Robert James Gronkowski had a great game against the Chicago Bears defense and Chuck Zodda was there, in section 337, watching for poorly-booted punts, terrific kick coverage, and Devin Hester’s spectacular punt returns. Oh, and to watch the offense and defense, too.
Sunday, October 26, 2014 was not a completely perfect day in Foxboro. The lines to the Porta-Potties in the Gillette Stadium parking lots were a little too long, traffic going down U.S. Route 1 was a little too slow, and the never-ending Kelly Clarkson musical explosion coming out of the car parked next to us was a little too loud. Those issues aside, the day was as close to perfect as a Patriots fan could possibly hope to see from section 337. In a matchup many feared was a trap game before a critical showdown with the Denver Broncos, the Patriots came out and pummeled the Chicago Bears 51-23 in front of 68,756 fans.
Kicking Things off Right
After a Stephen Gostkowski touchback to start the game, the Bears ran the ball four consecutive times against a weak Patriots run defense, picking up a first down in the process. After a holding penalty on Martellus Bennett negated an eight-yard run on the fifth effort by Matt Forte, quarterback Jay Cutler attempted to put the Bears offense on his shoulders and lead them out of the shadow of their own goalposts. This resulted in two straight incompletions and a Pat O’Donnell punt, giving the Patriots the ball at their own 45-yard-line.
The result? Precision surgery that would make Dr. James Andrews beam with pride ‒ or tremble with fear of being put out of business. After a Tom Brady pass to Brandon LaFell opened things up, the Patriots’ newly-minted starting running back, Jonas Gray, gashed the Bears defense for 30 yards on three carries. With the ball on the Bears’ 6-yard line, Brady threw his first touchdown of the game to Rob Gronkowski to put the Patriots up 7-0. Much dancing and celebration occurred in section 337, including the obligatory shouts of “I love you man!” shared between complete strangers covered in each other’s beer.
Bears Struggles Continue
After another Gostkowski touchback, the Bears again faltered when trying to move the ball through the air, resulting in a second O’Donnell punt after gaining 15 yards in seven plays. The Patriots moved the ball with ease on the ensuing drive, mixing in short passes from Brady to LaFell, Gronkowski, and Shane Vereen, along with powerful running by Gray. However, the Patriots were unable to push the ball across the goal line, failing to capitalize fully on the lengthy seven minute plus drive and settling for a 23-yard Gostkowski field goal. Slightly less dancing and celebration occurred.
The Bears continued demonstrating a shocking level of ineptitude on offense, again going three-and-out, with O’Donnell most likely requesting overtime pay as he trotted onto the field for the third time. After a booming punt, the Patriots offense took over on their 24-yard-line. LaFell and Gronkowski were constants on this drive, combining for three catches and 54 yards, with Lafell also drawing a thirteen yard pass interference penalty. Brady capped the drive with a 1-yard completion to tight end Tim Wright, putting the Patriots up 17-0 with just over eight minutes remaining in the first half. Dancing and celebration reached previously unseen levels, though we also witnessed the beginnings of a fracture in fan relations as I stepped on the foot of the woman one seat over, who looked at me like I was wearing an Aaron Hernandez jersey.
The Bears New Hope
The Bears finally got on the board with just under six minutes remaining in the half on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Cutler to Forte in the right corner of the end zone. The Bears were beneficiaries of a Brandon Browner illegal contact penalty early in the drive, which negated an interception by safety Devin McCourty. This play, along with a pass to Alshon Jeffery for 27 yards, were major reasons why the Bears were able to move the ball during this drive. Dancing and celebration levels in section 337 reached all-time lows.
The Gronk Strikes Back
With 5:32 remaining in the first half, Brady and the Patriots began their next drive on their own 20-yard line after a Robbie Gould touchback. Gronkowski continued to be a force for the Patriots, catching three passes for 48 yards as the Patriots drove deep into Chicago territory. The trio of receptions also gave Gronk his 14th career 100-yard game. The two-minute warning sounded with the Patriots on the Bears’ 5-yard line facing first-and-goal.
While the following may be disappointing to Wright, the fact is with under two minutes left in a half and the ball inside the 5-yard-line, there is only one person that Brady should have eyes for: Gronkowski. As he has done throughout his Patriots career, Gronk gobbled up another touchdown catch to put the Patriots up 24-7 just inside the two-minute mark. Dancing and celebration levels in section 337 escalated rapidly, leading to another unfortunate foot stepping incident. Apologies were issued.
Chicago responded with the kind of drive that showed just what they were made of: a three-and-out followed by a punt for a net gain of one yard after a 42-yard return by Julian Edelman, plus a tacked-on 10-yard holding penalty on the Bears, leaving the ball at the Bears 9-yard-line. Brady threw a touchdown pass to LaFell, putting the Patriots up 31-7 with 1:07 left in the half. Dancing and celebration levels in section 337 were now approaching what is commonly referred to as “Danger Zone.” Specifically, after once again stepping on the foot of the woman sitting next to me, I was told to “stay out of my wife’s personal space or my fist will be in yours” by the gentleman sitting on the other side of her. It seemed like a good time to go get a sausage.
All of the Finest Meats and Cheeses in Foxboro
Unfortunately, sausage time meant that I was on the concourse for the kickoff that followed. But with only a minute left in the half, it wasn’t like anyone was going to score again. Except the Patriots defense didn’t get that message, sacking Cutler on the first play of the drive. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich scooped up the ball at the 15-yard line and scooted past the hapless Bears for a touchdown. Just like that, it was 38-7. Freshly made sausage in hand, I returned to my seat as the Patriots and Bears headed into halftime.
Return of the Gronk
Gould started the second half booming the opening kickoff deep into the end zone for a touchback. After a series of short passes to Edelman and Wright, Brady faced 3rd and 4 from the Bears’ 46 and found his favorite target on a crossing pattern at the 30-yard line. However, Robert James Gronkowski is not happy with intermediate-range completions. Robert James Gronkowski doesn’t get out of bed to pick up 15 yards. Robert James Gronkowski gets out of bed to catch touchdowns. And so, in typical Robert James Gronkowski fashion, he proceeded to stiff arm one defender, run away from two others, and bowl over a fourth Bear to turn a solid gain into a 46-yard touchdown that opened the half. Slightly more careful dancing and celebration ensued in section 337.
Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
The remaining 25 minutes were a clinic in putting up stats when the outcome of the game is already decided. Cutler led the Bears down the field for two touchdowns, while the Patriots countered with a pair of late field goals, including one after Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Brady with just over five minutes remaining in the game. After New England’s final three points, Cutler ceded his position to Jimmy Clausen, who came on and did not cover himself in glory, going 1-for-5 in garbage time.
The Road Ahead
And so, as the sun set on another Sunday night in New England, all eyes now turn to the Denver Broncos, who are scheduled to march into Foxboro at 4:25 in the afternoon on Nov. 2 in what will be a pivotal matchup toward determining home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Broncos, who looked nearly unbeatable in their recent tilt with the San Diego Chargers, will aim to beat the Patriots and solidify their hold in the conference. Meanwhile, the Patriots offense will try to keep pace with Peyton Manning and the high-powered Denver attack, in what may be the most important game of their regular season so far this year.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.