LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were supposed to be out of style, the faded fashion, the champions hitting their expiration date.
Well, look at them now.
With four straight wins, the Patriots (10-2) share the best record in the NFL and are coming off one of their more impressive victories heading into their game against the Chicago Bears (9-3) on Sunday.
“I think we’ve been playing better as of late, and we’re going to need to continue to play better,” Brady said. “The weather is getting colder. The conditions are getting tougher. Everyone has to be able to execute at a high level.”
The Patriots are doing just that.
A win or tie this week would put them in the playoffs for the eighth time in 10 years, and they could get in with a loss if several scenarios unfold. For a team that many thought might be on the decline after being dominated by Baltimore in the first round of last year’s playoffs, that’s impressive.
Their most recent performance was downright jaw-dropping.
The Patriots will have a hard time following up their Monday night masterpiece, a 45-3 pounding of the New York Jets that ranked among their most lopsided wins. The 42-point margin tied for the fifth biggest in franchise history.
Brady threw four touchdowns for the second straight week, bringing his league-leading total to 27, and went without an interception for the seventh consecutive game. The Patriots put up 45 for the second week in a row, and if there were any doubts that they’re the class of the AFC, they batted them down like a bad pass.
For now, at least.
As convincing as that performance was, their margin for error is equally thin. A loss could knock them right back into a tie with the Jets, and the Bears would love nothing more than to be the team that puts them there.
A victory over the Patriots would easily be the biggest for a team with five straight wins and a one-game lead over Green Bay in the NFC North. Would it convince the skeptics?
“I doubt it very seriously,” safety Chris Harris said.
The recent wins have come mostly against weaker teams that either just weren’t that good to begin with (Buffalo), were in turmoil (Minnesota) or were using third-string quarterbacks (Miami, Detroit). When they beat Philadelphia, the Eagles were missing their top two quarterbacks, yet it’s hard to argue the Bears are in a better spot.
Their season looked like it was spiraling away as they stumbled into their bye with three losses in four games. Jay Cutler was getting flattened like a cartoon character with no protection and was making poor decisions. The handoff was an afterthought, too, but the Bears re-examined their approach during the bye week.
They started moving the pocket, went away from the deep drop-backs, and leaned more on the running game. The result was a more balanced offense, with 164 rushing attempts and 151 pass plays the past five games, and they’ll need more of the same from a group that still ranks 29th overall.
That also goes for a defense that has allowed just 175 points, second fewest in the NFL. The Patriots, meanwhile, are averaging a league-high 31.6 and are on pace for 505 points.
That won’t approach the NFL record they set in 2007, when they scored 589 and finished 16-0, but the numbers are still pretty good.
The Patriots have produced points on 57 of 122 possessions this year, with 42 touchdowns and 15 field goals. They have scored in 14 straight quarters.
Brady, meanwhile, is having an MVP-type year with 3,029 yards passing and a league-best 109.5 quarterback rating.
“He’s grown up in that system, he’s developed that system, he’s done everything to make that stuff work and you can tell it’s going to go through him,” Cutler said. “He’s making the calls, he’s calling the shots and he’s done a great job of it.”
Cutler’s done pretty well of late, too.
He’s completed 35 of 47 passes and thrown five touchdowns without an interception over the past two games.
As intriguing as the quarterback comparisons might be, the key matchup could play out on the sidelines. That’s where Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be going at it.
In 2001, Martz was the coach when St. Louis was upset by New England in the Super Bowl after beating them earlier in the year, a game that marked the beginning of the end for the Greatest Show on Turf and the start of the Patriots’ dynasty.
They’ve met three times since, when Martz was still with St. Louis and when he was the offensive coordinator for Detroit and San Francisco, and each of those games went to New England. Those teams didn’t have the personnel to beat the Patriots. But now, Martz is on his best team since that Super Bowl.
“We always have trouble against Mike,” Belichick said. “He does a great job with the formations, the personnel groupings, his passing concepts are very difficult to defend. If you stop one, that opens up something else. They complement each other well. You never feel safe when you’re playing Mike’s offense, they’re one play away from a big, explosive play.”