Earlier this season, the Patriots looked like a team that would have to scratch and claw for every victory they attained, and the closest thing to a blowout might be a 14-point win. My, how they’ve grown, as they’ve since established the NFL’s most lopsided positive point differential.
But there’s more to this team than its ability to lay the wood on a weekly basis. Here are 20 other things that have happened over the last week in the latest installment of the Two-Minute Drill.
1. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once described linebacker Tedy Bruschi‘s 27-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Lions on Thanksgiving 2002 as “the perfect play,” but Belichick might want to add quarterback Tom Brady’s 59-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Deion Branch against the Bears to that list of perfection.
2. Brady wanted that play because he saw a weakness in the Chicago defense, which also deserves criticism for not playing a prevent style on the final play of the half. Right cornerback Charles Tillman was playing zone over Branch, and safety Major Wright should have covered the right side of the defense. Branch did his job by simply running past Tillman, while Brady played Wright for a fool. Brady eyed tight end Rob Gronkowski — selling his hand like a smiling poker player with pocket aces — and Wright thought he had Brady figured out. So, as Gronkowski cut toward the middle of the field, Brady slightly pumped in that direction, and Wright committed. Too easily, Brady then let one fly down the left sideline to an uncovered Branch.
3. This wasn’t drawn up in the dirt, and it shows why playing quarterback is about so much more than a golden arm. Young quarterbacks always discuss how necessary it is to look off a safety or a cheating linebacker, and Brady had that down. He also did enough preparation to understand the tendencies, both before the game and during, of the Chicago defense. For all of that, Brady’s 59-yard touchdown pass came entirely from his head, and he earned those six points well before he even made the throw.
4. Tight end Aaron Hernandez received a warm NFL welcome from Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher in the second half, when Urlacher jacked up Hernandez to force an incompletion. Hernandez said he thought Urlacher was following Gronkowski on the play, and when Hernandez initially caught the ball, he thought he was open and didn’t need to brace for impact. “I was just, boom,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t even know he was going to be there.”
5. The Patriots were very excited to practice inside Gillette Stadium last Friday because of the FieldTurf. With the freezing temperatures throughout the week, the grass practice fields felt like concrete when they were out there Thursday.
6. Belichick’s most prominent message has always been — OK, all together now — “Do your job,” and Belichick had an interesting take on that Monday, when he discussed the importance of everyone sticking with their specifically assigned role. “You certainly wouldn’t want me out there playing,” he said.
7. It was interesting to hear late Sunday night that the Patriots didn’t get a victory Monday after an impressive road win in nasty conditions. However, the players actually had no choice but to show up to Gillette Stadium on Monday for a life skills meeting with the NFL. It looked like former Cardinals safety Aeneas Williams had a hand in the meeting. Because the Patriots were there anyway, they finalized their work on their game tape from Chicago.
8. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty‘s status remains uncertain, but fellow cornerback Darius Butler said he’ll prepare like always in case he is called to step up this week. “Business as usual for me,” Butler said Monday. “Every week, I’m preparing in practice, in the film room as a starter. I’ll be ready whenever my number is called every week.”
9. Butler played well in the second half Sunday in Chicago, and he’s stepped in nicely in a couple of roles in the last few weeks — as a slot cornerback for Jonathan Wilhite and also in Kyle Arrington‘s position when Arrington lines up inside in pass-rushing positions. “I felt good [Sunday],” Butler said. “Besides some wind, some snow blowing in my face here in there, but it was good. It was fun.”
10. The Patriots play all kinds of music when they’re in the weight room — rap, rock, country, whatever — but there was a great scene late Friday afternoon when some of them lifted to the tune of Christmas music for about an hour, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It could be heard a room away, and some of them were in there singing along.
11. Brady improved to 8-0 in the snow Sunday, including a 3-0 playoff mark. This does not include games with flurries in the forecast, such as last week’s victory against the Jets. The Patriots are 10-0 in the snow under Belichick, who has also gotten victories out of Drew Bledsoe and Matt Cassel. Brady is also 24-3 when the temperature at kickoff is 40 degrees or colder.
12. If you’re searching for a silver lining for rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes‘ suspension, consider this to be just like a bowl break in college. For such a physical player like Spikes, whose body takes a toll on running downs, this could be a useful rest period before the playoffs.
13. I didn’t get a chance to get to use all of my material for last week’s feature on the contributions the Patriots have gotten from their undrafted free agents. Here’s a good quote from rookie linebacker Dane Fletcher that didn’t make the cut: “It’s a lot of responsibility for everybody when you’re on the field, but I think you just have that much more responsibility because you have to earn trust every play and every second you’re in the game, especially as a free agent in your first year. That trust can be lost within one play, and then you can be gone. Every play is a lot of pressure on you, and you know that. That’s what I have to go up against every down.”
14. The Patriots have scored an NFL-high 415 points this season. No other AFC division leader has even eclipsed 300 points. Here are some more impressive numbers surrounding the Patriots’ scoring spree.
15. Tight end Alge Crumpler was asked Monday about the quick development of the rookies, and he said it’s because they’ve all bought into the system. “It’s all about buying in from the first day you walk into the organization,” Crumpler said. “If you want to be on your own program, you’ll be out of here real quick.”
16. The Patriots have played an NFL-record five consecutive games without committing a turnover, and they’ve forced 13 in that span. The Patriots haven’t turned the ball over in nine of their 13 games this season.
17. The Patriots’ defense has stressed turnovers this season. Last Thursday, the defensive backs opened practice with a strip drill, trying to rip the ball away from one another as the ball carrier jogged with it.
18. Despite the Patriots’ run of success, they’ve maintained an even-keeled mentality, and they’ve basically played better on a weekly basis. Why is that? “Belichick and this team, they don’t let you get comfortable,” Hernandez said. “Every day, if you take one play off, they’re going to mention it. It just shows this program just gets better every week. That’s our main goal.”
19. Brady has thrown a Patriots-record 268 consecutive passes without an interception, which dates back to overtime of their Week 6 victory against the Ravens. Since Week 7, 50 players in the NFL have thrown an interception, including three members of the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Titans and Raiders.
20. Branch has five touchdown receptions in nine games this season with the Patriots, which is more than he had in any of his four-plus seasons with the Seahawks. Branch, who has 44 receptions for 648 yards with the Pats in 2010, only needs 10 catches and 78 receiving yards before the end of the year to eclipse his best single-season marks with Seattle.