CHICAGO – The day started off brilliantly for New England. A cloudless day and sparkling sunshine mimicked the way the Patriots got going against the Chicago Bears.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski back in Foxborough with a back injury, the Patriots relied on their ground game for much of the game's opening drive.
The Bears tried to throw New England's offense off by rushing their best defender, OLB Khalil Mack, from the right side, rather than his customary left. That put Mack up against left tackle Trent Brown instead of the expected matchup with backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Mack also dropped him into coverage at times, but his bum ankle rendered him mostly ineffective.
Tom Brady and the offense executed a nearly flawless first drive that ended with Julian Edelman taking a screen pass and bulldozing his way into the end zone.
Then, conditions changed. While the weather remained chilly and bright, the Patriots went cold. Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson coughed up the ball at New England's 24-yard line after the Bears put three points on the board in the late first quarter. That led – a few plays later – to Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky scoring himself on a broken pass play. Rolling to his right, Trubisky was nearly sacked around his own 30-yard line, but evaded defensive end Adrian Clayborn and found nothing but green grass and a convoy of teammates to escort him untouched to the opposite side of the field and into the front corner of the end zone.
The first play of the second quarter proved devastating for New England. Rookie running back Sony Michel lost a fumble and injured his left knee as he was being twisted and tackled awkwardly by a group of Bears defenders. He was eventually carted off to the locker room.
Meanwhile, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Elandon Roberts both dropped potential interceptions of Trubisky in the red zone and end zone, respectively, on the ensuing Bears possession before Chicago completed that drive with a Jordan Howard touchdown plunge from the 2-yard line.
Patterson atoned for his first-quarter mistake when he took the short ensuing kickoff from the Patriots' 5-yard line, went up the numbers on the left side of the field, then burst through a well-blocked hole in the Bears' coverage. Patterson needed to beat kicker Cody Parkey in a footrace to the end zone, which he did with ease – he even paused around the Chicago 5-yard line to high-five rookie teammate J.C. Jackson, who provided one of the key earlier blocks on the play.
"It was a great feeling [to score]. All week, we planned it," said Patterson, who credited his teammates with the blocking and special teams coordinator Joe Judge with the play's design.
"Coach told me to be aggressive… Those 10 guys [blocking], they did a hell of a job of setting up those blocks for me. Joe Judge does a great job every week game planning and knowing what a kicker is going to do and helping us prepare for moments like that."
That play helped spark the Patriots' O, which mounted another crisp scoring drive that resulted in RB James White finding the end zone on a short pass out of the backfield from Brady.
New England averted further potential disaster just before halftime when Edelman, back in his own red zone to return a punt, saw the ball bounce off his facemask. He somehow managed to recover it, though, even with a group of Bears seemingly in better position to do so.
Despite all their first-half errors, New England went to their halftime locker room up 21-17.
"We answered a lot," Edelman remarked later. "We had two special teams touchdowns, which we were in need of. Special teams got challenged this week and they were able to go out and make some plays. But we also put ourselves in holes with turnovers, sloppy play, my muffed punt."
Poor tackling plagued the Patriots on defense much of the day, particularly when it came to bringing down Trubisky, who often found huge chunks of real estate on which to roam. Sloppy play also resulted in several penalties, with rookie corner J.C. Jackson being the most egregious offender. He had three.
"Keep fighting. You're going to have adversity," Jackson observed about his up-and-down performance versus Chicago. "Just have to move on to the next play."
It was also curious to see him get so much playing time, seemingly in place of veteran Jason McCourty. Yet he proved his coaches right with a spectacular INT of Trubisky later in the game. The D could have prevented another Bears TD had CB Stephon Gilmore been able to hang onto what looked like a sure INT in the end zone just before Chicago retook the lead in the third quarter. It proved a brief lead, though, as the Patriots knotted up the score at 24 with a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
"We were able to execute when we had to," continued Edelman. "That's how it goes. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes, executes more, makes plays, usually wins."
This game was littered with big plays, and a Dont'a Hightower blocked punt that Kyle Van Noy returned for a third-quarter touchdown gave the Patriots the decisive advantage on the scoreboard.
"He had a great play. Going back and watching that on film is going to be sick," Van Noy said of Hightower's block. "He did all the work, and I guess I get all the glory."
It was odd that Chicago believed Mack, on a bad ankle, would be better off spending most of this game dropping to cover receivers and running backs, rather than trying to do what he does best, which is get to the quarterback. Aside from his gaudy rushing stats, Trubisky didn't have a great game throwing the ball, which certainly helped the Patriots' cause.
If you told me before kickoff that the Bears would score more than 30 points against New England, I'd have guessed that would be enough for them to win the game. In the final analysis, this victory can be viewed by New England as a character test that they successfully passed. Winning on the road is almost never easy, and for the Patriots to do so – for the first time this season – despite making all the mistakes they did is a testament to their talent, coaching, and preparation for this game.
"So, it was great to come out of here with a win," added Edelman. "Coming to Chicago, a hostile environment, a lot of mistakes, but getting a win on the road, it's always good."