Patriots Report Card: Super Bowl XLVI

For converting their only field goal and committing no penalties, Stephen Gostkowski and the Patriot special teams unit get an "A-" for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Well… crap. Just like four years ago, the New England Patriots came up just a couple plays short of beating the New York Giants and claiming their fourth Lombardi Trophy Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI. Instead, Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning once again bested Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, with Manning executing yet another fourth-quarter comeback highlighted by an improbable reception. Brady’s quest to tie Joe Montana and Bradshaw continues.

The Patriots under-performed on their last test of the season. Which Patriots will get credit and which are now on academic probation? Here’s the last report card until September.

Quarterback: B

Brady wasn’t terrible, completing just over 65 percent of his passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, but he definitely wasn’t at his best. His line gave him all kinds of protection, but he still had trouble hitting his receivers. Wes Welker should have caught that second-and-11 late in the game, but Brady could have thrown a much easier pass, one that didn’t require Welker to simultaneously spin around, leap into the air and haul in a ball barely within his range.

Brady occasionally gets lost inside his own mind, seeing diagrams of plays instead of the actual field. His deep-ball interception is a perfect example. On paper, Rob Gronkowski would out-jump a linebacker every time. But the real Gronkowski couldn’t run or jump with that high-ankle sprain Sunday, yet Brady tried to bomb it to him anyway. Chase Blackburn hauled picked it, squandering yet another second-half drive that could have extended the Patriots’ lead beyond one possession.

Brady only played above-average football (including the bone-headed if oddly penalized safety), while Manning played spectacular football, especially in the second half. The better quarterback took home the title.

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Super Bowl Preview

Unless Vince Wilfork or another Patriot can disrupt Eli Manning, Manning will pick the Patriots apart in Sunday's Super Bowl. But the reverse holds for the Giants' pass-rush and Tom Brady. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Each conference’s representative in the last two Super Bowls have been identical. Both the Colts and Saints were pass-heavy offenses without much defense. Both the Steelers and Packers liked to build big leads early, then rely on opportunistic defenses to force turnovers in the second half. And this year, the Patriots and the Giants have incredible quarterbacks backed up by dominant receiving units.

Both teams try to run just enough to ease up the pass-rush, and both rely on pressure up front to bail out bad secondaries. Whichever team better executes their identical strategies will will the game.

Here’s my Super Bowl preview.

The Battle for the Line

Super Bowl XLVI will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Giants will try like hell to either hit Tom Brady or force him to throw before Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski inevitably get open. Even with the ankle injury, Gronkowski’s physical size makes him particularly tough on the Giants’ defensive backs, the biggest of whom are still four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gronkowski.

The Patriots’ offensive line will face quite a challenge themselves, because not even the Ravens could match the pass-rush onslaught of the Giants’ linemen. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora can all get to the quarterback, as can linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. If the offensive line can control those four, Tom Coughlin may have to pull an extra linebacker out of coverage, freeing up one of the Big Three receivers, who are all lethal in single-coverage.

The Patriots have the personnel to counter the pass-rush, with Logan Mankins and Matt Light healthy again. Whether they can do so without drawing holding penalties is another question entirely.

Flipping things, Vince Wilfork has had a monster postseason on the Patriots’ defensive line, but he’ll need help to shut down Eli Manning. Some combination of Mark Anderson, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will have to step up. If they can get to Manning early, they might rattle the sky-high confidence he’ll feel, having already beaten the two best teams in the NFC and beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl.

A confident Manning is dangerous, because receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are very, very good. Even if the Patriots double-team them, either one could break away for 15- to 20-yard receptions without much difficulty. And considering the tackling problems the Patriots had with the Ravens, a 20-yard reception could easily become a 40-yard reception.

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Patriots Report Card: AFC Championship

Vince Wilfork's terrific individual effort of six tackles – three behind the line – a sack and a key fourth-down hit on Ravens QB Joe Flacco earns him an "A" in the AFC Championship report card. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Ravens shut down the New England Patriots’ receivers in Sunday’s AFC Championship, rattled Tom Brady and held the Patriots to their fewest points since October. And they still didn’t win.

The Patriots beat the Ravens, 23-20, advancing to their fifth Super Bowl of the new millennium when Ravens place-kicker Billy Cundiff badly missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. The Patriots will face the New York Giants in Indianapolis in two weeks.

The AFC Championship was the last test before the final. Who’s ready, and who’ll be pulling an all-nighter? Here’s the penultimate report card of the season.

Quarterback: B+

Brady’s successes Sunday came on seven, eight, nine-yard passes – the bit-by-bit passing attack that’s won three Super Bowls. Brady only got into trouble when he got greedy and tried for more too quickly. Given the ball following a Brandon Spikes interception, Brady could have slowly marched the Patriots 50 yards, scored a touchdown and probably clinched the game. Instead he tried an unconvincing play-action bomb to Matthew Slater, who’s caught one pass this season. The Ravens sniffed it out, sent two deep and picked him off.

Every so often, Brady forgets to use common sense when selecting targets. Against a good pass-rush, Brady barely completed 60 percent of his passes, throwing for just 239 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. In typically gritty fashion, he did rush for a touchdown on fourth down in the fourth, putting the Patriots ahead for good.

Brady won’t have to be perfect to out-score the Giants in two weeks. He just can’t get lost inside his own head as much as he did Sunday.

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Who’s Going to Indianapolis?

Barring a bunch of turnovers, Tom Brady and uber-receivers like Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski should prove too much for the Baltimore Ravens in this Sunday's AFC Championship. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

The New Orleans Saints turned the ball over more than the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs, and they lost. The Green Pay Packers turned the ball over more than the New York Giants, and they lost. The Houston Texans turned it over more than the Baltimore Ravens, and they lost.

The New England Patriots turned it over more than the Denver Broncos, but not until the Patriots were already up 35. And that game’s +1 turnover differential ranked lowest among all four games.

The lesson is simple: Dont. Turn. The ball. Over.

Four teams remain in the postseason. They’ll all play in this Sunday’s conference championships for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in two weeks.

Here are my picks for who’ll be playing for the Lombardi Trophy.

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Patriots Report Card: Divisional Round

With over 75 percent accuracy, masterful two-minute offense and a playoff record-tying six touchdown passes, Tom Brady gets an "A+" in this week's report card. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Book of (2) Timothy states: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

The Book of Tom states: “Good for you. I just whomped your ass.”

Any comparisons between Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots died following Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game. Brady tied the NFL postseason record with six passing touchdowns, the defense squished Tebow under hundreds of pounds of linemen and linebackers, and the Patriots cruised to a 45-10 gelding of the Broncos.

With a victory as complete as the Patriots’ over the Broncos, did anyone not earn academic honors? Here’s my first report card of the playoffs.

Quarterback: A+

Brady set a first-half playoff record with five touchdown passes, then tied the single-game record with a sixth in the third quarter. He completed over 75 percent of his passes, averaging better than a first down per reception. He finished the game with 363 passing yards, six touchdowns and an interception. He orchestrated a masterful 58-yard drive with a minute left in the half, needing just five plays to hit Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a 35-7 lead with 5 seconds left in the half.

Brady’s best touchdown pass came with just under two minutes left in the first half, when he hit Deion Branch perfectly in stride after Branch ran past cornerback Andre’ Goodman. Not needing to slow down to catch the ball, Branch easily got to the end zone for the 61-yard score and a 28-7 lead.

Brady also executed the best quick-kick I’ve ever seen.

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A Nation Divided Makes Great Football

The Saints' Drew Brees is just too good a passer, with too many great receivers, to be contained by the 49ers in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Eight division winners will fight for spots in the AFC and NFC Championships this weekend. The last time no fifth- or sixth-seed teams won their Wild Card playoff games was 2007.  Since the 1978-79 NFL playoffs – the first season with Wild Card playoff births (albeit just one per conference) – the higher-seeded teams have never won all their first- and second-round games.

At least one of the better-rested teams will very soon enjoy a much longer respite. Who will it be? Here’s my preview.

Saints vs. 49ers

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at San Francisco

San Francisco has a very strong defense: first in rushing yards per game, second in points per game, fourth in total yards. Notice which category I left out? That’s right: passing yards per game. And they’re taking on New Orleans – the best passing team in the NFL. Drew Brees can shred even good secondaries like confetti. There are far worse pass-defenses (including New Orleans’), but the 49ers’ biggest weakness plays directly into the hands of the Saints’ greatest strength.

Meanwhile the 49ers average over 10 fewer points per game than the Saints. The 49ers’ offense is horrendous: their best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, has caught just four touchdown passes, while QB Alex Smith is an untested, above-average quarterback who can only be used sparingly (just 197 yards per game). Frank Gore runs well, but the Saints defend against the run far better than against the pass.

San Francisco can’t match New Orleans’ scoring, so they’ll have to win it by forcing turnovers. Only problem: the Saints showed last week against the Lions that they too can intercept passes.Pick: Saints.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 17

Rob Gronkowski led all Patriot receivers with two touchdown catches Sunday against the Bills, and his 108 yards helped set an NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

All’s well that ends well. The New England Patriots overcame an early 21-point deficit Sunday, blowing out the Bills in the second half and cruising to home-field advantage for the playoffs. Final score: Patriots 49, Bills 21. A fitting revenge after the Bills came back from being down 21 to beat the Patriots in September.

Who finished the regular season on the high honor roll, and who’s spending Wild Card weekend with an outside tutor? Here’s the final report card before the playoffs.

Quarterbacks: A

Despite a rough start, Tom Brady still finished the game with 338 passing yards and three touchdowns. He refused to be cowed by the Bills’ lead, instead slowly chipping away until the Bills crumbled beneath his far-superior abilities. With a healthier Wes Welker and a year of development from his tight ends, Brady’s yardage skyrocketed this season to the tune of 5,235 yards – not the most in the NFL this season, but the most for Brady by over 400 yards. A combination of shoulder strength, pocket protection and down-field plays will determine Brady’s playoff success.

Running Backs: A-

Stevan Ridley did the grunt-work Sunday, picking up 81 yards on 15 carries. In the red zone, however, Bill Belichick chose the sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to bust it in. Green-Ellis delivered two rushing touchdowns, including the Patriots’ first. He also executed a flawless screen play, chewing up 53 yards on the second play of the second half. That drive ended in a field goal that cut the Bills’ lead to one point.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 16

He wasn't perfect, but Tom Brady's gritty second-half performance – including two rushing touchdowns – carried the day against the Dolphins. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins narrowly avoided disaster Saturday against the New England Patriots. Somehow a group of talented, motivated football players broke into their locker room, knocked everyone out, stole their uniforms and took the field for kickoff. The “Dolphins” went into halftime up 17-0.

Luckily, the true – and truly terrible – Dolphins regained consciousness and took back their uniforms for the second half. The Patriots scored 27 points in a row and held on to win, 27-24.

The Patriots clinched a first-round bye, and the Dolphins continued their mission of destroying the legacy of a once-great franchise.

Which Patriots graduated with honors, and which will have to take summer school classes? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady couldn’t do much in the first half, what with all the Dolphins constantly in his face. Whatever happened at halftime, the protection improved in the second half, and Brady came alive. Brady’s second-half line: 20-27 for 217 yards and a touchdown, finishing 27-46 for 306 overall. Brady continues to play with guts, QB-sneaking not once but twice for rushing touchdowns in the second half.

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Patriots Clinch First-Round Bye, Overcome 17-Point Deficit Against Dolphins

Tom Brady's second rushing touchdown proved the game-winner Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins at Gillette. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The New England Patriots took every punch the Miami Dolphins threw at them in the first half of Sunday afternoon’s game at Gillette.

In the second half, the Patriots came out swinging, and the Dolphins went down for the count.

The Patriots scored 27 points in the second half, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Dolphins, 27-24, and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

Brady Comes Alive in Second Half

The Patriots entered halftime down 17-0, dispirited and disheveled. Missing Matt Light and losing Logan Mankins early in the game, the Patriots’ offensive line had crumbled under the Dolphins’ pass-rushing onslaught, leading to three sacks. Tom Brady could never sit comfortably in the pocket, completely derailing the passing game.

The Patriots went three-and-out four times in the first half, and Stephen Gostkowski badly missed a 51-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds before halftime.

Whatever Bill Belichick said to his team, they exited the locker room with renewed energy and resolve. Brady began the second half with an 11-play drive – highlighted by a 15-yarder to Chad Ochocinco – that ended with a 45-yard field goal and put the Patriots on the board.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 15

Aaron Hernandez led the Patriots with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, plus 16 yards rushing, in Sunday's blowout victory over the Broncos. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Whatever the source of the Denver Broncos’ new-found momentum, it ended in the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. Neither Tim Tebow‘s speed nor his supplications could turn back Tom Brady‘s ruthless but balanced offensive attack. The Patriots beat the Broncos, 41-23, clinching the AFC East and moving ahead of both Pittsburgh and Houston for the AFC’s top seed.

Tebow majored in Family, Youth and Community Services, but are the Patriots the true bachelors of divinty? Vox Goisman, vox dei.

Quarterback: A

Brady didn’t play Sunday’s game like a quarterback who’d only won once at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, completing over two-thirds of his passes for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Given decent protection by his line, Brady had little trouble sitting in the pocket and waiting for his receivers to get open. He averaged nearly 9.4 yards per reception, throwing 15 first-down passes. He even rushed for a touchdown!

Running Backs: A-

The Patriots rushed for 141 yards Sunday – their highest total in nearly a month. Stevan Ridley continued transitioning his game to the NFL, leading the team with 11 carries for 65 yards. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis backed Ridley up with a touchdown apiece that showed off their complimentary running styles: Woodhead scampered 10 yards into the end zone in the third, Green-Ellis bulldozed past the left guard for 1 yard in the fourth.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A

Aaron Hernandez was clearly sick of Rob Gronkowski getting all the praise this season. His response? Nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown reception that started the Patriots’ 20-point swing in the second quarter. He also rushed for 16 yards on an end-around during the drive leading up to his touchdown.

Gronkowski and Wes Welker probably didn’t mind the lighter workload – they’ve combined for over half the Patriots’ receptions and receiving yards this season – but they still kicked in eight catches for 94 yards. Chad Ochocinco even got in on the act, slipping his defender and making a 33-yard touchdown bomb from Brady look easy early in the first.

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