CHICAGO -- In this season of parity in the NFL, the idea that there is no elite team like the Colts or Saints of last season is now a complete fallacy. There is, and that team resides in Foxborough.
"That's an elite team there, and to get to where we want to go those are the teams we have to beat," Bears quarter Jay Cutler said following the Patriots' 36-7 snowy smackdown of the Bears.
Coach Bill Belichick's chess pieces have turned parity into a parody with their play during a five-game win-streak, averaging 425.2 yards of offense and a 21.6-point margin of victory to go to 11-2. Sorry, Falcons, but the Patriots are in the NFL VIP with bottle service, and you're still shouting from behind the velvet rope for entree.
The notion that anyone other than New England was the class of the league shouldn't have been up for discussion after the Patriots dismantled the Jets, 45-3, last Monday. But some Bears (I'm looking at you Brian Urlacher) thought it was still a debate. Yesterday's shellacking of Chicago rendered the debate moot and doubters mute.
At the half, the Patriots led 33-0 and had as many points as the Bears had total yards. In this case, stats were for winners.
Bears safety Danieal Manning was asked if the Patriots were the best team Chicago -- which defeated another MVP-candidate QB two weeks earlier in Michael Vick -- had seen all season.
"Yeah, I mean they were clicking on defense, offense, special teams. They did a fabulous job," said Manning.
Was the Tom Brady-led team that invaded Soldier Field and put 475 yards of offense on a Bears' defense that hadn't allowed a 400-yard day all season (and had held eight of its last nine opponents below 300 yards) the team the Bears had seen on tape, or was it just a snowflake-fueled fluke?
"Team we saw on tape, team today. Man, they're just playing the way they've been playing all season and racking up points," said Manning.
You could have taken that quote and plunked it down right in the middle of any of the postmortems of Patriots' opponents form 2007. That was the last time the Patriots had a team this dominant.
Most of the comparisons so far for this Patriots team have been to the plucky 2001 squad that shocked the Rams and the football cognoscenti by winning the Super Bowl. But these Patriots are playing far closer to their 2007 point-a-palooza predecessors than the '01 overachievers of lore.
They're not defeating teams. They're demoralizing and demolishing them.
Sports expectations are like those mirrors you find in a funhouse. They bend, twist and distort appearances. That's happening a little bit with the Patriots, who have won their last three games by an aggregate score of 126-34 and have scored more than 30 points in five straight games without a single turnover.
With the rout by the Ravens still fresh in everyone's minds and a raft of rookies on the roster, the prevailing expectation for the Patriots -- at least from those using logic, not laundry -- was a playoff berth and then a roll of the dice.
Well, the Patriots clinched that playoff berth yesterday. At this point anything less than a trip to the Cowboys' opulent playpen in Arlington, Texas for Super Bowl XLV should be a disappointment.
The scary part for the rest of the NFL is that the Patriots are still improving.
The most obvious example of that is the defense. After struggling on third downs, allowing more movement through the air than the FAA, and letting opposing quarterbacks complete nearly 70 percent of their passes, the Patriots defense is playing its best football of the season.
You knew that a Belichick-designed and run defense would play better in December than September. But even the deapan don has to be impressed with the unit's progress. In their last three games, the Patriots defense has held Shaun Hill, Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler below a 60-percent completion rate. They forced the trio to throw seven interceptions against just one touchdown pass.
The collective completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks, which was 69.4 percent after 10 games, is now 66 percent, which is lower than Brady's 66.8 percent mark. The Bears were 3 of 8 on third downs (38 percent) yesterday, following up the Jets' 3 of 12 (25 percent) third-down conversion rate in the Monday Night Massacre.
Cutler said that the Patriots' prolific offense puts more pressure on opposing offenses to provide points, playing into the hands of the defense. Opponents always feel they're playing catch up.
That was the case in 2007 as well. Only one team caught up that year -- the New York Giants. The '07 team had a better defense with Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, etc. But this version of the Patriots defense already has intercepted more passes (20) than the almost-perfect Patriots (19).
That team peaked too early in retrospect, expending energy on a Spygate revenge tour. These Patriots are peaking at just the right time.
"Everybody knows in this league that going into the postseason you need to improve each week," said Patriots left tackle Matt Light. "....For us, we just have to keep improving individually, as a unit and then collectively as a team. This is a step in the right direction."
Forget Troy Polamalu. It is Brady and his long locks that should be touting Head & Shoulders shampoo, because the Samson of signal-callers and his team are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL right now.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.