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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: AFC Championship

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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 17

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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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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 13

Patriots Report Card: Week 12

Tom Brady gave a brilliant performance Sunday against the Eagles, completing 70 percent of his passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

It took the New England Patriots a drive to get in rhythm, but once they did, Sunday’s game went according to plan. Tom Brady dissected the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary, the defense allowed just three points across 50 minutes of football, and the Patriots handed the “dream team” Eagles a 38-20 nightmare of a defeat. The boobirds started singing early at Lincoln Financial Field, and they didn’t quit until the stadium emptied out.

Whose play was masterfully artful, and whose was just b.s.? Here’s your weekly report card.

Quarterbacks: A

Tom Brady turned in a brilliant performance Sunday, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. With little pressure to worry about, Brady had plenty of time to find the open receiver and throw a perfect strike. Only one pass even had a chance at being intercepted, and it wasn’t. Otherwise, immaculate decision-making from the emotional leader of this team. He even rushed for 28 yards!

Brian Hoyer took over midway through the fourth, successfully handing the ball off on three straight plays when the Patriots just wanted to bleed the clock and punt.

Running Backs: A-

BenJarvus Green-Ellis did most of his damage on the Patriots’ first scoring drive, churning up 28 hard-fought yards on eight carries. He ended the drive with a 4-yard burst into the end zone that cut the Eagles’ lead to 10-7 and chewed up almost seven minutes. Green-Ellis added a second, 1-yard touchdown on the Patriots’ next drive.

The running game’s focus shifted towards clock management as the Patriots’ lead grew and grew, but the threat of the run still helped sell two play-action passes. The first, with Danny Woodhead on the field, left Wes Welker wide open for a 41-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. The second led to a 14-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski early in the fourth. That drive ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 11

Kyle Arrington's two-interception night highlighted a terrific Monday Night Football performance by the Patriots' depleted secondary against the Chiefs. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Kansas City Chiefs threw everything but the kitchen sink (unless you count Jerrell Powe) at the New England Patriots Monday night, hoping to disrupt Tom Brady early on and keep the game close late. It worked for about 20 minutes, but the Patriots eventually solved the Chiefs’ defense. The end result: a 34-3 Patriot victory and a tie atop the AFC standings.

Who published and who perished? Here’s my weekly report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady showed considerable poise in the midst of the Chief’s early onslaught, then used a combination of screens and hurry-up offenses to regain control at the line and beat that onslaught. Once Brady could breathe again, he began to pick apart the secondary, finishing the game with 234 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs played early on as if they really felt they could beat the far-superior Patriots. Instead of panicking when they made a few plays, the unflappable Brady simply waited until they returned to earth, then swatted them aside like the flies they were.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 8

Andre Carter's two-sack game highlighted an A- performance from the Patriots' defensive line in Sunday's loss to the Steelers. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

I don’t know why, but football players more than any other athlete legitimately rally around negative press. So when the media almost universally gave Sunday’s New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game to the visiting Patriots, a Steelers victory became a near-guarantee. And the Steelers won in truly convincing fashion, doubling up the Patriots in both total yardage (427 vs. 213) and possession time (39:22 to 20:38). The Patriots never led and, coupled with a Bills’s shutout of the lowly Redskins, fell back into a tie atop the AFC East.

In a game this poor, did anyone play well? Here’s my report card.

Quarterback: B+

Tom Brady had to withstand a constant barrage of Pittsburgh pass-rushers while his receivers hurried to get open. That he completed over 68 percent of his passes and threw no interceptions is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable: his second-to-last drive of the game, in which Brady went 8-for-10 in a pass-exclusive offense. Brady’s high completion percentage and two touchdown passes helped him finish with his highest QB rating (101.8) since beating the Chargers in Week 2, but Patriots fans have seen far superior performances from Brady, especially at Heinz Field.

Running Backs: C

Nice to see Kevin Faulk (32 yards on the ground, 20 in the air) back, but Sunday’s game was a no-show for the Patriot running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for just 9 yards; neither back made it into the end zone, and Faulk could not convert any third down in which he carried the ball. Granted, these were usually third-and-long situations, but Sunday was a huge step back for a ground game the Patriots need to keep opponents from eating Brady and his receivers alive.

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