CHICAGO — Duron Harmon grinned in the Soldier Field visitors’ locker room as he fielded a question about the Patriots being “back to normal.” As Harmon pointed out, when you play for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, nothing is normal.
The good news for the Patriots is that the new normal during a four-game winning streak that has turned their 1-2 start into a dusty memory is the old normal.
The Patriots offense we know and love ignores personnel losses, integrates new pieces, and finds a way to keep on piling up points. We’re used to a Patriots offense that wins a Super Bowl without the services of Rob Gronkowski and advances to one without the presence of Julian Edelman. The Patriots return to normalcy on offense was on display in a 38-31 victory over the Chicago Bears, as were the talents of James White and Josh Gordon. That allowed the Patriots to win an abnormal contest featuring weird bounces, funky momentum swings, and a matter-of-inches ending.
The Patriots didn’t have Gronk, who missed the game with a back injury, and lost rookie running back Sony Michel in the second quarter when his knee got twisted the wrong way and the pain caused him to fumble. The absence of two major offensive weapons could have set the Patriots back to the offensive futility that characterized road losses to Jacksonville and Detroit. Instead, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Patriots adapted and moved forward to 5-2.
In a lot of ways this unusual contest was the most Patriot-like victory of the season, a soothing reminder of the Patriots’ propensity for finding a recipe for production, even when some of the main ingredients are out of the mix.
White and Gordon took “next man up” from axiom to action against a top-10 defense. White had eight catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns, including the decisive score with 8 minutes and 40 seconds left. Gordon unfurled his first 100-yard receiving game as a Patriot, collecting four catches for 100 yards and setting up the decisive touchdown with a 55-yard tour de turf catch-and-run.
Along with a pair of special teams touchdowns from Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Van Noy, those virtuoso performances allowed the Patriots to score at least 38 points for the fourth consecutive game and bat away the upstart Bears and their erratic and elusive faux franchise quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky.
“We had a lot of guys stepping up making plays. Nobody really cares who gets the shine, just go out there and make a play when the ball comes your way,” said White, who leads the team in receptions (45), touchdown receptions (six), and touchdowns (seven).
That’s the Patriot Way. So, was the dagger, nine-play, 96-yard touchdown drive the Patriots delivered after Jonathan Jones snuffed out a Bears drive with an acrobatic interception at the 4-yard line. (The Patriots benefited from Trubisky doing a pretty fair Rex Grossman impression at times.)
The Patriots proceeded to take the ball and demoralize Da Bears, building a 14-point lead (38-24) when Brady flipped a jet sweep pass forward to White for a 2-yard score.
The offense also did just a good enough job of running down the clock, so as not to leave enough time for the Bears to capitalize on a Hail Mary on the final play. Eight of White’s 11 rushes for 40 yards came on the Patriots’ final drive, which burned 3:49 off the clock and all three Chicago timeouts.
Making the Patriots offense great again is still an ongoing endeavor. Tom Brady (25 of 36 for 277 yards with three touchdowns and a pick) will be the first to remind the masses of that. He wants more, more points and more consistent execution. The offense turned over the ball twice, including a late Brady interception that gave the Bears life.
But whether you’re at the Art Institute of Chicago or evaluating your favorite football team, sometimes you have to step back to find proper perspective. This offensive output represented a vast improvement over the last time the Patriots played on the road in the Midwest, a pathetic 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 3.
They were inept in a way that night we rarely have seen during this golden era of NFL eminence. Brady’s trust in his wide receivers was waning. Gordon hadn’t played for the Patriots yet. Julian Edelman was still suspended.
Contrast that to Sunday in Chicago when the Patriots scored on their first drive and scored 24 offensive points while having to adapt their game plan on the fly and without fully hitting their stride.
One of the fixes for the Patriots has been the integration of Gordon. The in-recovery wide receiver is a tough cover. He adds an explosive element to the passing game. He can do more than fall down or get down after the catch.
This guy takes your breath away and takes the souls of defensive backs.
Gordon had two game-changing grabs. In the second quarter with the Patriots facing fourth and 1 at the Chicago 42, Gordon climbed the ladder on the Bears’ best cornerback, Kyle Fuller, and high-pointed a 19-yard pass. That set up White’s first touchdown grab, a 5-yarder, which gave the Patriots a 21-17 halftime lead.
Then there was Gordon’s crucial 55-yarder. He transformed a simple 18-yard in-cut into a play that put the Patriots on the doorstep of a two-touchdown lead. Gordon discarded a pair of tacklers like candy wrappers and then was off. The only thing that stopped him at the 1 was his wind.
“He’s a threat. He goes down the field and makes plays,” said Edelman, who pinballed his way to a 9-yard TD on the Patriots’ first drive. “He’s come in and worked hard. I just want to say thanks to the league. It’s pretty cool to have a guy like him and play with a dynamic player.”
That’s exactly what the rest of the league wants to hear, the Patriots thanking them for allowing New England to add one of the league’s most physically-gifted receivers to their roster at minimal cost. You can hear the teeth gnashing from here. Quick, someone come up with some picayune Patriots rules violation soon to report to the NFL office as retaliation.
The Patriots have basically censored Gordon, limiting him to three or four questions after each game until his Patriots re-programming is complete. But Gordon said he knew he would have to step up with Gronk absent.
“Yeah, Coach McDaniels mentioned it to us. I think we were prepared for it, mentally,” said Gordon. “We practiced different looks and different groupings of personnel to offset that. I think collectively as a group we showed that we can hold our own without him, but we’ll be glad to have him back, that’s for sure.”
Gordon even played snaps on defense. He was on the Patriots Hail Mary defense at the end of the half and at the end of the game, when hearts across New England almost stopped beating as Chicago’s Kevin White hauled in a 54-yard prayer and was stopped a yard short of the end zone.
“It was super close,” said White. “They say it’s a game of inches and that’s kind of what it came down to.”
It’s also a game of adjustments.
The Patriots offense made the proper adjustments to pick up the team’s first road win without Gronkowski and with just two healthy running backs, White and Kenjon Barner.
That it felt so normal is a reassuring victory that the Patriots can take home with them from their first road win.