Well, it’s Monday: that wonderful day when most of the world wakes up and has to immediately resist the urge to start swearing loudly and frequently (or succumbs to it). So what could make everyone’s day a little bright? A new report card! Sunday’s game was especially challenging to grade. On the one hand, the Patriots won. On the other hand, they got incredibly lucky, and many have argued that they didn’t win so much as the San Diego Chargers lost (four first-half turnovers, a false start penalty on a potentially game-tying field goal attempt that backed them up five yards). But no matter how you slice it, the Patriots are 5-1 heading into a game against the Minnesota Vikings that suddenly looks a lot easier, with reports surfacing that Brett Favre has multiple ankle fractures. So let’s assign some semi-arbitrary letters!
Quarterback: B-. For the man who might be the highest paid player in the NFL next year, 19/32 for 159 total yards and a touchdown really isn’t going to cut it. This wasn’t Brady’s worst game of the season, but he’s definitely played much better. His 35 first-half passing yards were especially troubling. And this wasn’t like last week’s game, where dropped balls and a Hail Mary interception really brought down the quarterback’s numbers. Sometimes defenders knocked balls away, but for the most part Brady’s passes were just off. Even his touchdown strike to Rob Gronkowski required the tight end to stretch his arms out and catch a pass that could have just as easily been floated to his chest.
However, to Brady’s credit he got the offense in gear to start the third quarter. Although the Patriots really only had one good drive in the game, it was all they really needed. Brady was 6/7 for 59 yards on their third-quarter drive, and also successfully executed a quarterback sneak to pick up another first down. The drive ate up 8:35 and ended in a touchdown that put the Patriots up 20-3. That third score would prove crucial to the Patriots victory.
Running Backs: C. Fifty yards by running backs isn’t going to cut it. Not by a long shot. New England’s running back duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead really struggled Sunday, each gaining only 24 yards on the ground. Green-Ellis especially gets knocked for failing to pick up a single yard on a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter that would have likely ended the game. Were it not for Woodhead catching all three passes thrown his way for an additional 28 yards, this grade would have been even lower. However, the offensive line definitely had trouble with San Diego’s rushers, and that may have played a role in New England’s rushing failures. Still, this game seemed like a step back for a running game that had been making definite strides since Laurence Maroney was traded.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-. It’s very hard to distinguish what was Brady’s fault and was his receivers’ during Sunday’s game. Sometimes Brady would be off-target. Other times his receivers could not shake their coverages. And sometimes defenders just made plays. So the receiving corps gets the same grade as Brady, because they were probably about equally responsible. It was a decent day for the tight ends (Aaron Hernandez led all receivers with five catches for 54 yards, good for 10.8 yards per catch; Gronkowski caught both balls thrown to him and executed a perfect play-action route for a touchdown), but the wide receivers really struggled to get open and catch balls. Even when Brady had time to pass, there didn’t seem to be many open options. Chalk some of it up to a bad passing day from Brady, and give San Diego credit for a very strong defense, but if the Patriots are going to become a route-based offense without Randy Moss, they will have to run their routes better and get open more.
Offensive Line: D-. Had the Patriots lost, I’d have failed this unit. Since they won, I gave them the lowest passing grade possible. Four sacks. Again: four sacks. That’s 12 on the season, good for 11th place in the NFL. And two of those sacks forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal when they likely would have scored a touchdown (they had a first down at the San Diego 8-yard line). There were also two tackles for losses (including on the above-mentioned fourth-and-1), plus the inability to spring the running backs. That line looks like it’s really starting to miss Logan Mankins.
Special Teams: B+. Stephen Gostkowski made all three field goal attempts, and Zoltan Mesko twice pinned the Chargers inside their 20-yard line (his 38.3 yards per punt average is deceptive, because Mesko punted once from midfield and twice from near the New England 40-yard line). There were also no serious gaffes on kickoff return coverage. The main knock against special teams was the onside kick in the fourth quarter. Down two scores with just over eight minutes to play, and having already seen the Patriots chew up over eight minutes on a single drive, an onside kick by the Chargers should have seemed at least possible. The group wasn’t prepared for it, and it swung momentum in San Diego’s direction. That might have been due to a coaching blunder more than a player blunder, but it still should not have happened. The group should have expected an onside kick and planned for it.
Defensive Line: B. Not a bad game from the Patriots defensive linemen. Mike Wright and Brandon Deaderick each recorded sacks, and the line held the Chargers running backs to just 38 yards on the ground (nine by Philip Rivers himself). This wasn’t quite the domination we saw against the Ravens, but the defensive line definitely played a big role in the Patriots’ victory. The defense as a whole also gets credit for holding the Chargers to just three points through the first three quarters (including five straight scoreless drives by San Diego).
Linebackers: B. The first San Diego fumble happened when Brandon Spikes stripped Kris Wilson, then Jerrod Mayo recovered it. It led to the Patriots’ first touchdown. That was good physical play. Later on, Rivers threw a pass sideways to Jacob Hester, but the ball bounced off his outstretched hand and hit the ground. Not hearing a whistle, Rob Ninkovich fell on it, picked it up, then returned it to the San Diego 8-yard line. It was ruled a fumbled lateral, and it led to a Patriots field goal. That was good mental play. The linebackers lost points for letting running back Darren Sproles have a banner day in the middle of the field (caught all nine passes thrown to him for 70 yards), but no running back ever broke off more than a 6-yard run, and no tight end did much of anything before Antonio Gates caught fire midway through the fourth quarter (at which point the defense had played upwards of seven minutes without much rest). Not a bad game from the linebackers, but they definitely ran out steam in the fourth quarter, allowing Gates and Sproles to run over them.
Defensive Backs: B-. More solid mental play, this time by James Sanders. On the ground after catching a 25-yard pass, wide receiver Richard Goodman put the ball down as he stood up. Sanders realized that Goodman had never been touched while going to the ground or lying there, so that was a live ball (there’s no “down by contact with the ground” rule in professional football). He fell on it, and the Patriots recovered. And again, more solid physical play, this time by Devin McCourty. On a pass to wide receiver Patrick Crayton along the sidelines, McCourty leaped into the air and intercepted the pass with outstretched arms. While Rivers passed for 336 yards, over 150 yards of it came in the fourth quarter, and most of it went up the middle to Gates and Sproles, more the responsibility of the linebackers then the cornerbacks and safeties. The Chargers nearly came back in the fourth quarter, but it was not the fault of the defensive backs.
Coaching: B-. Bill Belichick’s game-plan for the first half definitely didn’t work, but he clearly came up with a pretty good scheme at halftime, as the Patriots overpowered the Chargers to start the second half. This game was a defensive triumph for three quarters and an offensive triumph for half of one quarter. The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 was a calculated risk, but getting it would have likely ended the game. The defense was tired, and you had to give them an extra few minutes of rest (or at least try for it). Also, if you can’t trust your running backs to pick up a lone yard, can you trust them to do anything? The move showed confidence in Green-Ellis, and any damage to Green-Ellis’ self-confidence by not picking up the first down would still be less than the damage done by not even giving him the opportunity.
Belichick and special teams coach Scott O’Brien should have considered an onside kick, so that also brought down the coaching grade. Had the Patriots picked up that play, they likely would’ve at least gotten a field goal and chewed up a few minutes, resting the defense and completely changing the nature of the last half of the fourth quarter. Overall, it was an acceptable coaching performance, perhaps brought down by bad execution as much as bad planning.
So there you have it: a “C” offense, a “B+” special teams, and a “B” defense. That’s why Belichick says, “you got three phases of the game, and if you can control two out of those three, you got a pretty good chance to win.”