New England Patriots Report Card: Week 5

With 151 rushing yards and a touchdown, Stevan Ridley led the Patriots to an “A+” performance against the Broncos Sunday at Gillette Stadium. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The Red Sox have the Yankees. The Celtics have the Lakers. The Bruins have the Canadiens.

And Tom Brady and the Patriots have Peyton Manning and the Colts Broncos. While the first three rivalries sometimes fail to live up to expectations, the Brady-Manning rivalry consistently delivers excitement and suspense.

Brady vs. Manning, Round 13, went to the Patriots, 31-21 Sunday at Gillette Stadium. So before Manning shakes his head with disgust and re-injures his neck, let’s dole out the grades.

Quarterback: A-

Brady completed just under 75 percent of his passes for 223 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for a touchdown. Solid numbers, sure, but anyone who watched Sunday’s game knows that for once, the Patriots’ running game, and not their passing game, carried the day.

Manning out-dueled Brady, throwing for 345 yards and three touchdowns, but the Patriots still won. That means Brady doesn’t get top marks, but I have a hunch he doesn’t care as long as his team wins.

Running backs: A+

The Patriots rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-best 151 yards, crossing the 100-yard mark for the third time this season, and added a rushing touchdown (as did Shane Vereen).

Brandon Bolden chipped in 54 yards of his own, while Danny Woodhead rushed for 47 yards overall and 6.7 per carry. Woodhead also converted two third-and-very-long situations, making a 25-yard catch on third-and-14 in the second and rushing for 19 on third-and-17 in the third.

The Patriots controlled the pace of the game for all four quarters, and the running backs made it happen. Perfect score for this group (even with Ridley’s fumble).

Wide receivers: A

Wes Welker has had statistically better games, but I’m not sure he’s ever been as effective a receiver as he was Sunday against the Broncos. Denver’s defense simply had no idea how to cover him, and he ripped them apart for 13 catches, 104 yards and a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd backed Welker up nicely with seven combined catches for 69 yards.

Offensive line: B+

Springing the Patriots’ running game for 251 yards and three touchdowns would merit an “A,” but the O-line also allowed four sacks. Considering Brady only dropped back to pass 31 times, that translates to a sack about every eight downs, or every other possession. Add to that five more tackles behind the line and three penalties on the O-line for 20 combined yards, and the grade drops a level.

Defensive line: B

The D-line gets credit for holding the Broncos to just 70 rushing yards, but in four quarters it managed just two hits on Manning. Chandler Jones recorded both and also batted down a pass, but overall the line allowed Manning to sit in the pocket and tee off on the Patriots’ secondary. While the defensive backs allowed some big plays, the linemen failed to ease the secondary’s job by getting pressure on the quarterback.

Linebackers: A

Rob Ninkovich made the two biggest defensive plays of the game. After Brady’s 1-yard rush put the Patriots up 24-7 late in third, Ninkovich strip-sacked Manning on the next play from scrimmage. Vince Wilfork fell on it, and Ridley punched it in three plays later to break the game open.

Ninkovich also knocked the ball out of Willis McGahee‘s hands late in the fourth quarter, killing a Broncos drive that had penetrated the Patriot red zone and threatened to make it a one-possession game with about three minutes left. Instead, Jermaine Cunningham recovered the football, and the Broncos never got it again.

Combine all this with Jerod Mayo‘s sack, and the linebackers get an easy “A.”

Defensive backs: B+

Devin McCourty‘s pass-interference penalty in the second quarter led to the Broncos’ first touchdown. The 28-yard reception he allowed to Demaryius Thomas late in the fourth — when the defense’s only job was to prevent a deep pass or quick scoring-drive — nearly led to another touchdown. Whatever flash McCourty showed as a rookie, he seems to have completely lost it over the last two seasons.

As some positives, rookie Alfonzo Dennard handled cornerback responsibilities competently, even knocking down one pass, and Tavon Wilson finished second on the team with 10 tackles. And Sterling Moore‘s quick hands forced a Denver fumble early that saved what easily could’ve been a touchdown by Thomas.

Special Teams: A-

Stephen Gostkowski made all of his extra points and field goals, and the Broncos accomplished nothing on punt- and kickoff-returns. Nate Ebner got flagged for holding on a fourth-quarter punt, but the Broncos didn’t score on the ensuing drive. Fine performance by special teams, but just not enough big plays to earn top marks.

Coaching: A

Bill Belichick went with a no-huddle, hyper-quick offense, and it worked to perfection, helping set a franchise record with 35 first downs. The Patriots held the ball for nearly 60 percent of the game, destroyed the Broncos on the ground and out-gained them on overall yardage. The defense bent pretty far but never broke completely, giving up the lead once but never forcing the offense to play from behind. And the Patriots won the turnover battle, 3-1.

The Broncos almost came back late, but almost doesn’t count in football, and the Patriots still won a game that should reassure both the players and the fans that this team still ranks among the NFL’s elite.

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