The warning shot went out shortly after the game.
Forget the fact that over the last five weeks, the Patriots’ offense has made three of the baddest defenses in the NFL look extraordinarily normal with 39 points against the Steelers, 45 against the Jets and 36 versus the Bears — an average of 40 points against three of the six defenses in the league when it comes to average points allowed.
The statement that should strike fear into the hearts of every defense the Patriots are going to face the rest of the way came from quarterback Tom Brady, who said he believes the New England offense can get better.
“There's a long way to go,” said Brady of the Patriots’ offense, which racked up 475 total net yards against Chicago on Sunday at snowy Soldier Field. “I don’t think anything has been accomplished yet. I don’t think we have every problem solved. We don’t sit here and think we have it all figured out. We’re still trying to make improvements.”
Are you hearing this, Green Bay? Better. Better than the last 10 quarters of play, where the Patriots have outscored their opponents, 116-17. Better than the maximum offensive efficiency displayed since the Pittsburgh game: Since the start of that one at Heinz Field last month, the New England offense has had 48 drives and setting aside kneel downs or end-of-game/half situations, has scored on 31 of them, an astounding rate of 65 percent. And better than the 36-7 stomping (click here for the full recap)— that featured 26 first-half points from the Patriots’ offense — that New England put on the Bears Sunday afternoon at snowy Soldier Field.
Even though Brady believes the Patriots offense doesn’t yet have it all figured out, they’ve done a good job fooling the rest of the league. Against the Bears, New England did an excellent job moving the chains, had a near-perfect balance between run and pass (35 runs, 40 pass attempts) piled up nearly 500 yards of offense and didn’t turn the ball over, despite the fact they were playing in near-blizzard conditions.
It’s a miserable combination for both opposing defenses — and offenses.
“They put a lot of pressure on the opposing offense,” said Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler of the Patriots’ offense, which has now scored 52 total touchdowns, tied for the second most in team history. “If you don’t convert third downs, if you don’t sustain drives, if you have any turnovers, they’re going to take advantage of it. Any little opening they make you pay for it. That’s what really good teams do.”
While you can never say never, it seems unlikely that this team be able to match the team record of 75 touchdowns in a season, set in 2007. That being said, it’s fair to say that at this point in the season, the New England offense is operating at a higher efficiency level than the 2007 team was at the end of that regular season.
“I’m wondering if defensive coordinators are actually looking at the tape,” said former Patriots and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison after on “Football Night in America” after Sunday’s game. “You’ve got to play man-to-man. You can’t play zone. I don’t want to give away too many secrets but that’s the way you have to play Tom Brady and the Patriots …Tom Brady is the best player on the best team.”
Brady finished 27-for-40 for 369 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and was in complete command from start to finish.
“I wish we would have gotten the ball into the red area a little bit more,” Brady said. “We kicked too many field goals, I thought, but, other than that, it was a pretty good day."
“The credit goes to the players,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who won his 174th career game on Sunday and is now tied for 10th with Mike Holmgren on the all-time list. “They executed and did the things we needed to do. They’ve done it before, and they’ve stepped up and did it again today. I’m really proud of the way they performed.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday at Soldier Field:
TOM BRADY LOVES TO FACE A TAMPA-2 DEFENSE
The Patriots’ quarterback has traditionally eaten Tampa-2 teams — like Indianapolis, Minnesota and Jacksonville — for lunch, and Sunday was no exception. Brady carved up the Bears underneath all afternoon, but was at his best in the first half, when he found Wes Welker underneath for six first-half receptions, almost all of which came in the soft area in the Chicago secondary.
It wasn’t his finest performance of the season — he nearly saw his interception streak come to an end, as two balls were tipped and linebacker Brian Urlacher dropped another one that was right to him — but in the nasty elements, he more than rose to the occasion, improving his record to 9-0 in snow games.
“Tom prepares as well as any player I’ve ever been around,” Belichick said of Brady. “He is very capable of getting ready to play and going out there and playing well. He has been doing that for a long time. I coach Tom just like I coach all the players on the team. I try to help him when I can. But in the end, what it comes down to is players going out and making plays and playing well. Tom did that again today.”
There are other people who are in the MVP conversation, but Brady is quickly making the whole discussion fruitless. Over the last eight games, he has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He has 268 pass attempts without an interception — he hasn’t thrown a pick since before the mid-term elections. Sunday marked his sixth straight game with two or more touchdown passes and zero interceptions, tying Don Meredith for longest such streak ever.
“He’s definitely playing very well. I think it’s very evident he’s confident in the guys around him and confident in himself,” Welker said of Brady. “He’s definitely playing really well for us, which we need him to.”
BRADY DOESN’T ALWAYS LISTEN TO HIS COACHES
With less than a minute to go in the first half and the Patriots holding a 27-0 lead, New England had the ball on its own 41-yard line. It looked for all the world like the Patriots would sit on the ball, confident in the knowledge that they would held into the locker room at halftime with an already sizable lead — according to wide receiver Deion Branch, the coaches were hollering at the offense to take a knee.
“I’m looking at Tom like, ‘Take a knee,’ and he was like, ‘No.’ He called a route and I was like, ‘All right, good. That’s a good route,’” Branch said with a laugh. “I think we capitalized on what they were giving us on defense. We took a shot at it and it worked. I wasn't looking at the defender in the back half, but my job was to get past Charles Tillman and let Tom and the front line do the rest and they did it.”
Since Randy Moss was dealt earlier this season, the shots downfield have been few and far between. But with the clock ticking toward zero at the end of the half, the quarterback dropped back and let fly with a ball directed toward Branch, who was so wide open it appeared as if he might have materialized from beneath the field via a trap door. Where did he come from? Brady hit him in stride and the wide receiver danced across the goal line for the score.
At the end of the game, it didn’t sound like the coaching staff was too upset with Brady taking matters into his own hands.
“Of course, the play to Deion at the end of the half, that was two great players there making a great play,” said Belichick of Brady and Branch, the latter of whom finished with a career-best 151 yards on eight catches and a touchdown. “You really have to give Tom and Deion credit there on that one. It was great execution.”
WELKER AND BRANCH CONTINUE TO PRESENT MATCHUP NIGHTMARES FOR THE OPPOSITION
While much of Patriots’ 2007 offense was derived from the shock and awe approach of the Brady-to-Moss connection, when it comes to this year’s passing game, much of the success stems from the death-by-thousand cuts combination of Welker and Branch, who bite off chunks of yardage here and there, gradually grinding opposing defenses to nothing.
“I think they performed pretty well,” Belichick said of Welker and Branch. “That’s what good football players do. They play well in all conditions.”
The duo are incredibly difficult to deal with: They rarely drop a pass, run crisp and efficient routes and are almost always where they should be. In addition, their size and quickness make it impossible to try and stop using anything other than a cornerback, which creates problems when it comes to try and stop the rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez (more of a receiver than tight end) and Rob Gronkowski or Danny Woodhead.
Plus, Welker and Branch have an uncanny chemistry with Brady, who clearly trusts them in a way he has trusted few receivers over the last five seasons.
"They're both dependable, tough, disciplined, smart, and incredibly skilled receivers. They made some huge plays today,” Brady said of Branch and Welker, who were targeted on 23 of Brady’s 40 pass attempts. “Deion made some incredible catches. Wes made some great catches. I think they both complement each other very well.
“Brandon (Tate) made a hell of a catch there at the end. [Rob Gronkowski] made some great catches. Aaron (Hernandez) made some critical plays. That whole group of skill players came out in these elements and showed some great mental toughness."
“I was hoping I would go over 100 yards,” said Welker, who remarkably reached the century mark for the first time all season Sunday in Chicago when he had a season-high 115 yards on eight catches. “It seems like I’ve come so close a few times.
“Having Deion out there is such a huge help for us. The strides he’s made for our offense is very substantial in what he's been able to do, and with Tom (Brady) having trust in him and, us just going out there and just spreading the ball around, and just everyone going out there and making plays. At the end of the day, that’s what it's all about.”
GARY GUYTON SHOWED PEOPLE WHY HE STARTED ALL 16 REGULAR-SEASON GAMES LAST SEASON
The Patriots turned to Guyton after it was announced on Friday that inside linebacker Brandon Spikes would be suspended for four games because of a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Guyton, who had been bumped out of the starting spot by Spikes at the start of the season, had become a third-down specialist used predominantly in pass defense.
But the Georgia Tech product got the start on Sunday in Chicago, and had a terrific afternoon. First, with just under 10 minutes to go in the second quarter and New England holding a 14-0 lead and the Bears starting their third drive of the afternoon, cornerback Devin McCourty knocked the ball away from Bears’ receiver Johnny Knox and Guyton picked it up and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. Second, with less than a minute to go in the third quarter and Chicago on the New England 26-yard line, Guyton picked off a Cutler pass meant for Matt Forte. He ended the day with three tackles, an interception, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.
The touchdown was his second of the season — Guyton returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown in the season-opening victory vs. Cincinnati. In a shoutout to Bell Biv Devoe, he wore a T-shirt to the postgame interview podium that read: “Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile.”
"It was a great play made by Devin,” said Guyton, who notched the first fumble returned for a touchdown by a New England player since Ellis Hobbs scored on a 35-yard fumble return at Buffalo on Nov. 18, 2007. “Devin came in and stripped the ball away. 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 and scored. It was a good feeling. I was excited about that.”
"Gary did a great job for us. He has played well for three years, and he does a lot of things for us,” Belichick said of Guyton, who became the first Patriots player to score two defensive touchdowns in a season since Tedy Bruschi returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2003. “It's always good to have him in the game. He makes a lot of plays for us, and he has all year. Going back to the Cincinnati game, he started us off on the right foot for that game. He had a good play today, scooped it up and had the interception. Nice play by Devin McCourty getting the ball out, and we were able to turn that into a score. That was a big play for us.”
THE REST OF THE AFC EAST NOW HAS REAL CAUSE FOR CONCERN
On an afternoon where their chief competitors in the AFC East were acting (and playing) like 10 pounds of stupid in an eight-pound bag, the Patriots were able to put a little separation between themselves and their nearest competition. The Jets not only looked miserable in losing at home to the Dolphins, they looked bad doing it — New York strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi was seen along the Jets’ sideline trying to either trip or bump Miami’s Nolan Carroll, a Dolphins’ gunner, while on a punt.
Making things even worse was a humiliating performance for New York quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was 17-for-44 for 216 yards with an interception and lost fumble. The Jets didn't score a touchdown for the second consecutive game — and now have no offensive touchdowns in nine quarters — and ended up losing at home, 10-6. The Jets’ offensive ineptitude over the last two weeks is best illustrated by the great Kirk Minihane, who Tweeted after the game that, “In the last two weeks Gary Guyton has a one-zero TD lead over the New York Jets.”
“I’m very concerned,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said after the game. “You look at our next opponent [Pittsburgh], and if you think this defense is good, just wait until next week. Pittsburgh is going to be a huge challenge, and down the road, we need to make sure we find a way to get better. We have to get better.”
WHEN IT COMES TO FIELD GOALS AND EXTRA POINTS, SHAYNE GRAHAM HAS GOTTEN OFF TO A PRETTY GOOD START WITH THE PATRIOTS
After a few weeks where it appeared the Patriots’ special teams unit had started to struggle, the group as a whole submitted one of their finest efforts in recent memory Sunday, particularly kicker Shayne Graham. In absolutely miserable conditions, Graham delivered three field goals (from 30, 25 and 29 yards) and was successful on three of four extra points.
But it wasn’t only Graham. Zoltan Mesko was called on to punt twice, and did a good job considering the conditions, averaging 35.5 yards per punt. And the Patriots got the best game of the year from second-year punt returner Julian Edelman, who had a career-long 42-yard punt return in the second quarter, a return he could have taken all the way back if it wasn’t for an ill-timed cutback that got him caught-up with teammate Jarrad Page. (Edelman’s previous best was a 35-yarder vs. Tennessee on Oct. 18, 2009. Both of those punt returns were in snow games.) It could have been an even bigger day for Edelman — late in the first half, teammate Dane Fletcher had a holding penalty on another punt return that negated a 71-yard return that would have gone for a touchdown.
Really, the only area on special teams that had issues was kick coverage, where Devin Hester and Danieal Manning combined for 196 yards on seven returns, an average of 28 yards an attempt. Hester, who remains a world-class return man, had two returns for 61 yards, an average of 37, and nearly broke one midway through the third quarter, getting all the way to the New England 35-yard line before Rob Ninkovich caught up with him and made a touchdown-saving tackle. (Buoyed by the field position, the Bears would eventually punch it in for their only score of the day six plays later.)
"Good, aside from the extra point,” Belichick said when asked about Graham’s performance in the wintry conditions. “The easiest kick ended up being the hardest one. I thought he kicked the ball well in tough conditions. A lot of the credit needs to go to Matt Katula and Zoltan Mesko for the whole operation. It's not just the kicking; it's the snapping and getting the ball down. It was a tough day to kick, to snap, to hold and return.
“But we got some plays in the return game from Julian Edelman, and the Bears returners ran well too. There were some good special teams plays out there. A couple of them aren't what we want to see, but the returners did a good job.”
WITH THIS TEAM, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THE SNOW
The numbers are so astounding, it’s easy to take them for granted: With Sunday’s win, the Patriots improved to a 10-0 record under head coach Bill Belichick when playing in the snow. In the last three games played in the snow, the Patriots have outscored their opponents 142-14. Meanwhile, Brady improved his personal mark to 24-3 when the kickoff temperature was 40 degrees or less.
“They don't cancel football games very often. It's not like baseball — we don’t play out there in San Diego all of the time,” Brady said. “You’re out in the cold weather, you're out in whatever the elements are. You’ve got to be mentally tough enough to play in them. ... We’ve been pretty good in the snow over the years. I think [it’s] because we practice in it quite a bit.”
“I think you just need to bring a certain type of attitude in this type of weather and make sure that you're on top of your game and don't let the elements distract you and really bring it that much more,” said Welker, who was in shirtsleeves for the entire game. “For me, it was about getting my mindset right that we were going to go out there and make plays and move the ball and, especially early in the game and try and get up on these guys, which we were able to do, and try and get the victory.”
ONCE AGAIN, THE PATRIOTS WERE ABLE TO DO A LOT OF SMALL THINGS — PARTICULARLY DEFENSIVELY — THAT HELPED THEM COME AWAY WITH THE WIN
1) New England, which came into the game one of the least-penalized teams in the league, ended up taking just four penalties for 43 yards against the Bears. Overall, they continue to play smart, disciplined football — they have now picked up 11 penalties in the last four games, none of which have been impactful flags.
2) Since Bill Belichick took over prior to the start of the 2000 season, every time the Patriots have come away with at least 19 interceptions, they have gotten at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. On Sunday against the Bears, New England came away with two interceptions, 19 and 20 on the season.
3) In that same vein, Sunday’s game marked the fifth straight contest for the Patriots where they didn’t turn the ball over, extending a franchise mark set last Monday against over the Jets. The Patriots are now 10-0 on the season when they are at least-plus one in turnover differential. In addition, Brady has thrown 268 straight passes without an interception, extending his team record.
FOR THE EIGHTH TIME IN 10 YEARS, THERE WILL BE POSTSEASON FOOTBALL FOR THE PATRIOTS, PROBABLY AT GILLETTE STADIUM
With the victory, the Patriots became the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot, and they neared closer to a division title with the Jets loss to Miami. New England is now 11-2, while the Jets fall to 9-4, and face the unappetizing prospect of traveling to Pittsburgh next week to meet the suddenly surging Steelers (who wrecked the Bengals on Sunday, 23-7).
If the Patriots beat the Packers at home next week and the Jets lose to Pittsburgh, New England clinches the division title. If the Patriots and Jets both win next week, the Patriots can claim the AFC East championship in Week 16 with a victory against the Bills or a Jets loss to the Bears. From there, it’s a quick jump to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"Oh, we can't worry about that,” Belichick said. “We can't be scoreboard watching and worrying about every team in the league. We worry about ourselves and just try to play well. Whatever else happens, happens.”
“I’m sure when the end of the season comes, someone will tell us what to do.”