Six takeaways: Patriots escape by a yard . . . literally

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Six takeaways: Patriots escape by a yard . . . literally

CHICAGO -- Here are some quick-hitting thoughts from the Patriots' wild 38-31 win over the Bears . . . 

The game seemed over when the Pats had a 38-24 lead and the ball, and -- despite an interception and a subsequent Chicago touchdown that cut the lead to seven -- still seemed over when the Pats, having forced Chicago to use all its timeouts, punted in the final 30 seconds. The Bears had to go 80 yards in 24 seconds with no timeouts . . . and they fell one yard short:

The Rutgers trio makes the stop at the goal line to preserve the Patriots win. Not exactly the finish you're looking for  -- it was an ugly game on multiple fronts -- but the Patriots are headed home 5-2.

Sony Michel left the game after the first play of the second quarter when he suffered an ugly knee injury and had to be carted to the Patriots locker room. In his place, both James White and Kenjon Barner saw increased roles. White carried 11 times for 40 yards and caught eight passes for 57 yards and two scores. (White now has 45 catches through seven games.) Barner carried 10 times for 36 yards and served more as the between-the-tackles runner once he got involved. At 5-foot-9 and less than 200 pounds, Barner's not exactly a "big back." Far from it. But he didn't see a target in the passing game. At the end of the game, the Patriots went back to White to kill clock. White is one of the most sure-handed ball-carriers in football. He has not fumbled in the regular season in his career. He kept that streak alive and now has 359 regular-season touches without a fumble. (He's fumbled once as a pro, in the 2015 postseason.)

In yet another sign that Tom Brady and Josh Gordon are starting to connect on a level that few Patriots receivers reach, Brady sent Gordon a back-shoulder throw on a fourth-and-one play on their sixth drive of the half . . . and they connected. Gordon made an acrobatic, hands-only, leaping grab that extended the Patriots drive and eventually led to a James White touchdown. Asked about back-shoulder throws this week, Gordon said he felt better about them -- despite missing badly on three previous attempts with Brady in Weeks 5 and 6 -- and Brady agreed. The proof was on the field in a critical moment. On a throw that requires timing, chemistry, and an ability to see the coverage through one set of eyes, Brady and Gordon executed. That has to be a scary thing for opposing defenses moving forward. Brady's 55-yard completion to Gordon -- Gordon's longest catch-and-run since 2013 -- helped set up a fourth-quarter touchdown by James White to go up, 38-24.

Dont'a Hightower isn't known as a special teams maven, but he made one of the plays of the game when he blocked a Bears punt that was scooped up by Kyle Van Noy and returned for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 31-24 lead. The play kick-started my short-term memory because I'd spent a good portion of Wednesday tracking down old Bill Belichick quotes on Lawrence Taylor. One of the things Belichick loved about Taylor? His willingness to play special teams and his effectiveness there. Belichick may have had the same kinds of thoughts rolling through his head when Hightower and Van Noy combined for one of the biggest swings in the game. 

"When I was with the Giants, Lawrence Taylor was on four special teams," Belichick said in December of 2014. ". . . And [he] made an impact on all of them, too. He wasn’t just out there taking up space. Whether it’s [Julian] Edelman or [Jamie] Collins or [Rob] Ninkovich, you can go right down the line, the guys that are out there – we’ve had them in the past, the [Rodney] Harrisons, the [Tedy] Bruschis, the [Mike] Vrabels, the [Lawyer] Milloys, Troy Brown – some of our best players made some of the biggest plays in this franchise’s history in the kicking game. Players that are competitive that want to help their team win, want to help their team win in every situation, not selectively. Like they’re just going to do it here, do it there, because that’s when it’s convenient or when they feel like – good football players, championship players, winning players, they do it every chance they get."

Kyle Van Noy helped snuff out a Bears third-down try when he lined up on the line of scrimmage and then instead of rushing the passer, he dropped to spy Trubisky. Facing pressure, and with nowhere to run, Trubisky sailed an ill-advised pass (one of many for him) incomplete. The Patriots had been gashed by Trubisky runs to that point, and perhaps spying him (something the Patriots did frequently to Marcus Mariota in last year's Divisional Round) was the answer Bill Belichick needed. Like Mariota, Trubisky is athletic, but he's not a good on-the-move passer. There's a balance to strike between pressuring a quarterback like that to force him into bad decisions and keeping his legs under control. Having a dedicated spy on that first-half snap helped the Patriots strike that balance. The Patriots later utilized Elandon Roberts and Dont'a Hightower in a similar role but they continued to have issues containing him. Trubisky finished with six carries for 81 yards. 

Makes sense, right? That's something that's said inside the walls of Gillette Stadium ad nauseum. You can't win until you learn how not to lose. Well somehow the Patriots led the Bears at halftime, 21-17, despite playing losing football for large portions of the first 30 minutes. They fumbled twice, once on a kick-return that led to a quick Chicago scoring drive. They were penalized four times for 28 yards, but they had two more penalties that were declined. Breakdowns up front led to 42 yards rushing on five attempt by Mitch Trubisky. It was ugly, and it gave Bill Belichick and his staff plenty to work on during next week's practices before they even hit the locker room. 

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End of an era: Dante Scarnecchia to retire having made immense impact on Patriots dynasty

End of an era: Dante Scarnecchia to retire having made immense impact on Patriots dynasty

MIAMI — It's the end of an era in New England. While there is still no determination on Tom Brady's future whereabouts, we do know that another Patriots staple will not be roaming the sidelines at Gillette Stadium in 2020.

Dante Scarnecchia is retiring. 

The longtime offensive line, who will turn 72 next month, has been with the team in a variety of capacities since 1982. He began as a special teams and tight ends coach, departed briefly for a stint in Indianapolis, and has been back since 1991.

He's coached all three phases, and even taken on head-coaching duties when he was asked late in the 1992 season. But Scarnecchia has developed what might one day be considered a Hall of Fame résumé as the offensive line coach in New England. 

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Since 1999 — first under Pete Carroll, then under Bill Belichick — Scarnecchia has directed the offensive line group in Foxboro. He retired following the 2013 season and stayed away from the game for two years before getting back into it in 2016. He's won five Super Bowl rings coordinating the blocking schemes that protected Tom Brady. 

Throughout his career, he's been lauded by players and fellow coaches alike for his unyielding work ethic and his attention to detail. The hours he's put in — oftentimes on off days or after practices — have helped mold everyone from first-round picks to undrafted free agents into championship players.

It was under Scarnecchia that Stephen Neal went from a wrestler who'd never played offensive line to a Super Bowl-winner. Both Nate Solder and Trent Brown have fallen into record-setting free-agent contracts in recent years after working with Scarnecchia.

"You really see that and how detail-oriented he is, and how much he puts into it each week," center David Andrews told me back in September. "It's really impressive. He makes sure, for us, there's no stone unturned. That's what makes us go out there and play really confident. We feel so prepared. 

"Whatever they throw at us is nothing we're not prepared for. Maybe we haven't seen it. Maybe it's a new wrinkle. But somewhere, somehow we've been prepared for it. Whether it's the techniques we've learned, or the communication, or just the overall schemes and how we want to run our offense."

Andrews added: "He's definitely a demanding coach for sure. But I think there's two sides of him, and I think that's what makes him so special and loved and respected by not only us as players but the whole team. 

"He cares for us. He has our back. He sticks up for us. We're all in it together . . . He includes himself in that. I think that means a lot to you as a player."

Scarnecchia has had a pair of assistants in recent years who've helped him coach his linemen. Coaching assistant Cole Popovich has worked with that group, but more recently those duties fell to Carmen Bricillo, who was in his first year with the Patriots in 2019. The Patriots typically like to promote coaches from within, making Bricillo and Popovich among the leading candidates to fill Scarnecchia's role. 

No matter who it is, it is the end of an era for the Patriots. 

Rob Gronkowski: Patriots QB Tom Brady 'deserves' chance to test free agent market

Rob Gronkowski: Patriots QB Tom Brady 'deserves' chance to test free agent market

The New England Patriots suffered a huge loss on offense after Super Bowl LIII when future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, and they might have to deal with a similarly impactful exit this offseason.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's contract expires in March, at which point he would be able to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his 20-year NFL career.

Gronkowski thinks Brady deserves the chance to test the free agent market and see what kind of offers are available.

"I really haven't talked to Tom like that. I did talk to him, though, after the game, just talked, it wasn't even all about football," Gronkowski told reporters Tuesday in Miami, via's Zack Cox. "Some of it was about life and all. I truly believe that he deserves the opportunity to go explore and see what's out there. He's been playing for so long. Just the way that he's been playing, the level he's been playing at, he definitely deserves an opportunity to go out there and test the market. Why wouldn't you? You've never done it before in your career.

"He's going to be a free agent for the first time ever. Good for him. Test out the market, and then do what's best for himself. That's the decision he has to make -- what's best for himself, what's best for his family, what he feels like he's going to love."

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Would it be strange to see Brady in a non-Patriots jersey?

"It's always strange, no matter who the player is," Gronkowski said. "If you see a player play on a team for 10 years and then go to another team, it's always strange at first. Everyone gets used to it after a little bit. It would definitely be strange, I would say, if that happens, for a couple weeks it may be strange. Everyone adapts, like any other time it happens."

Brady has won a record six Super Bowl titles in New England since the team drafted him 199th overall in 2000. He's absolutely earned the right to see what rival teams are willing to offer him, but Grnnkowski is right: It would be strange to see him wearing a jersey in 2020 that doesn't say "Patriots" on it.

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