CHICAGO -- On an afternoon that defined blustery, with winds of up to 50 mph roaring in off nearby Lake Michigan and whipping the snow around Soldier Field as if it were shredded confetti, the New England defense established once again that it should not be just relegated to status as the "other" part of what many consider as the NFL's premier team.
"When the big headline coming into the game is like, 'their defense against our offense,' then, yeah, you take it a little personally," acknowledged New England free safety James Sanders after the Patriots' dominating 36-7 victory here. "We wanted to prove that they weren't the only physical defense out there."
The New England defense limited the Chicago Bears, who entered the contest on a five-game winning streak of their own, to 185 yards and 12 first downs. They took the ball away four times, twice each on fumble recoveries and interceptions. And the defense accounted for 10 points, including a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown by inside linebacker Gary Guyton, which made the score 21-0 five minutes into the second quarter and sent all but the hardiest Bears fans scurrying for the exits and the prospect of a steaming cup of hot chocolate at home.
In addition to the takeaways, New England had seven passes defensed, allowed only four series of more than three plays (and just two Chicago possession of more than six snaps), and limited the Bears to 47 rushing yards.
"There is no such thing as half a football team and we like to think that we're no different in that respect," said Guyton, who started only because of the late-week, four-game suspension of rookie Brandon Spikes, and who added an interception in the third quarter to accompany his fumble recovery. "People can ignore us if they want, but there's no 'short shrift' stuff inside this (locker) room.
Often overlooked because of the team's methodical offense, which continues to move the ball at a frightening clip, even without a consistent deep threat, the New England defense entered the game statistically 31st the league. The Pats were No. 18 in scoring defense, allowing 22.4 points per game. But the young and overhauled defense is getting better, "maturing every day," inside linebacker Jerod Mayo said, and on Sunday the unit took another giant step toward recognition.
Even after a complete the butt-whipping, much of the rhetoric in the Chicago locker room was about the surgical New England offense engineered by quarterback Tom Brady (27 of 40, 369 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 113.4), and appropriately so. After an opening-game three-and-out, the Patriots moved the ball as if they were playing on a balmy afternoon. Wide receiver Deion Branch and slot receiver Wes Welker each had eight receptions, tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis slogged for 87 yards, and the Patriots made things look relatively effortless posting 475 yards.
About the weather, which called for snow shovels more than shovel-passes, Bears coach Lovie Smith suggested: "There's no answer for things like that."
The Pats, though, kept coming up with answers. Which begs the question: Is this the best team in the league?
During its five-game winning streak, New England has outscored its opponents by a 196-88 count. Such a ratio, of more than two-to-one, is unheard of in a league where more than 40 percent of the games are determined by a touchdown or less. In the last three games, the Patriots have a whopping 126-34 scoring advantage over their vanquished foes. In the 10 quarters the Patriots have played since trailing Detroit 17-10 at halftime on Thanksgiving, New England has outscored opponents 116-17.
Nothing seems to faze the Patriots, like the Spikes suspension, or in-game injuries to a couple starters.
Or, on this day, the weather.
New England coach Bill Belichick, typically understating the obvious, allowed that "it was less than perfect out there," but it didn't seem to matter to his team.
It was an afternoon in which the Soldier Field grounds crew was forced to run out on the field during every timeout and sweep the playing surface, attempting to clear the yard-markers, the hash-marks, and the sidelines. Forget blocking sleds; the day was designed more for dog sleds. The guys cleaning the field got more shove than the Chicago offensive line. And the old term "moving the pile" took on a radically different connotation.
About the only brief respite from the surreal scene came when the public address system rather ironically blared the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" after the Pats scored their first touchdown on Brady's seven-yarder to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But like most bears in such conditions, Chicago hibernated, and the club never heeded the exhortation of its scoreboard: "This is your wake-up call."
On Saturday, The Sports Xchange wrote in a column that the tough-guy Patriots' offensive linemen likely would eschew long-sleeved uniform jerseys despite the frigid conditions. Fittingly, so did most members of the New England defense on Sunday afternoon. And they proved to be as equally rugged as their offensive line colleagues for most of the game.
"We're a pretty complete team," deadpanned New England strong safety Patrick Chung. "As a defense, we like to do our part."
Belichick might have put things even better as his team hustled out toward the waiting buses and into the bone-chilling night.
"That's what good football players do for the most part," Belichick said. "I mean, they play well in all conditions."
And on all sides of the ball.