Grading the New England Patriots’ weekly performance has become standard fare for Boston media outlets. As Sports of Boston is no exception, below are my grades for the Patriots’ 31-27 Week 15 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The explanations are slightly shortened, in order to devote the second half of the article to a most troubling phenomenon I witnessed last night at Gillette Stadium. So let’s get to it:
Quarterback: B+. Tom Brady threw for just 163 yards, fourth-lowest of the season, and was captain of an often punchless offense that was on the field half as often as the Packers’. Give the Green Bay defense credit, but New England never really got into an offensive rhythm until the last drive, where Brady engineered a game winning 63-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. The home win streak is still alive.
Running Backs: B. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for just 121 all-purpose yards and one touchdown. To their credit, they both averaged over 6 yards per carry. And Green-Ellis complemented his above-average speed with surprising ability on his 33-yard touchdown run, eluding safety Nick Collins by going straight at him before cutting laterally across the hash-marks before heading up-field. But the tandem’s running game was not good enough to sell the play-action pass, which rarely fooled the Packers defense.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-. Hernandez saved the receiving corps Sunday, catching two touchdowns to go with his 31 receiving yards. He also picked up 16 yards on the ground via a successful end-around route. But Wes Welker and Deion Branch were completely contained by the Packers’ talented cornerbacks, combining for just 75 yards, well behind each of their season averages.
Offensive Line: C+. The offensive line allowed three sacks and could only spring the running backs for 97 combined rushing yards. The Packers have some beast pass-rushers, but they were also heavily depleted by injury. There’s no reason the Packers should have had such an easy time penetrating the line of scrimmage. The Patriots got lucky that Brady’s strip-sack at the start of the second quarter did not result in a turnover.
Special Teams: B-. The Patriots were completely surprised by Green Bay’s game-opening onside kick. They were lucky the Packers only came away with a field goal. Meanwhile, Zoltan Mesko under-performed, averaging 40.4 yards per punt into the cold night air. His season average is 43.2 yards per punt. The Patriots also struggled on kickoff coverage, allowing 21.3 yards per return. Green Bay started about 8 yards further up the field on every drive, discounting Dan Connolly’s 71-yard return. But the Patriots played better in the second half, likely inspired by the big man’s thunderous return, which set up a touchdown pass that cut the Green Bay lead to 17-14 going into halftime.
Defensive Line: C. The defensive line was consistently beat by the Packers offensive line, which allowed Green Bay to rush for 126 yards between its three primary backs. The defensive line only managed one sack and three quarterback hits. Vince Wilfork was also penalized twice for 15 yards, and both penalties extended drives that ended in Green Bay touchdowns. The Packers used a power “i” formation that the Patriots could not stop. The Packers only gave it up for the last drive, switching to the spread to move down the field faster.
Linebackers: A-. Three sacks and four quarterback hits. Jerod Mayo led both teams with 16 tackles. No big plays over the middle. Just 12 yards by a Packers tight end. Solid work from the linebackers, but Tully Banta-Cain’s hands to the face penalty cost the team what could have been a game-clinching interception. I can’t give them full marks with that mental error.
Defensive Backs: B-. Kyle Arrington’s pick-six kept this crew out of the “C” range. It gave the Patriots the lead and changed the nature of the second half. But otherwise, the Patriots secondary was chewed up by Matt Flynn, who threw for 251 yards, three touchdowns and the interception. They missed tackles, they took each other out, they committed pass interference twice. This was the least competent the cornerbacks and secondaries have looked in at least a month. Hopefully they rally next week.
Coaching: B. This was not the mind-crushing coaching we’ve seen from Bill Belichick over the last few weeks. The plays were a little vanilla, the defense rarely stopped Flynn, and the timeouts were barely used. This game felt less like a chess match and more like a boxing match. There wasn’t much strategy, just a case of who was left standing at the end. Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy mis-managed the final moments of the game, and a lucky sack forced them to burn their last timeout. With it, they would have had a better plan for the last play of the game. Belichick might have been disadvantaged by the lack of game film for Flynn, but it was surprising how un-dominating the Patriots were after their treatment of the far-superior New York Jets and Chicago Bears.
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Fans: D. I’m not sure if there is something about Gillette’s topology that does this, but I was amazed at the quietness of the crowd in Foxborough Sunday night. They were silent through most of the first half, waking up only to cheer for Green-Ellis’ touchdown and Connolly’s return. They became more animated in the second half following Arrington’s interception, but they really only got into the game in the closing minutes of the final quarter. The rest of the time? Muffled cheers that sounded hampered as much by disinterest as by the cold. Surprising for such an exciting, back-and-forth game.
But it wasn’t the quietness that really bothered me. It was the negativity. I had no idea that Patriots fans were so mean. I’ve been to games at Fenway Park and at the TD Garden. I’ve been to losses there. Blowout losses, even. And I’ve never seen a crowd as overwhelmingly nasty as I did at Gillette last night. It wasn’t just the booing. It wasn’t just the profanity. It was the raw anger of it all that I had never experienced before, and hopefully never will again. For God’s sake, this is football we’re talking about! Where’s the fun? Where’s the joy? Every mistake by a Patriots player drew the crowd’s ire, some calling for that player’s blood, or at least his job. What’s the point of getting so angry about everything all the time? Does that make the victory sweeter? It didn’t seem to, as even as I left the stadium after a win I witnessed a shouting match between Patriots fans that almost devolved into a fist fight.
Beyond the anger itself, what astonished me was that these were Patriots fans who were so angry. Did they truly fear they would lose this game? From the moment Flynn was named the starter to the moment the game ended, I never doubted for a moment that the Patriots would win. Not when Green Bay opened the game with an onside kick, not when they were at the New England 25-yard line with a minute to go, and not even when they were at the New England 15-yard line for the last play. I knew the Patriots would win. They’re the Patriots! The best team in the NFL! A legitimate Super Bowl threat! C’mon everyone, where’s the confidence? Red Sox and Celtics (and Yankees) fans don’t show this negativity, because they believe their teams will win everyday, and when they don’t then at least they’ll win tomorrow (they can be infuriating to opposing fans for other reasons, however). But the Patriots are a team that rarely loses today or tomorrow. If you can’t enjoy a team that will at worst finish 12-4 and go to the playoffs, who can you enjoy?
This negativity really concerns me, because it’s happening at the height of the Patriots franchise. Belichick and Brady will eventually leave this team, and their replacements probably won’t be as good. What happens to the franchise then? Do we start seeing brawls in the stands? Is this Belichick’s legacy to the Patriots fanbase? Is his single-minded pursuit of perfection so permeating that it’s infected the fans? Is nothing less than a 45-3 win acceptable anymore? This is a team that was written off before the season as a rebuilding team that would be lucky to get to the playoffs. Now they’re 12-2 and will likely play every playoff game but the Super Bowl at home, where Brady is almost godlike.
Last night’s game should have been really fun, with the Patriots taking a legitimate challenge and rising to the occasion. But it wasn’t. The crowd made me so uncomfortable that it was difficult to enjoy the game. I never turn down tickets to Fenway or the Garden, but given the atmosphere and the price, it might be a long time before I accept tickets to Gillette again. Bob Kraft may have renovated Gillette Stadium to maximize profit, but it’s the fans who are spending the money. And if the atmosphere at the actual games doesn’t improve, eventually those fans are going to stop spending money or coming at all. And that should scare everyone more than any team in the NFL ever could.