Another week, another win for those enigmatic Patriots. All of a sudden, they have the best record in the NFL. To top off the win, we all got treated to seeing Myron Pryor finally mess up Brett Favre and his poop-eating grin. Try selling Sensodyne now, Brett! Anyway, there was a great quote from Bill Belichick last week. Basically he said that there are three phases of football: special teams, offense, defense. If you control two of those phases and are competitive in the third, he said, you’ll probably win the game. And that’s what the Patriots are: two-thirds of a great team. Their special teams is excellent, their run defense is solid, as is their pass offense. They are two-thirds (or really a third and two-sixths) of a great team in a league where no one else is better than 60 percent of a great team. Stack the Patriots up against another team, and usually that extra 6.67 percent carries the day. With that in mind, let’s grade these fellows!
Quarterback: B+. 16/27 passing, or 59.3 percent, is below Tom Brady’s season average of 65.3 percent. But that season average is higher than his career average of 63.4 percent. So you have a sub-average game in an above-average season. That makes this a tough performance to rank. The touchdown was nice, and Brady gets credited for sensing pressure, moving out of the pocket without bailing on the play, then finding Brandon Tate after Tate had gotten open. Brady also didn’t turn the ball over, only throwing one dangerous pass all game. It wasn’t the greatest performance Patriots fans have ever seen, but in a game where Brady really only had to complement the stupendous running game, it was enough. Plus, those two sneaks before BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ second touchdown were apparently designed to not score, just keep the ball dead-center and run time off the clock. So Brady gets credited for executing those sneaks successfully, even if success didn’t equal points on those plays. Finally, Brady successfully sold the direct snap to Danny Woodhead enough to let the running back score. So bonus points there. Solid B+.
Running backs: A. BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 112 rushing yards, plus 11 more via the pass, and two touchdowns. Danny Woodhead: 13 yards on the ground, plus 45 more from the air, and a touchdown. Combined: 180 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. That’s more than you could possibly ask from this still-developing running corps, which responded nicely after last week’s ineffectiveness. The running game was nonexistent in the first half, but as the Vikings defense began to tire, the Patriots stuck with it. By the end, Green-Ellis was breaking off 26-yard rushes and leaping into the end zone. They moved the chains, they devoured the clock, and they scored. What more could you want from them?
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B. The wide receivers and tight ends only caught for 184 yards between the five who made receptions. The only really dynamic play came from Brandon Tate, who racked up 65 of his 101 total yards on one play. Credit Wes Welker with picking up a key first down on their victory-sealing drive, and give Alge Crumpler props for a couple of very nice blocks that helped spring the running backs. But Brady seemed to have lots of time to pass, yet he couldn’t find anyone most of the time. That’s on the wide receivers and tight ends. They didn’t run bad routes or drop a lot of passes, but they didn’t do a good enough job to get open. Had the Patriots lost, this grade would have plummeted. But since they won, saddle them with a B.
Offensive Line: A. The Vikings have a strong defensive line that was on a cold streak for sacks, so they were hungry. The offensive line took everything the Vikings threw at them, absorbed it, then started to assert their will as the Vikings wore down. That enabled the running backs to get clear, and it opened up the offense in the second half. They also did not allow a sack, something that has been a significant problem for them this season. Dan Connolly also gets special mention for his play on Green-Ellis’ leaping touchdown. Connolly’s play at fullback cleared the way for Green-Ellis to get in. They should be incredibly proud of a successful day against a Vikings defense that features the homicidal Jared Allen.
Special Teams: B. This wasn’t a bad performance from special teams, but it wasn’t great either. Zoltan Mesko was still dropping bombs, averaging 47.4 yards per punt. But his place-kicking compatriot, Stephen Gostkowski, didn’t have as good a day. He was perfect on points-after, but he only kicked one touchback, and that was on a kick that barely got into the end zone. Fans are used to seeing him boot it out the back, and this was a surprisingly weak kicking day from him. He also kicked one ball out of bounds, thought it wound up not hurting the team. Gostkowski didn’t hurt the Patriots- the Vikings only managed 15.5 yards per kickoff return- but he just wasn’t spectacular. Tack on no field goals (not his fault, sure) and Tate’s meager 14.5 yards per kickoff return, and you have a special teams performance that’s just nothing to write home about. Maybe it was the wind.
Defensive Line: A-. Adrian Peterson had a solid day, rushing for 92 yards, catching for 50 more, and scoring a touchdown. But after halftime the defensive line did it’s job, holding Peterson to just 24 yards on the ground. Jermaine Cunningham also turned Peterson back on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, keeping the score tied 7-7 at halftime. Mike Wright also picked up a sack (against Tarvaris Jackson), and Myron Pryor delivered a vicious but completely legal hit on Favre that knocked him out of the game. A little more pressure would’ve been nice (just three quarterback hits between Cunningham and Wright), and it likely would have minimized the damage Favre did against the Patriots secondary. But if you can keep Peterson to just 3.7 yards per carry, you’re doing something right.
Linebackers: B. The Vikings did most of their damage in the middle of the field. The linebackers were strong against the run, but weak against the pass. Peterson caught for 50 yards, and running back Toby Gerhart added 67 more. And most of wide receiver Percy Harvin’s 104 yards came when he was not the responsibility of the cornerbacks. You also have to ding Gary Guton for his helmet-contact penalty that gave the Vikings a first down at the Patriots 6-yard line when they were previously in a second-and-12 from the 13-yard line. It likely would’ve made the difference between a field goal and a touchdown. However, Rob Ninkovich had another solid game, forcing an intentional grounding penalty and making a nice third-quarter open-field tackle to keep the Vikings from converting a third down, forcing them to punt. Brandon Spikes and Jerrod Mayo also had tackles for losses.
Defensive backs: B-. Jonathan Wilhite had an especially poor game. His illegal contact on Favre’s hit turned a fourth down into a first down. Then, after the Vikings scored, he was out-jumped by Harvin for the two-point conversion. Had Wilhite knocked the pass down, he likely would’ve been flagged for pass interference anyway, as he never turned to play the ball. There was also Brandon Meriweather’s pass interference on third down (though some have argued that play may have been intentional, because Meriweather was beat deep). The Patriots secondary remains their single weakest area, and it might yet come back to haunt them when they play against the Colts or Packers. However, Devin McCourty seems to be learning the ropes. He showed great concentration in picking Harvin’s bobbled reception out of the air. And he almost had another interception earlier in the third, perfectly playing a deep ball by Favre. McCourty kept his body between the wide receiver and the ball, played the pass and not the receiver, and almost caught it while diving. It eventually led to a three-and-out, so credit him for great coverage. Now if only the other corners would show similar improvement!
Coaching A-. Another weak start from the Patriots, which is becoming concerning. Against faster-starting teams, the Patriots may yet find themselves down too much at halftime to come back. Then again, there might not be any teams like that this season, so they may keep getting away with it. In any event, Belichick gets credit for sticking with the running game in the second half. He may have seen that the Vikings blitzers were running out of steam, so he knew the running backs would get better results. He also figured out how to shut down Peterson at the line (Peterson has fumbling tendencies, so forcing him to become a receiver is definitely the right strategy) in the second half. The offensive plan was solid, the challenged Peterson touchdown wasn’t a great call but it didn’t hurt them, and the defense continues to play “bend but don’t break” football, a hallmark of the Belichick-era Patriots. They play well with the lead, they chew up clock time, and they win games. Hard to find too much fault with the game plan this week. And the Patriots were not caught unawares like they were on the onside kick last week. So generally high marks, but room for improvement. I think the coach would agree.
Check back next week for Patriots-Browns!