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Patriots Report Card: Brady leads the way again

12.13.10 at 8:49 pm ET
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Report Card time, and it’s becoming copy and paste central over here.

What else can you do? The Patriots – save for a shaky first half in Detroit on Thanksgiving – over the last five weeks have played football at a level not seen from an NFL team since the Pats of 2007. The Bears were supposed to be a real test for the Pats, on the road in what appeared to be Eastern Siberia against a nine-win team with an elite defense and a QB who seemed to be putting it together. Put it another way: “Super Bowl Preview” didn’t seem in any way a reach.

But the Patriots toyed with the Bears, just as they did against the Jets, Steelers and Colts (for three quarters). It was nothing short of a humiliation, the football equivalent of having your three-year-old daughter open a jar of peanut butter that you couldn’t (as a totally fictitious example).

So the Patriots look to be on a collision course with 14-2 (unless you believe in the powers of Matt Flynn, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne) and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. And right now writing a report card for them comes down to figuring out what the difference is between an “A” and “A-,” and how many ways there are to kneel at the altar of Brady and Belichick. One more week like the last five and I think I’m in trouble.

So with that we go to the card ‘€¦


OK, 27-for-40, 369 yards passing, two TDs and zero INT’s in a snowstorm with 45-50 MPH winds and facing a top five defense? The best lousy-weather QB of all time, Tom Brady was ruthless on Sunday, picking apart the Bears’ Cover-2 Defense. Brady authored TD drives of 85, 87 and 80 yards in the first half and put the game on ice with a 59-yard TD pass to Deion Branch on the final play of the second quarter. I thought Brady’s best work of the day came on the first TD drive, as he converted a third-and-10 (Welker, 17 yards), a third-and-12 (an absolute bullet through the wind to Branch for 16 yards) and a third-and-goal at the seven-yard line to Gronkowski for the TD.

It’s not supposed to be this easy when it’s 65 degrees and no wind. Look at how poorly Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez played the last two weeks. That’s how most guys play in crappy weather. But Brady – who, to be fair, was nearly intercepted twice in the first half and wasn’t able to take advantage advantage of a short field after the Cutler fumble – played as well as can possibly be expected in those conditions and is now an almost incomprehensible 118-of-164 (72.0 percent) for 1,572 yards, 15 TDs and zero interceptions over the last five weeks.

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Brett Favre’s streak comes to an end

12.13.10 at 8:47 pm ET
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It was a streak that Bill Belichick compared to those of Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, and with good reason.

Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive games started spanned 19 years, or nearly three more seasons than Ripken’s Iron Man streak. The second-place quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning, has 205 straight starts to his credit. He would need to make all his starts through the middle of the 2016 season (perhaps late-2015 if the NFL expands its regular-season schedule) in order to match Favre, the three-time NFL MVP.

The streak had been in question before Monday. Indeed, there had been multiple games this year — including that between the Vikings and Patriots last month, when broken bones in his ankle made Favre’s ability to play unclear — when Favre’s status was up in the air in the days leading to the game. But every time, Favre answered the bell.

Apprised of his streak of games entering the contest against the Patriots, Favre reflected on his accomplishment.

‘€œAll I can say is, ‘€˜Wow.’€™ I kind of lost count a long time ago,” he said that week. “I’€™m very proud of the streak. But it probably should have ended a long time ago. Numerous injuries, some I touched on. The only reason I want to play ‘€¦ I don’€™t want to go out there for one play. I don’€™t want to go out there for three plays. If I’€™m able to play, I want to play the whole game, and give us a chance to win. You know, I know it makes for good TV, talking about the streak. Will it end? Will this be the injury that stops him? Or whatever. You know, whether it ends this week or whether it ends at the end of the year, it ends. I will always be proud of it. In the game of football every week, its a crapshoot, and I’€™ve been able to overcome a lot of injuries, so I’€™m thankful I’€™ve been able to play however many games in a row. But it’€™s all about helping this team win and getting us back on track. That’€™s the only thing I’€™m concerned about.”

On Monday, Favre was an inactive due to a right shoulder injury suffered against the Bills on the first drive last week. For the first time since 1992, the 41-year-old was not on the field for the start of his team’s game. The Vikings instead turned to Tarvaris Jackson. According to Ed Werder of ESPN (as passed along via twitter by Chris Mortensen), Minnesota could move Favre to injured reserve to end any question about his status for the rest of the year.

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The Big Nickel: Bill Belichick gives props to Tom Brady, Devin McCourty’s ribs and wondering about Aaron Rodgers

12.13.10 at 6:58 pm ET
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FOXBORO ‘€” The five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Monday:

1. After Sunday’€™s game, wide receiver Deion Branch hinted that while the sideline was yelling at the offense to take a knee to end the first half against the Bears, it was quarterback Tom Brady who wanted to go for another touchdown. The quarterback acknowledged Monday that he saw something in the Chicago defense that caused him to make the decision to take one more shot down the field.

‘€œWe didn’€™t have much to lose ‘€” the clock was running out. I kind of saw the coverage and I figured, ‘€˜It’€™s tough for the safeties to move in those conditions.’€™’€ Brady told WEEI on Monday. ‘€œI looked at the safety and he was backing straight up, he wasn’€™t wide at all. I kind of looked at him and just gave him a little pump to kind of hold him, and to hold the corner a little bit. And Deion raced by him. I threw it out there. Deion made a hell of a catch and run.

‘€œI was almost laughing. I couldn’€™t believe it. I couldn’€™t believe it. That was a very exciting play. I don’€™t think those happen very often. So, when you get them, you’€™ve just got to be very thankful.’€

It resulted in a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 33-0 lead at the end of the first half. On Monday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’€™t sound all that upset about the decision his quarterback made.

‘€œI thought it was a real smart play by Tom at the end of the half, knowing that there was time for one more play and I think when the ball was snapped with … whatever it was, three or four seconds left on the clock,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œHe took a shot down the field on a vertical pattern, and the safety ‘€” [Major] Wright ‘€” slid in there and took the seam, and Deion got behind [Charles] Tillman. Tom pumped the safety, looked out there and saw him and hit him. So it was a real good play there by Tom and Deion.

‘€œI think the timing of it was something that Tom knew what he was doing, obviously. Just running the last play to have a shot to thrown down the field, and it was there, great, and if it wasn’€™t, them the half was over and we were there with a 27-point lead.’€

2. Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty suffered an injury midway through the first half of Sunday’€™s win over the Bears ‘€” it looked like it happened during his strip of Chicago wide receiver Johnny Knox ‘€” and did not play at all in the second half. When asked if he could rate the seriousness of McCourty’€™s injury on a scale of one to 10 on Monday, Belichick responded, ‘€œWell we can give the same answer that we usually give on Monday which is, ‘€˜We’€™ll see on Wednesday.’€™’€œ

According to a report in the Boston Herald, McCourty underwent an MRI on his ribs Monday. If it’€™s serious, the Patriots could end up turning to Darius Butler, a corner who has started to gradually return to favorable status with the New England coaching staff.

‘€œDarius has played a lot of football for us over the course of the year, some earlier and some more recently,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œSo, absolutely, he’€™s out there ‘€“ whoever’€™s out there, anybody that’€™s on the field ‘€“ if we don’€™t have confidence in them, then we wouldn’€™t put them out there.

Butler said that whether or not McCourty is available, he’€™d continue to prepare as he has done throughout the rest of the season.

‘€œIt’€™ll be business as usual for me,’€ Butler said.

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Bill Belichick on Big Show: Weather not a huge factor

12.13.10 at 6:17 pm ET
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Patriots coach Bill Belichick made his weekly appearance on the Patriots Monday edition of The Big Show, discussing the team’s 36-7 victory over the Bears in snowy conditions, as well as its improvement throughout the year.

Here are the highlights:

On preparing for bad weather:

We practice in it [weather conditions], so I think that helps get you accustomed to it. We definitely talk about some of things that affect the game: the wind, the snow, the wetness, if there is that, the cold. I think it affects usually the kicking game first, but definitely affects the skill players and some of the things that they can do. So we try to maximize the things that we can do, and understand what’€™s going to be a problem for the opponents, and either make it more of a problem or defend what we think they’€™ll have the best chance of doing.

We can turn the heat off [practice bubble] but you can talk on Wednesday and say we’€™re going to get this kind of weather or that kind of weather, and then it comes out on Sunday and it is a totally different game, and then you look like a moron. That forecast for the Chicago game must have changed 20 times in the last three days’€”from how much it was going to snow, to how cold it was going to be, to how much it was going to blow.

You’€™re aware that the conditions could be less than perfect but Sunday morning is when we really talk about it the most. In the wind, in the snow, in the wetness, with the damp moisture on the field, what would we do and we talked about that a little more specifically on Sunday morning.  But up until that point, it could be a waste of time if the forecast changes.

On game-plan changes due to the weather:

“We definitely eliminated some plays or dropped them way down on the priority list. I think anytime you have a game-plan you always go into it and say ‘These are the ones that we want to run first.’ And if the conditions are such that that order list changes that can definitely happen. ‘Well we had this play but there’€™s too much risk in it, lets go with a different play where there’€™s less risk.”€

On Brady throwing differently in the wind:

“That’€™s one thing that Tom does very well: is he throws a tight ball which therefore the wind does not affect it as much.  It affected it a little bit, but once the ball starts to flutter and the wind gets a hold of it, it can really knock it down or change its course a little bit. If the ball is a tight spiral, which most of Tom’€™s balls are, then I don’€™t think the wind has a great effect on it.”

On Tom Brady’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch to end the first half:

“It was just a vertical route. We just had our wide-receivers going down the field on vertical routes. As the clock wound down, Tom’€™s thought was this is going to be the last play, and if it works and we have a shot at it we’€™ll take it and throw it down there and if we don’€™t we go into the half 27-0. When the ball was snapped Major Wright the safety kind of slid in and took the tight-end down the seam and that left [Deion] Branch open on the outside. Deion got behind [Charles] Tillman and Tom put it up there and it was just a foot race and Deion won it.

“It was a heads up play by Tom and Deion but had they all dropped back to the goal-line and just lined up thirty-yards from the line of scrimmage, the half would have been over.”

What is the biggest thing you look for to make these guys mesh together like they do?

“I think our scouting department Nick Caserio and his staff do a great job with scouting the talent throughout the league. When they bring people in, we work them out, we talk with them. But they do their research, Nick and his staff does the research, and if we feel the person can do, what we want them to, in that particular role, then we go forward with them. And if we don’€™t for whatever reason, then we try to move on to somebody else. Sometimes you have to just take the best player that’€™s available.”

How much is character a factor?

“Sure, you’€™re always looking for that. I don’€™t think there’€™s any question about that with Alge [Crumpler]. Whether it was Atlanta or Tennessee, he was one of the most respected players on the team, regardless of how long he had been in the league and of course he’€™s been a very good player. He’€™s done all that and more for us, if a guy has done all that and more for several years; it is probably a pretty good indication that he’€™s going to do that in your organization too.”

On the team’s improvement since their Week 2 loss to the Jets:

“[The Jets] were better than we were at that point, but as the season’s gone on, I think our team has improved in all three areas — in offense, defense and special teams. I think our preparation has improved. We’ve practiced better, we’ve been more consistent.”

On preparing for an offense like that of the Packers:

“Offensively, they use more formations and different personnel groups than nay teams we’ve seen. We’ve seen a lot, but these guys are just off the charts with formations that with scouting reports, you’d have to kill a whole forest to draw it. They’ve got a lot of stuff.”

Vince Wilfork on D&H: Snowy Chicago weather ‘played right into our hands’

12.13.10 at 3:51 pm ET
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Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork made his weekly appearance on the Dale & Holley show Monday afternoon and talked about how much he looked forward to playing in the snow during the Patriots’ victory over the Bears on Sunday in Chicago.

“Growing up, when you see football and when you see NFL’s greatest films, when you see all types of good football players, teams, it always had snow or bad weather. Always. Always,” he said. “And that was one of these games, where if you love football, that’s where you wanted to be, in this type of weather, snow. Especially the way we’re built to play, the style of play from us. It played right into our hands.

“So, I was kind of excited about going into this game and playing in this type of weather. That’s just me. That’s just me. Before I got here, I never played in any type of weather like this. But once I became a New Englander, we’ve seen some pretty good games, some bad-weather games. It introduced me to the NFL, what football should be about, this type of weather. So, I was kind of excited to play in it.”

Added Wilfork: “People always make a big deal about weather. ‘€¦ I always say you don’t play against the weather. You play against your opponent. This was a prime example of going and playing against an opponent. I don’t want our guys to get sidetracked of how hot it’s going to be, or how cold it’s going to be, how windy it’s going to be. We’ll deal with that when we get out there. But don’t forget we’re going to play the Miami Dolphins. Or we’re going to play the Buffalo Bills. Or we’re going to play the Chicago Bears, like last night.

“That was probably one of the best points that [Bill Belichick] made to the whole team this week, was hey, don’t worry about the weather. Because they have to play in the same exact weather we’re playing in.”

Wilfork has taken a positive approach about his defense all season, even during the unit’s struggles in the early part of the season. That confidence has paid off with strong performances in the last few weeks, especially the last two games (10 total points allowed).

“It starts in practice,” he said. “Just seeing guys attitudes and how they approached work made me a believer from Day 1, all the way back to OTA’s. These guys, as a team, we made a promise to each other: We’re going to give it our all. When we step on the field, we’re going to play as a team. We’re going to play through whatever it may be. There’s going to be some ups and downs. There’s going to be some positives and negatives. But you know what, we’re going to play through all that. Once we get to the end of the tunnel, we’ve got to be able to finish ballgames.

“So, I saw it early, and I was always a believer. A lot people thought I was crazy. A lot of people wrote us off. But it was just something I saw in these guys. They work their tails off, man.”

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Deion Branch on D&H: In Tom Brady we trust

12.13.10 at 3:08 pm ET
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Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch joined the Dale & Holley show from Gillette Stadium on Monday to talk about Sunday’s rout of the Bears. To listen to the interview, go to the Dale & Holley audio on demand page.

Branch was asked why the Patriots seem to fare so much better in inclement weather than their opponents. “I think the biggest thing is this [practice] bubble that Mr. [Robert] Kraft had built outside [Gillette Stadium] ‘€” we don’t use it,” Branch said with a laugh. “The place that we’re all looking at to the side when the wind is blowing hard and there’s snow everywhere. And coach [Bill] Belichick is looking over at us like, Why are you all looking? Let’s keep going with practice. We’re going to stay outside.

“I think he puts us in these elements because it’s going to happen here. We know it’s going to happen. We’ve got to play in it, so we must practice in it. That’s just hats off to coach Belichick. He’s never letting up on us. Never letting us think that hey, we can get a little complacent with anything. We’ve got to play in this type of weather, so we’ve got to practice in it.”

Branch talked about how the receivers all put complete faith in Tom Brady, even when they don’t get the ball. “We trust who he’s throwing the ball to,” Branch said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing. We know he’s going to to the guy that he thinks on that one play gives us the best opportunity to make something happen.”

Branch said Brady sets the tone during practice, and actions speak louder than words.

Said Branch: “We go through certain plays in practice and everything. He expects us to be in certain places. If we’re not there in practice, don’t expect the ball in games. That’s how it should be. So, when coach draws the plays up in practice, please be here if you want the ball. If you don’t want it, don’t go there.”

Added Branch: “I think all the guys that we have, all the skill guys, every play, everybody wants the ball. But [complaining for more touches], that’s not football. That’s not football.”

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What We Learned on Sunday: Patriots’ offense enjoys a Winter Wonderland

12.13.10 at 2:34 pm ET
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The warning shot went out shortly after the game.

Forget the fact that over the last five weeks, the Patriots’€™ offense has made three of the baddest defenses in the NFL look extraordinarily normal with 39 points against the Steelers, 45 against the Jets and 36 versus the Bears ‘€” an average of 40 points against three of the six defenses in the league when it comes to average points allowed.

The statement that should strike fear into the hearts of every defense the Patriots are going to face the rest of the way came from quarterback Tom Brady, who said he believes the New England offense can get better.

‘€œThere’s a long way to go,’€ said Brady of the Patriots’€™ offense, which racked up 475 total net yards against Chicago on Sunday at snowy Soldier Field. ‘€œI don’€™t think anything has been accomplished yet. I don’€™t think we have every problem solved. We don’€™t sit here and think we have it all figured out. We’€™re still trying to make improvements.’€

Are you hearing this, Green Bay? Better. Better than the last 10 quarters of play, where the Patriots have outscored their opponents, 116-17. Better than the maximum offensive efficiency displayed since the Pittsburgh game: Since the start of that one at Heinz Field last month, the New England offense has had 48 drives and setting aside kneel downs or end-of-game/half situations, has scored on 31 of them, an astounding rate of 65 percent. And better than the 36-7 stomping ‘€” that featured 26 first-half points from the Patriots’€™ offense ‘€” that New England put on the Bears Sunday afternoon at snowy Soldier Field.

Even though Brady believes the Patriots offense doesn’€™t yet have it all figured out, they’€™ve done a good job fooling the rest of the league. Against the Bears, New England did an excellent job moving the chains, had a near-perfect balance between run and pass (35 runs, 40 pass attempts) piled up nearly 500 yards of offense and didn’€™t turn the ball over, despite the fact they were playing in near-blizzard conditions.

It’€™s a miserable combination for both opposing defenses ‘€” and offenses.

‘€œThey put a lot of pressure on the opposing offense,’€ said Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler of the Patriots’€™ offense, which has now scored 52 total touchdowns, tied for the second most in team history. ‘€œIf you don’€™t convert third downs, if you don’€™t sustain drives, if you have any turnovers, they’€™re going to take advantage of it. Any little opening they make you pay for it. That’€™s what really good teams do.’€

While you can never say never, it seems unlikely that this team be able to match the team record of 75 touchdowns in a season, set in 2007. That being said, it’€™s fair to say that at this point in the season, the New England offense is operating at a higher efficiency level than the 2007 team was at the end of that regular season.

‘€œI’€™m wondering if defensive coordinators are actually looking at the tape,’€ said former Patriots and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison after on ‘€œFootball Night in America’€ after Sunday’€™s game. ‘€œYou’€™ve got to play man-to-man. You can’€™t play zone. I don’€™t want to give away too many secrets but that’€™s the way you have to play Tom Brady and the Patriots ‘€¦Tom Brady is the best player on the best team.’€

Brady finished 27-for-40 for 369 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and was in complete command from start to finish.

‘€œI wish we would have gotten the ball into the red area a little bit more,’€ Brady said. ‘€œWe kicked too many field goals, I thought, but, other than that, it was a pretty good day.”

‘€œThe credit goes to the players,’€ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who won his 174th career game on Sunday and is now tied for 10th with Mike Holmgren on the all-time list. ‘€œThey executed and did the things we needed to do. They’€™ve done it before, and they’€™ve stepped up and did it again today. I’€™m really proud of the way they performed.’€

Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday at Soldier Field:
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