The dominant Patriots are the title favorites -- and it's not even close
CHICAGO -- After this one, you could almost hear the collective uh-oh starting to echo around the rest of the NFL. These Patriots are serious. They're on a mission. And we all know what that means, because it hasn't been all that long since we've seen it before.
The Patriots' 36-7 dismantling of the Bears on a snowy and blustery Sunday at Soldier Field was just New England's latest statement-game win, but they're coming so fast and furious these days that it's starting to resemble one long, continuous speech. Delivered at the top of their lungs.
First, the Patriots take the field, then proceed to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, dismissing another humbled opponent in the most dominating fashion imaginable.
Consider what New England (11-2) has put together in the course of its current five-game winning streak, ever since that 34-14 wake-up-call drubbing at Cleveland in Week 9:
• A 39-26 conquest of the shellshocked Steelers in Pittsburgh, in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicates.
• A narrow, but cathartic 31-28 win over the visiting Colts, the team that more than any other has tormented New England in recent years.
• A 45-24 defeat of the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving, in which the Patriots, playing on three days' rest, rallied past their plucky opponent by outscoring it 35-7 after halftime.
• The 45-3 destruction of the Jets last Monday night, in the much-ballyhooed showdown that swung the AFC East almost irreversibly to New England's advantage.
• And finally, Sunday's eye-popping 29-point win in the wintry elements, with the Patriots storming to a 33-0 halftime lead and making the tough-guy Bears (9-4) look like mere cubs in search of a warm place to lie down. Once again, it was New England that faced both a short week of work and a road trip to the Midwest. No matter.
Do the math. That's a five-game onslaught in which the Patriots have overwhelmed their opponents by a combined 196-88 (or 39-18 per game), with only one game having any drama by the fourth quarter. To slice it even a little thinner, since trailing at the half in Week 12 at Detroit, New England has outscored the Lions, Jets and Bears (oh, my!) 116-17 over the course of its last 10 quarters.
Meanwhile, the free-falling Jets (9-4) have gone nine quarters without an offensive touchdown, the Chiefs just got exposed by the Chargers (who out-gained them 426-67 on Sunday), the Colts are trying to merely stay alive in the playoff chase, and the Steelers are probably praying they somehow don't see their nemesis, the Patriots, again in the postseason.
Who can possibly stop this New England juggernaut before it hits Dallas in February? With every week that passes, and every game that follows roughly the same script -- Patriots dominate, and move on -- the feeling that we're watching yet another New England Super Bowl team grows stronger.
"Each week is getting better, and guys are finding their roles on the team and they're starting to step up,'' Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "I just think everybody's doing their job, and they're doing it real good. When we need plays, it seems like guys make plays. This group of guys has grown up a lot, and guys are tuning in to exactly what their role is, and doing it the best they can. And that's pretty good.''
Pretty good, indeed. In some ways, Sunday's performance against a first-place team was such a familiar showing by New England. How many times in the past 10 years have we seen the Patriots seemingly handle the conditions as if they've played in it a million times before, while their opponent slips and slides and spends its workday looking hesitant and overmatched by the elements? It's as if one team is on skates, and the other's in cleats.
Both teams had to cope with Sunday's ridiculous weather conditions, but for some reason, it only bothered the hometown Bears, unbecoming of their Monsters of the Midway legend. The Patriots moved decisively, knew the Bears better than the Bears knew themselves, and somehow managed to block out the weather and focus on the task at hand. We saw it last year in that 59-0 beatdown of Tennessee in the snow at Gillette Stadium, and we saw it as far back as Adam Vinatieri kicking field goals in the famous Snow Bowl (or infamous Tuck Rule) playoff game against the Raiders in January 2002.
It's just the Patriot Way. They don't just deal with the cold and the snow and the bad field. They seem to almost relish the challenge, and the added degree of difficulty inspires them. And that's how you wind up with 29-point laughers in the snow at Solider Field, with the Bears playing the role of patsies.
"They don't cancel football games very often,'' Brady said, with a nod to the Metrodome's punctured roof. "It's not like baseball, and we don't play out there in San Diego all the time. You're out in the cold weather. You're out in whatever the elements are, so you've got to be mentally tough enough to play in them.
"It's one of those days where a lot of people would rather be cozied up near the fireplace, drinking hot chocolate. But we work on Sundays, and all of us, we're pretty committed to coming out here and trying to play well and execute well in some pretty tough conditions. For the most part, we did that.''
The Patriots work on Sundays, all right. And they work at it the rest of the week. Every New England player I talked to in the postgame echoed the same idea when asked why only the Patriots seem to thrive in such brutal conditions, with the snow and the cold and the wind gusting up to 50 mph?
"We prepare for those conditions,'' New England linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We talk about. We don't let it be a surprise when we get to gameday. By then, we already have the mentality that going into the game we're not going to let it affect us. We don't hide from it during the week. We practice in cold weather. This was their home field, but we were ready to play today. We had a short week, but we were prepared. This wasn't our first rodeo when it comes to these type of games, with these conditions.''
I've covered four of the Patriots' past five games (all but the win in Detroit), and it's obvious as the hoodie on Bill Belichick's back (it was more of a parka on Sunday) that New England is locked and loaded once again. The Patriots take the field these days looking like they know what's going to happen, instead of hoping for a happy outcome. They won't say it, of course, but they're smelling it now. Sunday's win clinched a playoff berth for New England, but the Pats know there's much more to come, and bigger wins on the way.
"This is the time of year you want to be playing your best ball, after Thanksgiving,'' Patriots safety James Sanders said. "That Cleveland game was an extremely terrible game for us, in all three phases; but we bounced back strong and we're getting better every week. Our coaches do a good job of pushing us to get better every week. When there are plays to be made out there, we're making them. We're never satisfied, even when we're up big in the first half. In that second half, we came out like the score was 0-0.''
It's that never-being-satisfied stuff that should send shivers through the rest of the NFL. The Patriots are both really hungry and really good again, and that's a combination that won them three Super Bowl trophies in a four-year span between 2001-2004. I can particularly see it and hear it again in Brady's voice and demeanor, and he's still the engine that drives this Patriots train. He and his detail-obsessed head coach, who started out-gaming the rest of the league this season the minute he shipped Randy Moss off to Minnesota for reasons that weren't yet clear to the rest of us.
Reminded that New England had clinched at least a playoff berth with the win over the Bears -- its seventh postseason ticket punched in eight years -- Brady's facial expression never flinched, and he refused to give us even a hint of satisfaction. There will be no celebration just yet for these Patriots, and Brady made sure that tone was set good and loud. Even if he did just throw for a season-high 369 yards and two touchdowns on 27 of 40 passing in the worst weather of the NFL season, to date.
"Well, there's long way to go,'' he said. "Nothing's been accomplished yet. We're working hard to make improvements and be problem solvers. I don't think we have every problem solved. There are plenty of defenses that have kicked us around a little bit. We don't sit here and think we've got it all figured out. We're still trying to make improvements.''
See what I mean? They're on a mission. By now, we all know that can't be good news for the rest of the NFL.