Let’s switch up the Patriots-analysis format. It’s tough to grade special teams when the place kicker gets injured, and it’s tougher to grade a defense that was victimized by offensive incompetence. So let’s approach this post-game analysis with five questions that Sunday’s loss to the Browns left us with:
1) What’s wrong with Tom Brady? In the four games before Randy Moss was traded, Brady was averaging 227.75 yards per game and 71% accuracy. Since Moss’ trade, his yards per game hasn’t changed (228.75 yards per game now), but his accuracy has plummeted to 58.2%. It just seems to take Brady a lot longer to get in rhythm with his wide receivers than it used to. Brady’s accuracy has been victimized by dropped passes, which is becoming a problem, but just as often it’s Brady’s fault. How many passes have their been in the last few weeks that bounce off outstretched arms or end up at the feet of wide receivers? Brady has a powerful arm, but his accuracy and his touch-passing have always been his calling cards. Now, it seems like he can’t find the spots that he used to. Even passes that are caught often seem to require more athletic plays by the receivers that in the past. It seems like receivers are always diving or leaping or both. Now, sometimes that’s required because that’s the only way a receiver will be open. But on a lot of routes the wide receivers are diving to try and catch the ball, not expecting the ball low and going for the dive. It’s hard to attribute this to Moss’ departure when he was only getting a few passes per game in 2010, but how else do you explain it? Is Brady losing his accuracy, or has the switch to a non-featured-receiver passing game really screwed with his timing? Brady’s receivers need to start catching passes, but they’re most likely running their routes timidly because they’re not sure that Brady’s pass will be where they’re expected to run to. That’s bad news.
2) Should Logan Mankins have started? Yes, Mankins was not responsible for Ahtyba Rubin’s sack (that would be Stephen Neal who got run over), but linebacker Chris Gocong seemed to have a very easy time blitzing from the left side of the line. There were several plays where Gocong penetrated on the left side, ran behind the offensive line, then tackled a running back trying to rush up the right side for a loss. Additionally, the Patriots had a very hard time establishing a side-to-side rushing game, going almost exclusively straight up the middle (which is really not BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ best point of attack). Had Mankins set the edge more successfully, the running game might not have been so pathetic (68 total yards, 1.6 yards per carry by Green-Ellis). Mankins may be a Pro-Bowler, but it seemed strange to start a guy who hadn’t played a down of football in 2010 one week after an offensive line holds the Vikings (featuring quarterback-seeking missile Jared Allen) to zero sacks.
3) How bad was the defense? The Patriots lost the time of possession battle 38:08 to 21:52. That’s almost a 2-1 advantage for the Vikings. Given their extended playtime, is it really so surprising that Peyton Hillis rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns? The Patriots had held far better running backs (Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice) to far fewer rushing yards, but in both cases you had an offense capable of extended drives. Their longest offensive drive Sunday? 5:01. Compare that with the Browns engineering two drives that ate up more than seven minutes each. That’s nearly a quarter gone on two drives. The Patriots’ pass defense was also better than it had been previously, holding Colt McCoy to just 174 yards and no passing touchdowns. And of McCoy’s 14 completions, several of them mostly had to do with McCoy scrambling and making very impressive throws on the run. The defense over-ran McCoy several times (Tully Banta-Cain, I’m looking at you), but give the rookie credit for making the plays when he had to. Had the Patriots offense managed one or two long drives, this likely would have been a different game.
4) What will happen without Stephen Gostkowski? Wes Welker’s point-after was cute, but there’s no way he’s there long-term solution to Gostkowski’s thigh injury, which NFL Network’s Albert Breer is saying is bad enough that it will sideline him for a couple of weeks. The Patriots will likely go out and sign a journeyman kicker, possibly Shayne Graham or Shaun Suisham, both of whom worked out at Gillette in October, according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss. But this is a major blow to what has up until Sunday been the Patriots’ most consistent phase of the game. Gostkowski had made every point-after, not missed a field goal since Week 2, and seemed to be averaging about four touchbacks a game before the game against Minnesota. Hopefully he comes back soon. Thankfully, they still have Zoltan Mesko who, at 39.5 net yards per punt, ranks 10th among punters.
5) Were the Browns right to celebrate as they did? Actually… yes. Cleveland sits in third place in their division. Their record is just 3-5, and they still have the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers on their schedule. A winning record is a long shot for this team. Additionally, this hasn’t been a great year for Cleveland sports franchises. The Indians barely avoided finishing last in their division. The Cavaliers are just a .500 team right now, not predicted to do much of anything. And over the summer the biggest superstar ever in Cleveland’s history paid ESPN for the right to crap on his home-state for an hour. Couple all of this with Bill Belichick’s ongoing conflict with Eric Mangini, who definitely still sees himself as the student trying to surpass the teacher, and you have what will likely turn out to be the Browns’ biggest win of the season. Why shouldn’t they cheer?