FOXBOROUGH — Fifty-seven seconds.
Fifty-seven seconds is how long it took for the Patriots to take control of the game, and that’s how long it took to realize that there is something wrong with the Chicago Bears.
There wasn’t much wrong with the Patriots Sunday, if the 51-23 victory that ran their record to 6-2 is any indication. And in 57 second-quarter seconds, all three phases of the game came together to deliver a knockout punch to an already-staggering Bears club.
With 1:52 to play in the half and the Patriots leading, 17-7, Tom Brady (30 of 35 passing for 354 yards with 5 touchdowns, no interceptions, and no sacks) hit Rob Gronkowski for the second of his three touchdowns, a 2-yard fade to the left sideline that stood up under review. Patriots 24, Bears 7.
The Bears got the ball back and promptly went three-and-out; pinned deep in their territory, punter Patrick O’Donnell sent the ball Julian Edelman’s way, and Edelman’s 42-yard return put the Patriots well inside Chicago territory.
Add in a holding penalty on the Bears, and Brady and the offense took the field at the Chicago 9. One pass, one touchdown: Brady to Brandon LaFell. Patriots 31, Bears 7.
The Bears got the ball back and immediately turned it over – Zach Moore and Dont’a Hightower sacked the Bears’ Jay Cutler, Moore forced the ball out of Cutler’s hands, and Rob Ninkovich was all too happy to claim the loose ball, taking it 15 yards for the touchdown. Patriots 38, Bears 7.
Fifty-seven seconds, 21 points, game over.
If it seemed reminiscent of the Patriots’ Thanksgiving 2012 win against the Jets — a.k.a. the Mark Sanchez butt fumble game — it was. The Patriots scored three touchdowns in less than a minute in that game as well, and are now the first NFL team to turn the feat twice.
“That’s rare,” Vince Wilfork said about the warp-speed touchdown trifecta. “We always talk about taking advantage of opportunities and we did that. We came in with a game plan saying, ‘This is how we want to play, and if we play this way, we’ll be successful,’ and it worked out well for us.”
“It was our own doing,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said of going from a manageable 10-point deficit to 31-point hole in such a short period of time. “We have to accept that and it hurt us. It hurt us.”
Cutler called those final few moments before halftime “agonizing.”
The Patriots got the ball to start the second half and scored again, on just five plays. The touchdown came courtesy of Gronkowski, who was at his vintage best on a 46-yard catch-and-run in which he shoved safety Ryan Mundy out of the way shortly after making the catch, then dragged cornerback (and Brockton native) Al Louis-Jean across the goal line for his third touchdown of the day.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis, happy to be on the same team as Gronkowski and not an opposing defensive back trying in vain not to get trucked by him, was chuckling as he recounted the play.
“He’s a man amongst boys,” Revis said. “I thought he was going to get tackled and he threw a guy out of the way and scored.”
Gronkowski (9 targets, 9 receptions, 149 yards) left the game shortly thereafter; he’d caught and run and scored so much he was dehydrated.
“I could have easily come back into the game, no doubt about it. I wanted to come back,” Gronkowski said. “But it was just a decision [by] the training staff and the coaches. They just said take it easy with the way the game was going. I thought it was the right call, too.
“I just have to make sure I don’t get dehydrated. So I got to keep on drinking.”
Three of his nine catches were third-down conversions, including a 21-yard grab on third and 18, and a 17-yarder on third and 14, both in the second quarter. Gronkowski’s final touchdown also came on third down.
“I thought our third-down execution was good,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We got a lot of conversions, a bunch of different guys. I thought we protected; handled some of their pressures, handled their pass rush for the most part. We had a lot of guys that came through and got open, kept drives going. This is a hard team to get a lot of big plays on.”
The Patriots were 7 for 11 on third down, a season-best 64 percent conversion rate. The Bears converted just 4 of 11 third-down opportunities.
Though they came to Gillette Stadium with a 3-4 record, all three of the Bears’ wins had come on the road. With an offense featuring dangerous back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey and tight end Martellus Bennett, they posed a formidable threat, especially for a Patriots defense struggling against the run and playing without Chandler Jones, who is expected to miss a month with a hip injury.
Marshall was overheard shouting in the locker room after Chicago’s home loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, and the Bears spent all week in damage control, saying there was no issue between Marshall and Cutler.
There might not be any bad blood between Cutler and his emotional receiver, but the Bears didn’t put up much of a fight to stem the questions, either.
“We know we are a good football team; we just haven’t played like that the last couple weeks,” Marshall said. “The Patriots had a great day today. They are a good football team and you can’t make mistakes like we did today.”
A free agent pickup this offseason, LaFell was a key cog in the offense with a career day: 11 catches (on 11 targets) for 124 yards and the touchdown.
“He has great catch-and-run ability,” Brady said. “He’s such a strong runner and when you get the ball in his hands good things happen, so we’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
Newly acquired Akeem Ayers got his first sack as a member of the Patriots, and first-round pick Dominique Easley also had a sack. Revis had an interception on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half.
“Running the ball was great. The guys up front played awesome. A lot of guys contributed. We got great play defensively,” Brady said. “So it was a fun day. Those don’t happen like that very often.”