Patriots Report Card: Brady leads the way again
|12.13.10 at 8:49 pm ET|
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 …
QUARTERBACK – A
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.
RUNNING BACKS – A-
The two best run defenses in the NFL this season (in terms of yards per game allowed on the ground) are the Steelers and Bears. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 87 yards on 18 carries against the Steelers and on Sunday ran for (wait for it) 87 yards on 21 carries. All the talk has been about Brady over the last five weeks and it’s obviously deserved and historic and makes one wonder about the power of Uggs, but how about Green-Ellis during that stretch? He has 90 carries for 401 yards (4.5 a pop) and five TDs. And this is with three of the best run defenses in the league (Steelers, Jets and Bears) in that mix. And don’t discount the role of Green-Ellis in helping to give legitimacy to the play-action that Brady has used so well this season. A perfect example came with the 24-yard pass to Welker on the first TD drive as both Bears linebackers were frozen by the ball fake to Green-Ellis.
Danny Woodhead scored on a three-yard run in the second quarter but wasn’t a really a factor in the game, carrying the ball seven times for 21 yards and catching two passes for just a single yard. Sammy Morris converted a third-and-1 rush at midfield and sprung Green-Ellis loose with a block on a 17-yard run on the second TD drive of the first half.
RECEIVERS – A
Deion Branch and Wes Welker combined for 16 catches, 266 yards and a TD on Sunday (again with the last five games theme – Welker and Branch have combined for 64 catches, 901 yards and eight TDs). Welker did most of his damage in the first quarter, catching six passes for 62 yards, and it was starting to look like this might be one of this games where Welker catches 15 passes. He slowed down and finished with eight for 115 yards, but he was Brady’s main target on the first two TD drives (five catches for 80 yards) and again looks like the pre-ACL Welker.
Branch had the big play of the game, abusing Major Wright (standing in for Alphonso Smith, I guess) on the 59-yard TD. Branch had a career-high 151 yards receiving, or 39 more yards than he had in Seattle in four games this season. Randy Moss did a nice job not spilling any of barbecue sauce on his shirt while watching the game from his hotel room in Nashville and Brandon Tate made a terrific – even if it was garbage-time – diving sideline catch in the fourth quarter.
Rob Gronkowski now has seven TD catches (third all-time for rookie tight ends) after posting up Urlacher (I’d call it more James Edwards than Artis Gilmore) for a first-quarter score. He finished with five catches for 43 yards.
OFFENSIVE LINE – A
Whether it was Logan Mankins running over Urlacher (who spent a lot of time getting handled by the Pats O-Line) to open a huge hole for Green-Ellis on the Patriots first TD drive, or Matt Light (who controlled Julius Peppers) getting out for a block on a Welker catch in the first quarter, or Sebastian Vollmer (on the very next play) pancaking a Bears defender for Green-Ellis or Dan Connolly leading the way for Danny Woodhead’s TD rush, the offensive line was flat-out dominant on Sunday. Brady was sacked once but rarely pressured as he had plenty of time (particularly on the third-and-long conversions) to make plays.
As good as the line was in the first half of the season, it’s just a different group with Mankins, who has been a beast during this five-game winning streak. It just seems that every big running play has been to the left side since the Pittsburgh game with Mankins busting open a hole for Green-Ellis or Woodhead. Belichick knows better than me (no, really, he does), but don’t you have to get this guy locked up?
DEFENSIVE LINE – A-
The numbers really do tell the story with this group, as Jay Cutler had a passer rating of 32.9 and the Bears averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. No way that happens without a top effort from the D-Line, a crew that I thought struggled a bit over the last two weeks but stepped up on Sunday.
When a team has the kind of season the Patriots are putting together, guys like Eric Moore have games like he did on Sunday (four tackles – including one for a five-yard loss on Matt Forte – and a sack of Cutler at the Bears seven-yard line that forced a fumble). That’s a 2001 kind of performance by a player plucked off the scrap heap to make key plays.
Gerard Warren had a first-quarter sack of Cutler and pressured the Bears QB into a third-down incompletion in the same series. On the Warren sack, it was Jermaine Cunningham who first pressured Cutler by beating tackle J’Marcus Webb and forced him out of the pocket. Ron Brace was active before leaving with a head injury, picking up a solo tackle and getting into the backfield on a couple of occasions.
LINEBACKERS – B+
Bill Belichick called Gary Guyton “a good football player” after Sunday’s game. I wonder sometimes if that’s true – Guyton can go weeks without being noticed – but he was plenty good against the Bears, recovering a Johnny Knox fumble and returning it 35 yards for a touchdown and picking off Cutler in the third quarter. He’s not the run-stopper that Brandon Spikes is, but Spikes hasn’t shown me anything in pass coverage to suggest that he makes that INT. Jerod Mayo finished with just four tackles – his lowest output of the season – but he did recover the Cutler fumble off of the Moore sack. Again, we gave the LB’s grief for their work in the running game last week so they have to get some props here for their work in slowing down Forte, as Rob Ninkovich was strong on the edge.
SECONDARY – A-
The story in Foxboro this week will be the severity of the rib injury to Devin McCourty. McCourty said after the game that he was OK, but if this turns out to be a season-ender, the secondary takes a huge hit. McCourty was outstanding again on Sunday, forcing the fumble on Knox and making plays on third down to stop the Bears on each of the first two drives – first blowing past Greg Olsen to tackle Forte on a third-and-1 for a two-yard loss and then breaking up a pass for Earl Bennett on third-and-7. For me this guy has been the MVP of the defense and has to be a Pro Bowl selection.
Kyle Arrington also had a tackle for a loss on Forte and finished with six tackles. Pat Chung also had a tackle for a loss among his six tackles, and Brandon Meriweather - who didn’t play much when it mattered – picked up a late end-zone INT of Cutler.
SPECIAL TEAMS – B
Julian Edelman was a force for the first time all season, returning a punt 42 yards to the Bears 30 in the second quarter and later having a 71-yard TD return wiped out on a (clear and obvious) holding call on Dane Fletcher. Not sure how much of it was the conditions favoring the kick return men, but it has to be encouraging for the Pats to see Edelman – a total non-factor in 2010 – making plays.
The Pats kickoff coverage unit really had problems, allowing a 61-yard return to Devin Hester and a 40-yard return to Danieal Manning (Hester also had a 17-yard punt return).
Shayne Graham managed to connect on all three field goals (hooking in a couple) but missed an extra point, his second missed XP since jointing the Pats (has not missed a field goal, though). Zoltan Mesko only punted twice but his 35.5 average was OK given the wind and snow (Brad Maynard averaged just 32.2 – seven fewer than his 2010 average – on five punts).
COACHING – A
Look, if the Brady lead in the MVP race is Secretariat at the Belmont then Belichick’s lead for Coach of the Year is at least … well, I can’t really think of another famous horse race that was a rout. Or one that wasn’t, actually. I know nothing about horse racing. (Ed. note: Seabiscuit, Mr. Movie Critic?)
How about this: Belichick should be the overwhelming favorite for the award but I wouldn’t be stunned if he didn’t win. Why? Because the voters love giving it to some guy who turns what should have been 6-10 into 9-7 (think Todd Haley or Jack Del Rio).
I’m not ready to proclaim this Belichick’s best coaching job – the Pats need to win the Super Bowl to even be at the table – but he has a very real shot to go 14-2 with a team that is rebuilding on defense and totally changed its identity (midstream) on offense. I don’t think Jack Del Rio is going 14-2 with this team, but I’m pretty sure Bill Belichick could go 9-7 with the Jaguars. I’m pretty sure Bill Belichick could 9-7 with the cast of “Glee” at this point. And yes, I understand that I’m the only person in America who cares about NFL Coach of the Year voting. Leave me alone.
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