One week after re-establishing their elite status by beating the Steelers, the Patriots cemented it by beating the Colts, 31-28. They would have taken over the top spot in the AFC East and top conference record were it not for a last-minute Jets comeback against the Texans. But the Patriots can only control their game, and they took care of business on Sunday. So let’s look at what worked and what didn’t.
Quarterback: A-. Tom Brady played efficiently, going 19/25 for 186 yards. He also threw two very nice touchdown passes to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Brady was used pretty equally between the two halves (14 first-half passing attempts, 11 second-half), but his accuracy slipped in the last quarter. Brady’s last four passes of the game were all incomplete. In a quarter where really one or two more first downs (or one touchdown) would likely have clinched the game, Brady could not deliver. The Colts brought all the pressure they could muster, and Brady did not respond to the challenge. His defense bailed him out at the last possible moment, but Brady can’t get top marks when he couldn’t close out the game.
Running Backs: A. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 96 yards and caught for 4 more. Danny Woodhead rushed for 69 yards on seven carries, or 9.9 yards per carry, and added 21 receiving yards. Both scored touchdowns, and the duo combined for 190 all-purpose yards. Woodhead also contributed on special teams, making a nifty open-field on his 36-yard touchdown run’s ensuing kickoff. Even Sammy Morris contributed, converting both third downs he was brought in for. The running backs also fought hard for extra yards, doing their best to always fall forward or break tackles. And several times, it worked.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A-. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are engaged in a highly entertaining battle for best tight end, and each week at least one of them steps up. Last week, Gronkowski caught three touchdown passes. Hernandez responded with one of his own against the Colts, running a nice slant-route and then fighting through a tackle to get to the end zone. But even when he wasn’t catching passes, Gronkowski was still helping, blocking the frightening Dwight Freeney to open up runs. Deion Branch, meanwhile, led all receivers with seven catches for 70 yards. Drops weren’t too bad a problem, although Julian Edelman really should have caught that pass to him in the end zone in the fourth quarter. It might have meant the difference between the Colts needing a touchdown to tie instead of just a field goal (not that they got either) on their last drive. Wes Welker also had a nifty 22-yard touchdown catch, faking out linebacker Pat Angerer. The wide receivers maybe could have gotten open a bit better, but the Colts brought so much pressure that Brady often had to fire quickly. The receiving corps did about as well as they could have, but they also lose points for being part of that offense that sputtered so much in the last quarter.
Offensive Line: A-. The line opened up 168 rushing yards, and only allowed Brady to get hit twice. One of those was a sack, however, and it killed a promising drive. They also should have been able to buy Brady a few extra seconds in the final quarter so Brady could find open receivers. If they had picked up the Indianapolis rushes better, perhaps it would never have come down to a final-play interception. So the line loses a few points, but not many. They also did not false start or hold once, so give them credit for disciplined blocking.
Special Teams: A. No gaffes by Shayne Graham (made his field goal, nailed all four points-after). Forty-four yards per punt by Mesko. Only 15.8 yards per kickoff return by the Colts. The Patriots special teams could not have done much better. They committed no penalties, long-snapped cleanly and kept the Colts from returning any punts. It wasn’t the multiple-touchback kicking performance Patriots fans are used to, but how can you penalize the unit when it made no mistakes?
Defensive Line: B. Yes, the line held the Colts to just 71 yards on the ground. But the line also has to get pressure on the quarterback, or at least tie up the guards enough to let the linebackers do it. Sunday afternoon, the Patriots defensive linemen got no pressure on Peyton Manning. They did not sack him once, nor did any lineman even hit him. Combine that with just two tackles for losses of any kind and you get a defensive line that was completely contained by the Colts offensive line. The lone bright spot was Jermaine Cunningham, who penetrated the line on the last Colts play, spinning Manning enough to force a game-saving interception. Had the Patriots lost, we’d be talking a lot about their inability to pressure Manning. The Patriots knew the Colts were not gonna rely too much on a running game, so they should have focused on a way to disrupt the passing game. They didn’t (Manning went 38/52, 396 yards, converted 11 third-down opportunities), so I can’t give them high marks.
Linebackers: B+. Although the Patriots did not sack Manning, the linebackers managed to hit him three times. They also stuffed a couple of runs for no gain, and Jerrod Mayo broke up a Manning pass in the first quarter. Mayo also led all tacklers with 15, pushing his league-leading total to 120 (21 more than the next guy). However, Tully Banta-Cain’s 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Colts the ball inside the 20-yard line, and they scored on the next play, cutting the lead to 31-28 in the fourth. When you play a team as strong as the Colts, who are always a threat to come back in the game, you can’t make mental errors like that.
Defensive Backs: B-. Oddly, the defensive backs were the best and worst players on the team Sunday. Yes, they made three interceptions (James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty). But they also allowed 396 yards in receptions, letting wide receiver Reggie Wayne torch them for 107 yards. Three other Colts (two wide receivers and one tight end) also caught for 60+ yards. Manning might be surgically accurate, but the corners have to get better, and quickly. The Colts aren’t the last offensive powerhouse the Patriots have on their schedule. They still have the Green Bay Packers, plus a rematch with the Jets. The safeties are starting to learn how to play the middle, and McCourty seems to be improving a little bit each game. But the rest of the cornerbacks have to improve if this team wants to go deep in the playoffs.
Coaching: B. Bill Belichick seemed to have a good idea how to stop the Colts in the first half, building a 21-14 lead. But once that lead got pushed to 31-14, the team seemed to get complacent. The defense switched to a prevent defense that neither stopped the Colts nor consumed clock time in the fourth quarter, as Indianapolis scored 14 points in less than five minutes. The defense definitely looked tired at the end, but that is also a coaching issue. Had Belichick come up with a better response to the Colts’ pressure, the defense likely wouldn’t have had to play as much. Good start, but weak finish for the Patriots. Had the Patriots lost, this would have hung as heavily on the coach as it would have on the defensive line or cornerbacks. The Patriots won, so Belichick gets decent marks. But it seemed like the Colts were out-thinking the Patriots on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter, with only a terrific jump by Meriweather saving the victory.
So there you go: high marks for the offense and special teams, less so for the defense and coaching. Check back next week for a recap of the Patriots Thanksgiving Day game against the lowly Lions.