Patriots Report Card: Week 13

With two more touchdown catches Sunday, Rob Gronkowski needs just one more this season to break the NFL record for most by a tight end. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Indianapolis Colts gave the New England Patriots a late-game scare Sunday afternoon, but ultimately all the Colts could do was lose with dignity. The Patriots beat the Colts, 31-24, continuing the Colts’ winless season and for now moving the Patriots into first place in the AFC.

Who’s using this game for college credit, and who needs to repeat Calculus 101? Here are this week’s grades.

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady has shown more mobility in the last few games than he ever has before. Given his line’s vulnerabilities, he’s pretty much had to. But whatever the reason, Brady’s agility has become his best pass-protection, helping him elude tackle after tackle while he waits for his receivers to inevitably get open.

Brady completed over 75 percent of his passes Sunday, hitting seven different receivers for 289 yards. One one drive alone he went 7-for-7 for 77 yards. That drive ended in a touchdown pass, the first of two for Brady. Brady passed Johnny Unitas and is now tied with Warren Moon for sixth-most career regular-season touchdown passes.

Running Backs: B+

Stevan Ridley led the team with eight rushes for 33 numbers – paltry numbers that reflect just how ineffective the Patriots’ running game was Sunday. Ridley’s agility and flash isn’t so useful when he’s just trying to run up the middle, and his performance suffered because he tried to dance when he should have just barreled. BenJarvus Green-Ellis knows how to barrel, taking advantage Donald Thomas‘s bulk at fullback to force his way into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown run in the second.

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Peyton Manning: All-Time MVP?

The Colts' abject failure this season without him proves that Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in the NFL. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

As I watched the New England Patriots easily handle the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a question occurred: is Peyton Manning the most valuable player in the NFL? I’m not saying he should win the 2011 MVP Award – that will in all likelihood go to Aaron Rodgers. But after watching the Colts, it became clear to me that no player in the NFL is as crucial to his team’s overall success as Manning is to Indianapolis.

Consider this contrast: when the Patriots lost Tom Brady in the opening quarter of their 2008 season, Matt Cassel still managed to win 11 games, barely missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Colts have started three different quarterbacks this season and have gone 0-12.

With upcoming games against the playoff-bound Texans and Ravens, plus two against Titans and Jaguars teams that have already beaten them, there’s every possibility the Colts will go 0-16.

Cassel might have been a better backup than Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, but with a receiving corps as good as the Colts’, shouldn’t they have still found a way to win a game?

Evidently, Manning means so much to everything else the Colts do that losing him for the season sunk the team right at the starting line.

Former Pro Bowler Joseph Addai‘s limited success due to injury has certainly played a part. Donald Brown has never been even a 500-yard running back, let alone a 1,000-yard RB, and without Addai, the running game has been so atrocious (99.0 yards per game, 26th in the NFL) that teams are just keying on the pass.

But again, that doesn’t really explain it, because a team’s rushing success doesn’t matter much in the regular season. The 4-8 Eagles lead the league in rushing yards, while the 12-0 Packers rank 28th.

To not win a single game, beyond the offense failing to run or pass, the defense must be truly horrific. Which it is: 19th against the pass, 31st against the rush, worst at preventing points. But how can Manning’s absence destabilized the defense?.

Manning’s benefit is that usually when the defense takes the field, they will be a) defending a lead, and b) rested. Manning is a terrific scoring quarterback – he puts points on the board most times he gets near the end zone. And he makes very few poor decisions, which has led to a career 64.9 completion percentage, a 2-1 touchdown-interception ratio, and a 94.9 QB rating.

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Jerod Mayo’s Tackling Anchors Patriots’ Defense

Jerod Mayo's solid tackling has anchored the Patriots' run-defense, forcing opponents to throw almost exclusively. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If you can only do one thing in the NFL, make sure you do it fantastically. Chicago’s Devin Hester is almost exclusively a punt-returner, but he’s the best punt-returner there’s ever been. Dallas’ Dan Bailey is just a place-kicker, but he’s only missed once in a season in which seven of the Cowboys’ 11 games have been decided by four points or fewer.

And for the New England Patriots, Jerod Mayo continues to be the best pure tackler on the team. He might lag behind tight ends, he might rarely pick off a pass or blitz the quarterback, but he doesn’t allow yards after receptions. He stops running backs cold. He doesn’t allow big plays.

The Patriots made Mayo a captain before the 2010 season – the best of his four-year career, earning him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. A league-leading 175 tackles, two sacks, five defensed passes, a forced fumble and three recoveries – all last season, Mayo sent a stern, painful message to opposing teams: “don’t test me.”

Mayo hasn’t done nearly as much for the Patriots this season. He leads the front seven with 52 tackles, but that’s where his contributions stop. An early-October MCL injury that cost him two games might be in part responsible.

Some would argue Mayo’s poor numbers reflect a down season for the 10th-overall 2008 draft pick. Quite to the contrary: Mayo’s fewer tackles are a testament to just how good he really is.

Teams no longer challenge Mayo by throwing against his coverage. Quarterbacks know that even if the receiver catches the ball, he won’t get much after the catch. And a receiver worrying about Mayo’s shoulder crashing into his chest is way more likely to bobble the pass.

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Troy Brown and Julian Edelman: Bill Belichick’s Favorite Type of Player

Though not yet at the level of Troy Brown, Julian Edelman has been undeniably productive as a cornerback this season. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Bill Belichick’s defensive genius, record-breaking offenses and three Super Bowl victories will someday put him in the Hall of Fame. Tom Brady and he have formed the greatest coach-quarterback pair in NFL history.

But beyond all of that, one thing truly sets Belichick above the rest: his creative use of personnel. Belichick has always found a way to get maximum productivity out of players cast aside elsewhere.

Troy Brown: Turning Small Receptions into Big Defenses

Brady might be the best example of a nobody Belichick turned into a superstar, but the full list is much, much longer. A perfect example is Troy Brown: a small-yardage receiver (career average: 11.4 yards per catch) who only once gave the Patriots a 1,000-yards receiving year once, and whose touchdown receptions maxed out at six in 1997. He averaged fewer than four catches per game in the playoffs, only scoring once.

As Belichick’s offense became bigger and bigger, Brown’s usefulness as a wide receiver lessened and lessened. So in typical fashion, Belichick made Brown a cornerback in 2004.

The move paid dividends, with Brown picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles. Injuries wracked the Patriot secondary that year, and Brown’s contributions gave the full-time defenders just enough of a reprieve to keep everything from collapsing.

When Brown retired in 2008, Belichick said it was “an honor and a privilege” to work with Brown. High praise from a man who rarely gives any.

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Bobby Valentine Hiring Process Yet Another Misstep By Management

Because management lied to the Red Sox about hiring a disciplinarian like Bobby Valentine, the new manager will arrive with two strikes against him. (AP)

WEEI Red Sox reporter Alex Speier reported Wednesday that Bobby Valentine’s hiring as the new manager flies in the face of an administrative promise made earlier in the off-season that the team would not go after a disciplinarian. While the report did not state who made the promise or to which player, a similar report by ESPNBoston.com’s Joe McDonald suggests Speier is (as usual) right on the money.

If that’s the case, management’s decision to go with Valentine is yet another botched play from Ben Cherington and this suddenly bumbling ownership group.

Which Front-Office Staffer’s Nose is Growing?

GMs and owners shouldn’t have to consult with players on the majority of baseball operations. In many cases, what front-office guys do is either too complicated or too unrelated to be worth bothering players with.

But on the other hand, management should never straight-up lie to players, either. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened: Management told at least one player Valentine specifically would not be the next Red Sox manager, then they went ahead and hired him anyway.

They knew the Red Sox feared the arrival of a disciplinarian like Valentine after seven years of “player’s manager” Terry Francona. But instead of listening to the players and working with them to assuage their concerns, Cherington’s staff decided the best course of action was to ignore the players and sell them a line, then let Cherington unilaterally do whatever he wanted.

It was a cowardly, dishonest decision that does nothing to fix the widely held belief by fans that this new era is nothing but a pale shadow of the Francona-Theo Epstein era.

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