By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
You know what’s incredibly nice about the Pats laying another massive drubbing on their most recent opponent, the Chicago Bears? Not the 36 points scored, giving the Pats 196 over five games since that excruciating defeat at Cleveland on Nov. 7, good for 39.5 per game. Not the seven points allowed to the Bears, barely increasing the total of points given up since the third quarter of the Thanksgiving game at Detroit to a measly 10 over nine-plus quarters. Not even the 475 total yards of offense, the most the Pats have accumulated in a game this season, and accomplished in a driving snowstorm, no less.
Nope. None of these amazing stats are what I’m getting at. What I’m getting at is the fact that for the second consecutive week, for the second consecutive report card, everyone and everything gets a straight A. Which makes my job as grader that much easier. Thanks, Pats!
In all seriousness though, it was obviously another banner day for the Pats, who are now officially, universally, indubitably the team to beat with just three more regular season games left until the post-season. Facing their second straight nine-win, first-place foe, the Pats ran roughshod again, riding 26 second quarter points to a 33-0 halftime lead and an eventual 36-7 triumph. The story was very similar to the one penned last Monday night against the Jets, with the Pats doing whatever they wanted to near perfection on both sides of the ball and erasing any doubt regarding the final outcome well before the half. For another week, Tom Brady was brilliant, enhancing his MVP credentials with a virtuoso, 29-of-40, 369 yard, two TD performance in which he was in complete control all day once again. Brady has now not thrown an INT in eight games and an astronomical 268 pass attempts and for a fifth consecutive week, the Pats committed zero turnovers while forcing four more. Defensively, the Pats posted their second excellent week in a row, holding the Bears to just 185 yards and 42 total plays while never, ever appearing threatened. And of course, the Pats were the far better prepared team, running their offense as though they were in a dome as opposed to a snowy field with 50 mph wind gusts whipping around them. Under Bill Belichick, the Pats are now 10-0 when it snows. I’m not sure what the Bears record is under Lovie Smith in those conditions but it wasn’t hard to see on Sunday that no matter what he may have done to get his team ready for the elements, Chicago didn’t want any part of them. It was domination station at Soldier Field, the Pats express careening through another stop en route to another huge, impossible-to-criticize-in-any-way win. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, still shorter and so much sweeter.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A
There’s already been some sufficient gushing over Brady in the report card but you know what? There’s always room for more. In the first half, with the entire population of the greater Chicagoland area expecting the Pats to come out running, Brady spread five receivers out to either side of the formation and proceeded to run the pass offense as though he was playing in the Superdome. He completed 13-of-21 passes for 195 yards and two scores before the intermission and, with the exception of one end zone throw that was tipped and then barely dropped by Bears safety Chris Harris, appeared completely unencumbered by the swirling winds and near whiteout conditions. He just sees things better than everyone else. The Bears played a lot of cover 2 defense and zone coverage, undoubtedly to slow the Pats passing attack, so Brady simply found the soft areas on nearly every throw and delivered one completion after another with pinpoint accuracy. Sound familiar? On his 59-yard scoring pass to Deion Branch on the final play of the first half, he could have kneeled down and headed into the locker room with a 27-point lead. But naturally, he saw something he could take advantage of, so when the safety on Branch’s side backpedaled straight up the seam to stay near Rob Gronkowski, who was coming underneath, he pumped, watched Branch streak right by flat-footed corner Charles Tillman (who should have been benched for such a pathetic effort) and floated a perfect ball that hit Branch in stride for the TD. It was practically poetry. After Sunday’s game, he now has passed for 1,036 yards and 10 TDs his last three times out. It was his third straight 300-yard effort, and fourth in five games. He doesn’t deserve just an A, he deserves an A+, maybe even more, if there was such a thing.
Brady’s receivers were complicit in this week’s extraordinary performance. Branch, the same Branch who was referred to by ESPN moron Cris Carter a couple weeks ago as, “just another guy who disappears during games a lot,” put up a career-high 151 yards on his eight catches, and now has 14 catches for 328 yards and five TDs the past three games. Wes Welker had eight more grabs, did his usual, aggressive, over-the-middle, one-first down-after-another thing and was open all day. And Brandon Tate made arguable the catch of the year, laying out into a full dive to reel in a fourth quarter sideline throw. The tight ends continued to shine, with Gronk catching his seventh TD by boxing out Brian Durlacher on the goal line and creeping even closer to Ben Coates’s franchise record for the position of nine. And Aaron Hernandez, who stone-handed a second quarter throw that just missed being a fumble and thus the Pats first turnover in five weeks, managed a couple of solid grabs, twisting up his 12th of 13 games this season with at least one grab.
The running game was efficient and then some once again as well. The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis looked the Bears No. 2 ranked rush defense right in the eye and, with the help of more superior play out of his offensive line (led by Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Mankins and Matt Light, all of whom were positively outstanding), busted out another 87 yards and averaged at least four yards per attempt for the fifth week in a row and sixth time in his last seven games. Having a guy like BJGE running the way he has been only makes Brady even more dangerous given how good the QB is at play fakes, and good old Law Firm has shown no signs of slowing down with the playoffs on the horizon. And finally, it wouldn’t be fair to exclude Danny Woodhead from all the good will. Rudy 2 scored another TD on a three-yard plunge that took all of his little-ness to complete, as he slithered underneath any oncoming tacklers to get to the goal line and score for the fifth time this season. Everything works for the Pats on offense, everything. Even in a blizzard.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: A
It would be tempting to frame this entire section around Devin McCourty, who provided yet another award-worthy performance on Sunday in barely one half before leaving with a (gulp) rib injury. But instead, I will eat a little humble pie of my own and give the maddest of many mad props to the one, the only, Gary Guyton. Now that Brandon Spikes is out four weeks with a scorching case of being a knucklehead, Guyton will be on the field in far more situations than he was over the course of the first 12 games and for his debut in that role, he provided his best game as a pro, by far. Guyton made two huge plays and while it’s slightly tempting to say that both were cases of being in the right place at the right time, that would be seriously nitpicky and we’re not riding that train these days. Instead, let’s look at both as excellent, instinctive work by a young player who is clearly improving (and yes, I just typed those words about Gary Guyton).
On the first, after a textbook strip by McCourty on Bears receiver Johnny Knox, Guyton raced over to the play, scooped up the ball and was gone, sprinting into the end zone with a flourish. It was a heads up play that not only displayed strong awareness on Guyton’s part but also showed off his athleticism, easily the biggest reason he’s gotten so many chances to be a regular part of this linebacking corps over the past two seasons. Guyton’s second big play occurred with the Bears driving for what would have been their second straight TD in the third quarter only to have QB Jay Cutler (12-of-26, 152 yards, two INTs, one fumble lost, 32.9 passer rating, one boneheaded decision after another) literally throw the ball right to him. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Cutler temporarily blacked out due to the cold and thought Guyton was wearing a navy blue jersey. Still, give Guyton a lot of credit for catching the ball, which was knuckling in the wind, and being where he was supposed to be. It was comforting to see Guyton step up the way he did. He’ll get another chance against a better offense than Chicago’s on Sunday night when the Green Bay Packers hit Foxboro.
Elsewhere, McCourty did his usual thing against the pass and also made a sick tackle on a third-and-short running play on which he slipped under his blocker and stood up Bears back Matt Forte for a short loss that forced a punt. The Pats had better pray that McCourty’s rib injury isn’t too serious as he’s become the best, most indispensable player on their entire defense and that includes both Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork. Even though they were down three TDs with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, the Bears never got moving running the ball. Forte had averaged over 92 YPG the past four weeks but was held to 25 yards on just nine carries. Spikes’s absence led to some concern regarding the run defense but Wilfork, Mayo and Guyton, with excellent support from the rest of the Pats healthy D-linemen, as well as Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich and newcomer Eric Moore, who came out of nowhere to rack up four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Gerard Warren was monstrous from his D-line spot, getting to Cutler a handful of times including once for a sack. And the secondary more than held its own for a second week in a row, with Kyle Arrington submitting a big game and Brandon Meriweather making a well-timed, end zone INT of a shitty throw by Cutler. This defense has given up 10 points in two games. That may be a coincidence, but if it can come up big this week against the Packers, it will officially be a pattern. Barring a calamity with McCourty’s ribs (let’s hope he’s never met the Red Sox’ “Glass” Jacoby Ellsbury), the D will have a major opportunity to keep the improvement coming.
Special Teams/Coaching/Everything Else: A
Here’s where it would be safe – and fair – to get picky. The special teams, although excellent on kick coverage, especially since most of that coverage was against the transcendent Devin Hester, was responsible for the only gaffe the Pats made all day. Julian Edelman rang up a sensational, 71-yard punt return for a TD late in the second quarter that was called back to due to a holding penalty on Dane Fletcher. That’s it. That may deserve a worse grade (OK, forget may deserve, it DOES deserve). But why mess with all of these sunshine and puppy vibes? No reason to whatsoever. Even Shayne Graham’s missed extra point will be let go, in part because he made three field goals in 50 mph winds. Let the good times roll.
Which can only lead us then to the coaching. Apparently, Smith’s pre-game speech focused a war veteran set to be honored at the game for his courage in staying with and aiding wounded fellow soldiers on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Remember to always be there and play for the guy next to you, was the general gist. So the Bears went out to the field and quit, roughly a quarter and a half in. And it wasn’t just sort of quitting, it was a full-scale capitulation. Especially on offense, members of the home team looked all day like they didn’t want to be there under any circumstances. There was no fire, no urgency, no leadership, no nothing. Sure, the players must be held more accountable for such a disgraceful effort than anyone. But the fact that Smith and his staff received the kind of performance they did should raise a lot of red flags for that team going forward. Will it happen again if they play a playoff game under similar conditions? Who knows? Regardless, the Bears lack of motivation on a team wide level provided yet another opportunity to examine the Pats operation and how superior it is to pretty much everyone else’s.
Honestly, can you imagine this group of players embarrassing itself the way the Bears did on Sunday? Maybe last season, when pricks like Adalius Thomas, Shawn Springs, Laurence Maroney and others roamed the Gillette Stadium halls. But not this year. Because this year, everyone is on board. And the reason why is because they all believe in Belichick’s way. Situational football, being ready to play in any and all conditions, playing smart and just doing your job to ensure success, not making dumb mistakes, being all about the team first, last and every time in between. All of that stuff. There’s really not much more to say than that. It would make sense to point out that the Pats did what they normally do on both sides of the ball despite the weather and that’s a credit to the coaches. But we all know that already. Of all the major sports, football is the one in which coaching, especially in games, matters most, from the head coach right on down the line. Belichick and his staff are living proof of that, as much as anyone.