Field was no proving ground; Bears’ play grisly
CHICAGO — For a team that came in with a five-game winning streak that was tantalizing what had been a skeptical fan base, yesterday’s 36-7 embarrassment reminded the Bears they have a ways to go to be considered one of the NFL’s top teams.
With improved play by quarterback Jay Cutler and the rest of the offense, in combination with a defense that was allowing only 16 points per game, excitement was building about this team and what it was capable of achieving.
Yet the Bears became the latest victim of a Patriots juggernaut that seems unstoppable.
“You have to be ready and we were ready, but you have to ball your best ball every snap and we did too many things wrong, and you can’t do that against good teams like this,’’ said Bears coach Lovie Smith.
How bad was it for Chicago? The loudest cheer from the Soldier Field crowd came when Patriot Julian Edelman’s 71-yard punt return for a touchdown was called back because of a holding call. Even that joy was short-lived, as Tom Brady connected with Deion Branch, who easily beat cornerback Charles Tillman, five plays later for a touchdown, as the Patriots closed the first half with a 33-0 lead.
“We should have had someone back deep and we didn’t. It’s as simple as that,’’ said Smith.
The Bears entered the game playing well, and some were moved to tears Saturday by pregame speeches by Smith and US Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, who recently received the Medal of Honor from President Obama for his actions in Afghanistan.
“He gave an excellent speech,’’ safety Chris Harris said of Smith. “Obviously, it didn’t work. Guys were ready to play this game, but it didn’t end up in our favor today.’’
It was Harris who was at the center of the game’s defining play. With a little less than six minutes remaining in the first quarter and the ball at the Bears’ 7-yard line, Brady looked for Branch in the end zone. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher got his hand on the ball, and Harris had a chance to haul in the deflection and stop the momentum. But Harris couldn’t come up with the interception, and the Patriots scored on the next play when Brady connected with tight end Rob Gronkowski, capping a 12-play, 85-yard drive.
“I thought I was in position to make the play even before the tip,’’ Harris said. “Then it got tipped and I got one fingertip on it. My hands were a little numb so I couldn’t feel it and bring it in.
“Any time you have missed opportunities it is like giving a team four outs in baseball. Something bad is bound to happen.’’
After the Patriots stopped the Bears on their ensuing possession, New England easily went down the field again, this time 87 yards in 11 plays, to make it 14-0.
Any hope for a comeback for the Bears came to an end on their next play from scrimmage, when Cutler found wide receiver Johnny Knox on a short pass. But the ball was stripped by Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty and recovered by linebacker Gary Guyton, who ran it back 35 yards for a touchdown. Smith challenged the ruling of a fumble, but like everything else, it went against the Bears.
The Bears finished with four turnovers to the Patriots’ zero. Smith refused to use the wintry conditions as an excuse for the offensive woes, and could not come up with a reason why the Patriots were able to hold onto the ball and his team could not.
“If we knew that we would have done something about that out there,’’ he said. “The weather affected both of us; they played better than we did.’’
“With the way Tom is playing, they put points on the board, they put a lot of pressure on the opposing offense,’’ Cutler said. “If you don’t convert third downs and you don’t sustain drives, they take advantage of it. Any little opening they make you pay for it. That is what good teams do.’’