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Game Observations: Special win on road for Pats

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The Patriots first road win of the season did not come easy and featured more than a few anxious moments, but when the dust cleared New England came away from the Windy City with a 38-31 victory.

Led by some opportunistic special teams work, the Patriots fifth victory of the season provided plenty of highlights.

-There was quite a bit of concern over the weekend regarding Rob Gronkowski and that turned out to be warranted. After having a back injury added to his ankle woes on the Friday injury, he went from questionable to out over the next 24 hours. ESPN reported that the All-Pro tight end did not make the trip to Chicago and a bit later the team announced he was out. In addition to Gronk, the Patriots were also without Jacob Hollister, leaving the tight end position to just Dwayne Allen.

-The Patriots had another personnel issue to deal with as Marcus Cannon was forced out of the lineup due to a concussion he sustained in last week’s win over Kansas City. That forced LaAdrian Waddle into the starting lineup but he wasn’t forced to go against Mack much since the Bears used him on the opposite side often. Trent Brown did a solid job but also benefitted from Mack’s ankle injury which kept him off the practice field most of the week and clearly impacted his play.

-There was another interesting element to the pass protection that had little to do with the offensive line. Strangely the Bears used Mack and fellow defensive end Leonard Floyd often in coverage as the Patriots did a nice job of dictating the matchups and creating schemes that required the edge rushers to chase James White on short passes underneath.

-The Patriots suffered through quite a bit of sloppy play throughout the game, and once again the defense was often on its heels trying to deal with an athletic quarterback. But unlike most weeks when games like that could often be viewed negatively, the Patriots ability to fight through the adversity on the road and come away with a win was impressive. New England turned the ball over three times and suffered through some significant injuries yet came away with the victory thanks to some toughness when it mattered most.

-In addition to playing without Gronkowski, the Patriots were forced to go without Sony Michel for most of the game. Michel got twisted in a pile on the first play of the second quarter and wound up fumbling but more importantly left with a knee injury and didn’t return. Michel is the team’s only true option as a traditional ball carrier and his absence forced Kenjon Barner to pick up 10 carries, and later James White to close it out. White was immense on the final drive and finished with 11 carries for 40 yards – modest production until considering he grinded it a pair of first downs in the four-minute offense as the Patriots effectively milked the clock. By the time Chicago got the ball back there were just 24 seconds left and the Bears were 80 yards away from a tying touchdown.

-Bill Belichick was faced with an interesting choice following that final drive as the Patriots faced a fourth-and-six from the Bears 33 with 30 seconds remaining. After calling timeout, Belichick had a few options and went with the safest one. The coach could have kept the offense on the field and gone for the first down, which would have officially ended the game. He also could have called on Stephen Gostkowski to kick a 51-yard field goal to make it 41-31, which also would have ended the game. Instead he went with conventional wisdom and had Ryan Allen punt it through the end zone for a touchback. That forced Chicago to go the length of the field, and ultimately the Bears came up a yard short when Kevin White caught Mitch Trubisky’s Hail Mary inside the 1 but was unable to push his way into the end zone.

-The Patriots first drive of the day was one of their most impressive of the season. After taking over following a touchback, the offense effortlessly marched 75 yards for a touchdown with an array of delays and screens that caught the Bears off guard. Michel opened with an 18-yard run on a delayed handoff, then picked up 13 on a screen. White added a nice pickup on another screen for 14 yards and in a matter of seconds the Patriots were knocking on the door. Other than one incomplete pass that came as a result of heavy pressure on anther attempted screen, the shortest gain on the other seven plays was 6 yards. Ultimately the possession ended with Julian Edelman’s 9-yard touchdown on – you guessed it – a screen. Excellent example of game planning that worked to perfection.

-Turnovers have plagued the Patriots during the first half of the season and that was the case once again in Chicago. New England coughed it up three times and the Bears cashed in for touchdowns each time. Cordarrelle Patterson lost a fumble on the kickoff following a Cody Parkey field goal that opened the scoring for the Bears. He appeared to lose the ball when he was inadvertently hit by teammates Nicholas Grigsby on a short return. After a Bears touchdown, Michel lost the ball on the play he was injured and that led to another Bears touchdown, giving the hosts a 17-7 lead. The last miscue came late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots seemingly in control with a 38-24 lead. Facing third-and-two from the Chicago 35, Tom Brady unwisely tried to hit James Develin in the flat as he was being hit. Develin was well covered and the pass was ultimately deflected and picked off by Kyle Fuller. Soon the Bears were back in the game after 63 yards for a touchdown. Brady called the frequent turnovers “frustrating” after the game.

-That final miscue nearly proved fatal as Chicago almost pulled off a miracle. Following Allen’s final punt, Chicago used a few short passes to move out to their 45 to set up Trubisky’s final heave. Belichick put Josh Gordon into the lineup as an extra defensive back, and the wideout failed to get a hand on the final pass. That allowed White to catch the ball inside the 1, but Duron Harmon was able to stand up the wideout before he could cross the goal line for the potential tying touchdown.

-Mobile quarterbacks have given the Patriot front fits all season, and Trubisky was very effective as a runner. He carried six times for 81 yards including a 39-yard gallop down to the 1 on the first possession of the second half. Trubisky did a great job of leaving the pocket and found lots of running room when he did, picking up several first downs with his legs. The front continues to struggle with containment and the linebackers have had trouble chasing once those mobile quarterbacks take off. It’s something Belichick needs to continue to work on.

-Turnovers weren’t the only problem as penalties (seven for 64 yards) and uncharacteristic sloppiness also hindered the performance. The Patriots were hit with a pair of personal fouls on special teams – one on Keion Crossen for blocking the gunner out of bounds and the other on Brandon King for a facemask. The strangest of all came when the Patriots were whistled for delay of game on a kickoff, which seemed to catch Belichick off guard. The Patriots were also forced to burn a timeout when they got caught with 10 players on the field when the Bears were preparing to go for it on fourth-and-two.

-That lost timeout could have been a factor later in the first half when the Patriots took over deep in their territory in the final minutes of the first half. With just one timeout at his disposal, Belichick chose to play it safe so when Barner picked up a first down with a pair of runs the Patriots were content to go to the locker room with a 21-17 lead. Had they had two timeouts left, it’s possible Belichick would have been more aggressive.

-Patterson’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown completely changed the tenor of the game as he quickly eliminated the 10-point hole the early turnovers created. But the biggest play of the day came in the third quarter with the score tied at 24. The Bears were forced to punt and Dont’a Hightower stormed in to block Pat O’Donnell’s punt and Kyle Van Noy scooped it up and ran 29 yards for the touchdown. The Patriots never trailed again and it was New England’s first blocked punt for a touchdown since 1996 when Tedy Bruschi scored in a win in Baltimore.

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