutler’s pass. The Patriots punted at the end of the ensuing possession, but by the time Chicago got the ball back they had just over nine minutes to score four times. That possession also ended in turnover, this time with Brandon Meriweather picking off Cutler in the end zone, after Cutler had been flushed and tried to throw it away. The Patriots took over, ran enough plays to put the game out of reach (including a beautiful 28-yard floated to Brandon Tate, who caught the ball in a fully extended layout dive), then knelt down three times to end the game.
This game had all the makings of a “trap game.” The Patriots were playing on short rest, on the road, in the snow, against a tough opponent, and having just defeated a division rival in a game whose atmosphere and intensity would be impossible to replicate. But the Patriots proved just how good they were, building up an insurmountable first-half lead and never looking back. The Bears managed three sacks and six defensed passes, but the third-ranked defense in the NFL never made a play that actually swung momentum back in their favor. The Patriots controlled the ball almost twice as much as the Bears (39:41 to 20:19), and the defense held Chicago to just 185 total yards, including only 42 on the ground (and half of that was from two Cutler scrambles). Any still-held belief that Chicago is somehow grittier because it plays in the snow was put to rest by a Patriots team that showed what real teams can do, regardless of the weather. The Patriots continue to chew up and spit out the other “elite” teams in the NFL. Week in and week out, they prove that no matter how good these other teams think they might be, the Patriots are still the team to beat.