After weeks of offensive malaise and defensive incompetency, the New England Patriots returned to form Sunday, beating the New York Jets, 37-16. Tom Brady and his receivers picked the defense apart while a team of replacements and nobodies held the Jets’ offense completely in check. The Patriots regained sole possession of the AFC East with a victory so complete that even Bill Belichick showed some emotion.
So who made the high-honor roll, and who had to settle for regular honors? Here are my grades.
It took Brady a half to get going, leading to 10 first-half incomplete passes that were just off: too high for Danny Woodhead near the end zone, too far for Deion Branch on a crossing route, etc. But Brady exacted his revenge in the second half, going 14-for-17, including his final 13 passes in a row. Stats like three touchdowns, no picks, 329 yards and a 118.4 QB rating are just too gaudy not to give Brady an A.
Brady’s best drive came at the beginning of the fourth quarter, a 84-yarder that chewed up nearly seven minutes of the game and ended with an 8-yard strike to Branch for the touchdown. On that drive, Brady went 7-7 for 65 yards. He hit five different receivers. For at least one game, Tom Terrific was back.
Running Backs: B-
The Patriot running backs were easily the weakest part of Sunday’s game, combining for a paltry 58 yards and no touchdowns. Woodhead “led” with 38 yards, but no one from this group contributed meaningfully to the Patriots’ victory. Had the Patriots lost, this grade would have been much lower. As it stands, Brady’s masterful use of no-huddle kept the Jet defense guessing, preventing their dynamic pass-rush from ever becoming too effective against the pass-heavy offense.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A
Rex Ryan challenged the Patriot passing game to function with Wes Welker canceled by uber-cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Patriot receivers answered that challenge in resounding fashion. Rob Gronkowski still hasn’t met a defender he can’t out-run, out-jump, out-position or just out-muscle for the ball, leading the team with eight catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Branch averaged over 10 yards per catch, and he made corner Kyle Wilson look downright stupid on his 8-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Chad Ochocinco even contributed! Granted, he caught just two passes, but one was for 53 yards!
Offensive Line: A-
The offensive line gave Brady fantastic protection, not allowing any sacks and just one QB hit. But Dan Connolly‘s horrible snap nearly gave the Jets the ball inside the Patriot 5-yard line. Add in Logan Mankins‘ holding penalty – also inside the 10 – and the line’s complete inability to open up running lanes, and the overall performance falls just short of top marks.
Defensive Line: A
Andre Carter set a Patriot record with 4.5 sacks, routinely having his way with whatever hapless Jet tried to block him. The defensive line totaled five sacks and nine QB hits. Mark Sanchez felt the pressure early and often, which led to numerous hurried throws and a far easier time for the secondary. While 110 Jet rushing yards aren’t great, Carter’s Herculean effort earned this unit a perfect A.
Just as Carter picked up the defensive line, Rob Ninkovich picked up the linebackers. Ninkovich intercepted Sanchez twice, returning his second interception 12 yards for the easy touchdown. His first set up a Gronkowski touchdown.
The linebackers also completely eliminated Jets tight end Dustin Keller, whom Sanchez threw to just four times, with Keller catching two. The unit played solid coverage overall, with Jerod Mayo stopping LaDainian Tomlinson well short on a 4th-and-27 in the fourth.
Defensive Backs: A-
Despite New England’s overall fantastic defensive play, the secondary has to take some blame for Sanchez’s 306 passing yards and touchdown. They played admirably, given all their injuries, but Plaxico Burress still torched newbie Antwaun Molden in the end zone to cut New England’s lead to a touchdown with an entire fourth quarter left.
Nevertheless, the defense played physically but not dangerously, and the Jets converted less than 40 percent of their third downs. The defensive backs should be proud of their performance, but there is still room for improvement.
Special Teams: A
Stephen Gostkowski nailed all three field goals, including a 50-yarder more than twice as long as the one Jet kicker Nick Folk shanked, and Niko Koutivides recovered a muffed punt that led to a field goal. There was one big run-back from the Jets, and one illegal block against the Patriots, but those were both minor mistakes that didn’t hurt the Patriots at all. Overall, very satisfying execution by the special teams.