Patriots surging at the right time
New England didn’t need a snow plow to keep paving its path toward Super Bowl XLV.
Twenty-eight years to the day when a paroled stadium worker cleared a spot for the Patriots to kick the game-winning field goal against Miami, New England once again was forced to play in brutal, wintry conditions. Only this wasn’t a 3-0 nail-biter.
Instead, the Patriots were on fire against a division-leading Chicago Bears squad that suffered a complete meltdown.
New England became the first team to clinch a playoff berth with Sunday's 36-7 victory that was every bit as lopsided as the score indicates. This game was decided by halftime. The Patriots led 33-0 and had dominated the Bears in yardage (273 to 33) and first downs (15 to 2). Chicago was so pitiful that Bears players and coaches were showered with boos when entering the locker room.
On the bright side, at least fans could leave Soldier Field early to get out of the elements knowing they weren’t going to miss an epic comeback.
“We got our butts kicked,” Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “The Patriots are the best team in the AFC. They came in here to our field, our weather and pounded us.”
For the second straight week, New England (11-2) dismantled a nine-win opponent. The Bears (9-4) were made to look just as pathetic as the New York Jets did in last Monday night’s 45-3 loss. Making this blowout even more impressive, New England was playing on the road after a short week of practice.
The weather was as awful as the Bears. The second-quarter temperature was 17 degrees with a wind-chill of negative-5. The steady 35-mph winds that gusted even higher caused snow on Soldier Field to frequently rise in smoke-like puffs. The field crew faced the daunting task of trying to keep the yard-markers and end-zone lines visible by constantly sweeping the field between possessions.
The Patriots didn’t use a snow plow for Shayne Graham’s extra points and field goals — that’s now illegal following the 1982 Miami-New England game — but teammates did boot snow around the spot of the hold to try to give him steadier footing.
“One time, Tom (Brady) threw to me and I thought I would have to jump to get it. It ended up coming down to my belly area,” said New England’s Wes Welker, who topped 100 receiving yards, as did Deion Branch. “The gusts were tough at times but we worked through it.”
New England and Chicago could be forced to play in these conditions again if they play at home in the postseason, and the Patriots looked far more comfortable in the biting chill.
“It was one of those days where a lot of people would be cozied-up near the fireplace drinking hot chocolate,” Brady said. “We work on Sundays.”
What the Patriots did in the cold worked just as well as everything else they've done. New England shredded a defense that was holding teams to the third-fewest points (15.9). Brady (27 of 40 for 369 yards and two touchdowns) peppered Chicago’s cover-two scheme with short throws, then connected with Branch on a 59-yard scoring strike to end the first half. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead channeled the spirits of Mark Van Eeghen and Mosi Tatupu by combining for 108 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Defensively, New England’s young unit continues to jell. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty forced a second-quarter Johnny Knox fumble that linebacker Gary Guyton returned 35 yards for a touchdown. And Chicago’s shaky offensive line couldn’t adequately protect quarterback Jay Cutler. He was sacked twice and repeatedly hurried in a 12-of-26, 152-yard effort that included two interceptions.
“Our main thing was being physical and playing aggressive,” Patriots defensive end Vince Wilfork said. “We didn’t have a bunch of (defensive) calls in. We just liked the matchups. We knew we had to try and get to Cutler and keep him in the pocket because he’s dangerous on the run. For the most part, we did OK.”
“OK” is as much gloating as you’ll get from a Patriots team that clearly has its sights set on far more than just reaching the playoffs. Also, such a rout again raises questions about whether Chicago should be considered among the elite teams. However, the Bears remain in control of the NFC North with Green Bay (8-5) being upset at Detroit.
“Sometimes you need a good whipping and that’s what we got,” Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs said. “A loss like this can be good if it comes at the right time.”
In their best-case scenario, the Bears learn from this experience and regroup in a wide-open conference. That would generate the possibility of a Super Bowl rematch with New England, which is separating itself from the rest of the AFC and securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
A Patriots-Bears battle in Super Bowl XLV would invoke memories of another notable NFL anniversary. It was 25 seasons ago that Chicago won its lone Lombardi Trophy with a 46-10 rout of the Patriots.
Judging by Sunday, there’s no reason to believe history will repeat itself.