Six observations from the Patriots' 36-7 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field:
1. Rob Gronkowski's growth easy to see: At the beginning of the season, one of the things to watch was how the Patriots' young players would develop. We've seen improvement from a lot of players -- Brandon Tate, Jermaine Cunningham, Danny Woodhead -- but rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski is at the top of the list. His 7-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter was a great example of how far he's come. Early in the year, he was having some struggles with the subtle aspects of running routes against quicker defenders who would get good position on him, and we saw him penalized for offensive pass interference as he would use his hands to push off defenders and get separation. You have the back judge looking at the tight end specifically, and it seemed like Gronkowski was getting targeted for those calls. On his first touchdown Sunday, he pulled a classic veteran move, lowering his shoulder into linebacker Brian Urlacher as he was turning to the ball, so it looked like he was continuing his route while he was actually driving Urlacher back into the end zone and creating separation for himself. That's a move used by veteran tight ends, as you don't necessarily use your hands but you're contacting the defender, getting that separation, while still running your route and giving your quarterback a target. You saw Urlacher look back at the official and complain, but he knew he really couldn't because it was so well done. Gronkowski did it against one of the best in the NFL.
2. Can't have the MOBPs against Patriots: When Rob Ryan was the Patriots' linebackers coach from 2000 to 2003, we used to have an acronym -- MOBP. It's "missed opportunities for a big play." I know it doesn't exactly fit -- people would say, "What about the F and A?" -- but come on, we're linebackers. If you're going to beat the 2010 New England Patriots, you have to have those big plays. The Bears had the tipped ball in the end zone in the first quarter that safety Chris Harris almost intercepted. There was also Urlacher's dropped interception. The Patriots scored 10 points because the Bears had MOBPs. If you're missing those, it's probably not your day against New England. The Patriots are 10-0 with a positive turnover differential this season.
3. Devin McCourty and his rib injury: Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty has put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season, whether we're talking about a rookie or a veteran.
It was like last year with Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who had nine interceptions in his rookie season and opened eyes. With McCourty battling a rib injury, the bye week in the playoffs could be very important. McCourty reminds me of Charles Woodson. Like Woodson, he does it all. He does not have the same body type as Woodson -- not as long -- but he's a great tackler, makes big plays, forces fumbles and intercepts passes. He's an all-around corner and has the potential to be one of the best corners in the NFL because of his all-around game. You look at a lot of corners and they are outstanding at one skill -- man-to-man, shutdown corner, scheme corner, run-support corner. He excels at all of that. From what I hear, he is also respected in the locker room and knows how to be a professional. I remember meeting him in the offseason before he was drafted when he was visiting ESPN. I had a short conversation with him about how he would handle his visits to various teams. I was impressed then. I'm even more impressed now. The pro shop better stock up on No. 32 jerseys because this kid is legit. Shoot, I might buy one.
4. Momentum, a bye week, and the Packers: The Patriots are playing so well right now, and have built up so much momentum in every phase of the game, that the only thing that has the possibility to slow them down is the postseason bye week. I know coach Bill Belichick has a great sense of where his team is, and how he handles the bye week once the playoffs start will be very important. How much rest will they get? How much work? How many meetings and padded practices? How much extra time off? He's going to have to consider that a lot of these players haven't had a bye week in the playoffs and don't know exactly how to treat it. As for looking ahead to Sunday night against the Packers, if Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn't play because of that concussion, consider the Patriots 12-2. I watched Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn in that game against the Lions and it wasn't pretty. Maybe another week helps him, but if he's in there, I think that bye week is going to be hand-delivered to the Patriots.
5. Weather affects Bears' defense: When looking at how the snowy conditions played a factor in Sunday's game, one of the key areas was with the Bears' defense. It is a defense that is predicated on pressure, and when you're rushing the passer, one thing you need is get-off. Julius Peppers is that type of rusher. Israel Idonije is that type of rusher. They rely on their quickness off the ball, and when defensive linemen like that play in snow, it slows them down. It's an equalizer to that speed off the edge. Another area is with their zone principles and the importance of breaking on the ball. The way that defense is played, you watch the quarterback and the defense breaks on the ball based on the quarterback's read, but the snow made it harder for them to do that. When they did have success and covered that first read, the pressure didn't get there fast enough, so Tom Brady was able to go to his second read in those situations. That is a defense that if the pressure can't get there, it doesn't work. So in snowy conditions, sometimes the offense can have the advantage because it's difficult for the defensive linemen to get off, and also to anchor against the run. You saw that with the Patriots driving the Bears off the ball. That's why once the Patriots got up 21-0, the conditions were such that the Bears entered hibernation.
6. Why the Patriots are so good in the snow: One reason why I had said I hoped it would snow last Monday night against the Jets is that when it snows, the Patriots win. Whenever I came out of the tunnel and saw snowflakes, I knew it would be a good day. You look at the connection of Brady to Wes Welker; it's a California kid to a Texas kid. How are they so good in the snow? Because they're conditioned to be, with the way Belichick coaches this team. If we were ever preparing for a game in which rain was in the forecast, you'd see Coach Belichick dousing the ball with water in practice, making it harder for the center/quarterback exchange. If we were practicing in the fieldhouse and it was going to be a cold game, he'd turn the heat off. So you're going in there thinking it's going to be all nice and warm, but it was really cold. He challenges his team to deal with those elements. Then you also look at Brady himself -- he's so fundamentally sound, the way he plants his back foot and uses his torso to rotate, and has a good release point on the ball. You take that and combine it with a strong arm -- he throws a ball that can knife through the wind or whatever the elements may be. You saw a difference between a quarterback with a strong arm who relies on polished fundamentals (Brady) and plays well in bad conditions against a quarterback who can also throw the ball through wind, but mainly because he has a cannon for a right arm (Jay Cutler). The other point with the Patriots' offense is how the elements helped Deion Branch and Welker, both of whom went for more than 100 yards receiving. They are great athletes and as smaller, quicker receivers, they have a shorter stride and keep their feet in the framework of their bodies. They rarely get overextended and that's great for snow. On the other sideline, Devin Hester is very similar in ability.