One of my favorite parts about my Top 20 Patriots Moments series is that it allows me to go back and relive this past season in a way that extends far beyond just remembering it fondly. I get to dive back into individual games, rediscover interesting stats, and dissect individual plays in a way I simply can't do during the season, as there is just too much else going on. What's crazy about the process is that, more often than not, I find myself feeling the exact same emotions I felt when the game was happening live, even though I already know the outcome. Whether that speaks highly or poorly of me is up for debate, but if I were a betting man, I'd choose the latter.
And the number 14 moment represents one of those times when it's really, really fun to be a Patriots fan, as it was one of those games in which New England took control right from the jump and didn't let up once. There was no nervousness, no last-minute scores or interceptions, and the game was never in doubt from the start. It was also the game that saw the re-emergence of the team's second most dangerous weapon and a warning to the entire NFL that the Pats were officially back.
But first, the list so far:
20. wins a job - and our hearts - with a spectacular preseason.
19. officially arrives in a Week 6 contest against the .
18. The get embarrassed on national television with a 41-14 beatdown at the hands of the .
17. The Patriots sign .
16. Vince Wilfork and Jamie Collins help the Patriots lock up a 1st round bye against the New York Jets.
15. Chandler Jones blocks a Blair Walsh field goal attempt against the Minnesota Vikings to keep the momentum with the Patriots.
If I had to sum up The Number 14 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2014 in two words, it would be "Gronk Spike."
14. Rob Gronkowski officially returns to form as the Patriots destroy the Chicago Bears.
By the time the 3-4 Bears came to Foxboro to take on the 5-2 Patriots, it was fairly clear that these were two teams heading in opposite directions. Chicago had started the season relatively strong, but had been faltering more and more as the year went on, dropping a game against the Dolphins the week before. The Pats, on the other hand, were on something of a tear since their Monday Night embarrassment at the hands of the Chiefs and were riding a three game win streak. The Bears were hoping to turn things around, while the Patriots were looking to build some crucial momentum going into the second half of the season and gain some much needed confidence in the week before a pivotal matchup against the Denver Broncos.
The game couldn't have started out much better for New England. A brief Bears drive to start the game ended in a punt, and the Patriots needed just five plays to get into the end zone: a pass to Brandon LaFell, three Jonas Gray runs, and then a six yard pass to Gronk for the score. The connection would place Brady and Gronk ahead of Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates on the NFL's all-time QB/TE touchdown list.
Chicago only ran six plays on their ensuing drive before having to punt again. New England would possess the ball for the rest of the 1st quarter, a 17 play, 68 yard drive that took over seven minutes off the clock and ended in a Gostkowski field goal after a false start at the goal line short circuited a fourth and goal try.
A three and out from Chicago, and the Pats were right back in business. Gronk was running wild all over the field, completely outmatching any coverage the Bears tried to present. He was sharp in his cuts, powerful off the line, and decisive in his routes. New England would drive 76 yards on 10 plays, with 37 of those yards coming on two Gronkowski receptions - one of which was a 21 yard pickup on 3rd and 18 after a holding penalty sent the Pats back 10 yards. Tim Wright found the end zone off a Tommy B playaction at the 1 to put New England up 17-0. At this point, the Bears had shown absolutely nothing, and if they didn't get some points on the board, this one was going to get out of hand fast.
Jay Cutler was finally able to get something going on Chicago's next possession, even though he got a lucky break when a bogus illegal contact penalty on Brandon Browner negated a Devin McCourty interception that would have set the Patriots up at the 22 yard line. Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffery picked up most of the 77 yards that finally put the Bears on the board off of a deep sideline pass to Forte (once again, linebackers in coverage on a wheel route). A 17 point lead was suddenly a 10 point lead, and the Bears had finally shown some life.
Fortunately for New England, Gronk was simply unstoppable. The Pats came right back out and went 80 yards in 10 plays, with half of those yards coming from Gronkowski. As the clock ran inside two minutes, Brady hit Gronk on a beautiful fade route that he was able to haul in to put the Patriots once again up by three scores. Patriots 24, Bears 7, with 1:52 left to play.
41 seconds later, it was 31-7. Chicago ran three plays for -3 yards before having to punt, and Julian Edelman returned it 42 yards to the 19. Tack on a holding penalty on the Bears, and suddenly it was once again 1st and Goal for New England. Tommy B hit LaFell in the left corner of the end zone, and it was a straight-up blowout.
However, the Patriots weren't quite done scoring just yet. After kicking off to the Bears, a Jay Cutler strip sack was recovered by Rob Ninkovich and returned 15 yards for yet another score on Chicago's very first play from scrimmage. By the time the halftime whistle mercifully blew, it was 38-7 New England, and Pats fans everywhere had a rare opportunity to just relax and enjoy the second half for a change, the game well in hand.
New England got the ball back to start the third quarter, and as they had all game, they wasted no time in putting points on the board. A combination of Tim Wright and Julian Edelman got the Patriots from their own 10 to the Chicago 46 before the drive started to stall. An incomplete pass to Edelman and a short completion to Wright put the Patriots in a 3rd and 4 situation and perhaps their first punt of the entire game.
Gronk, however, had different plans.
Brady came out in shotgun, Shane Vereen initially lined up wide to his left before motioning in to line up behind Lafell in a slot bunch. Gronk was close to the line on the strong side with Danny Amendola in the slot and Edelman wide on the right. At the snap, both LaFell and Vereen ran identical shallow slants across the middle as Amendola and Edelman ran slightly deeper hook and post routes respectively. Gronk initially motioned towards the right sideline, but cut inside and broke left instead. The saftey, forced to cheat up to cover Vereen as he broke across the middle, abandoned his post and allowed Tommy B to hit Gronkowski in stride. Gronk made the catch, shook off the defender, and ran for daylight. Ryan Mundy, who was back deep to guard against the big play, charged over to try and make the tackle. "Try" is the key word here, because Gronk more or less picked him up and tossed him aside like The Predator on Arnold Schwarzenegger and just kept on going. Cornerback Al Louis-Jean was able to catch Gronkowski about four yards away from the end zone, but he was unable to bring him down as the tight end plowed into the end zone for his third touchdown of the day. It was Tommy B's 5th TD pass, the third time in his career he had a 5 TD game. Patriots 45, Bears 7. Gronk would check out for the remainder of the game, as would most of the starters as New England rolled to a 51-23 shellacking that wasn't even remotely as close as the score dictates. Gronk finished the day with 149 yards on nine receptions to go with his three touchdowns.
Up until this game, Gronk had only shown brief flashes of his ability. He was still a little rusty, he wasn't getting the separation he usually gets, and there were some questions about whether or not he would ever return to form. This game put all of those questions to bed as he once again asserted himself as the best tight end in the game and, when fully healthy, absolutely impossible to cover. The Bears threw everything they had at Gronk - bracket coverage, safety shades, linebacker crashes - and nothing worked. He ran absolutely wild all over the field and spiked his way back into our collective hearts. If there was ever any doubt about how unbelievably dominant Gronk truly can be, those doubts went right out the window.
Full game highlights here.