CHICAGO - Maybe the best way to sum up the Patriots’ domination of the Chicago Bears yesterday is this: In the first half, when New England racked up 33 points, the Bears managed just 33 total yards.
That was all it needed.
The Patriots cruised to a 36-7 win on an incredibly windy day in the Windy City, a victory that clinched them a postseason berth, marking the seventh time in the last eight seasons that New England will be a playoff participant. The win, combined with an embarrassing home loss for the Jets at the hands of Miami, puts the Patriots one step closer to clinching the AFC East and a first-round bye.
They are now up by two games on New York with three games to play.
“I’m proud of our football team today,” said coach Bill Belichick, his cheeks still a bit pink from the cold. “It was a short week, coming off a tough game with the Jets, and then coming in here and playing the Bears - it was a big challenge for us, but they really rose to the occasion.”
Snow fell on Soldier Field throughout the game, enough that during every television timeout stadium workers were on the field with brooms, clearing the yardage lines while a small tractor zipped around the field’s perimeter, making the sidelines and end lines visible.
The game-time temperature was 26 degrees with winds around 30 miles per hour - and gusts above 50 m.p.h. Players on both sides said the wind was the biggest factor, not the cold.
It was Chicago football weather, only it was the Bears who went into hibernation.
“They came in here, our field, our weather, and pounded us,” Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher said.
It was the second straight game New England faced a team that talked tough but did little to back it up once the game kicked off. Going into last Monday’s game, it was Jets coach Rex Ryan saying the Patriots “should be concerned” about facing his team; this week it was Urlacher saying his squad was the best in the NFL, and the Bears saying they were the more physical team.
New England heard what was said in Chicago, but waited until yesterday to respond.
“We do our talking on the field. If teams think they can talk themselves into a win, that’s great, but that’s not our style,” defender Tully Banta-Cain said. “The game is won on the field, not in the press. We were able to say all the right things today.”
“Our game plan was to come out and play physical,” said safety James Sanders. “They challenged us this week, talked about how they were the more physical team. When the headline is strength vs. strength - their defense against our offense - we take offense to that. We just get better every week.”
Very early on, it looked as though Urlacher would be able to put his money where his mouth was. During the game’s opening drive, he had back-to-back tackles, each for a 2-yard loss, the second of which forced the Patriots into a three-and-out.
After that, however, everything seemed to go New England’s way.
Chicago had a quick punt of its own, forced by Devin McCourty stopping running back Matt Forte 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage on third and 1.
Starting from their 15-yard line, Tom Brady (27 for 40 for 369 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) and the Patriot offense set out on a 12-play touchdown drive. During the march, BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran through a hole created by Logan Mankins for a 12-yard gain against the league’s second-ranked run defense; Wes Welker made a sliding 18-yard catch and then dragged defenders for a 24-yard catch-and-run, and Rob Gronkowski posted up on Urlacher, making a 7-yard catch for the touchdown.
On the snap before the pass to Gronkowski, Urlacher batted up Brady’s pass intended for Deion Branch. Safety Chris Harris got his fingers on the ball, bobbled it, and was unable to pull in the interception.
Chicago picked up three first downs on its next possession, but punted at midfield for the last play of the first quarter.
The second quarter was when the Patriots, at 11-2 and co-holders of the best record in the NFL with the Falcons, put the game out of reach.
Another long drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Danny Woodhead; on the Bears’ next offensive play, Jay Cutler (12 for 26 for 152 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) passed to Johnny Knox. McCourty, in coverage, stripped the ball, which was picked up by Gary Guyton and returned 35 yards for the linebacker’s second TD of the year.
“It was a great play by Devin,” said Guyton, who saw more playing time because of the suspension of rookie Brandon Spikes. “The ball was just rolling by itself. I was looking at the ball and looking at the goal line; there was nobody between the goal line, so I just scooped it and scored. It was a good feeling.”
Chicago fumbled again later in the quarter, this one recovered by Jerod Mayo; the Patriots turned it into a 25-yard field goal by Shayne Graham, who was 3 for 3 on 3-pointers despite the conditions. He did push an extra point wide right.
As the seconds ticked away to halftime, some Patriots coaches apparently wanted Brady to take a knee and let New England go into the locker room with a 27-0 cushion.
Brady wouldn’t hear of it, and on the last play of the half found an open Branch along the left sideline - a broken coverage led to the receiver being left alone, and he sprinted to the pylon for his fourth touchdown in the last three weeks.
The Patriots scored once more, on their first possession of the second half, on Graham’s field goal.
They didn’t need any more.
On a five-game winning streak - with four of those coming against teams with winning records - New England has put the rest of the NFL on notice that it is a team to be reckoned with, no matter what the elements.
“It’s probably a combination of mental toughness and execution,” Belichick said of excelling in poor conditions. “It takes extra concentration; you have to deal with a lot of things. It’s less than perfect out there, so you have to find a way to execute the plays you’ve called in whatever conditions you have to play in.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to get all of the conditions. The credit goes to the players - they were able to execute and do the things we need to do. They’ve done it before and they stepped up and did it again today.”