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).

Continue reading New England Patriots Report Card: Week 5

New England Patriots Report Card: Week 3

Tom Brady and his receivers get A- grades for their performances Sunday against the Ravens, but the rest of the team didn’t do nearly as well. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Before Sunday’s New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game, noted actor (also Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis said, “Revenge is a dish best served cold. We on fire tonight.”

Facing a mind like that, the Patriots should count themselves lucky they just lost, as opposed to waking up tied to a chair in a basement somewhere.

But lose the Patriots did, blowing a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter and losing on a game-ending 27-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. But before Pats fans start moaning, just remember that the Ravens are a very good team, matching talent with physicality and effort. The Patriots didn’t lose this game — the Ravens won it.

With that said, and before Ray Lewis comes bursting through the door in a clown costume singing “Helter Skelter,” let’s give out some grades.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady looked very sharp Sunday, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. He might not have gotten it done on the Patriots’ last drive, but he executed a near-flawless two-minute offense at the end of the first half, capping an 81-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman.

Thirty points usually means victory. Brady did more than enough to put his team in a position to win. Don’t hang this loss on the quarterback.

Running backs: B

Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden each scored a rushing touchdown, but along with Steven Ridley combined for just 75 yards, all three averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. And with the run-game all but stopped, the Ravens began overloading on pass-defense.

Against a worse pass-rushing team, the Patriots can get away with that weak a running game. But against the Ravens? Not so much.

Wide receivers/tight ends: A-

Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd recorded over 100 receiving yards apiece Sunday. Lloyd may have made the flashier catches, but Welker handled the nitty gritty. And both starred against a Ravens secondary that tested the replacement referees’ excessive contact rules every chance it could.

Lloyd brings a dynamic element to the Patriots’ receiving corps that’s been missing since Randy Moss circa 2007. Expect big aerial numbers for Brady and his receivers this season.

Offensive line: B-

The offensive line allowed a sack four plays into the game, tightened up for awhile, then crumbled late in the fourth, allowing a key sack that killed the Patriots’ last drive, forced them to punt and ultimately led to the Ravens’ game-winning field goal.

The line also utterly failed to open up holes for the Patriots’ running game, repeatedly allowing Ravens linemen to simply move across blockers and chase down running backs from behind.

On a positive note, the O-line played penalty-free. And with Sunday’s officiating crew, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Defensive line: D

The defensive line put no pressure on Joe Flacco… literally. No sacks, no quarterback hits, only one tackle for a loss (by Patrick Chung, no less). And Ray Rice rushed for over 100 yards, a touchdown and 5.1 yards per carry.

The defensive line so struggled Sunday that Bill Belichick had to abandon his original defensive scheme, moving up a safety to help on run-defense. That left New England’s mediocre cornerbacks one-on-one with receivers — one reason why Flacco threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns.

Linebackers: D+

Jerod Mayo‘s pass-interference penalty on third down in the second quarter extended a Ravens drive that ended with a touchdown pass, but he also led the team with 11 tackles. Brandon Spikes‘ holding penalty, meanwhile, wiped out the Patriots’ only sack and gave the Ravens first-and-goal from the Patriots’ 5-yard-line.

Flacco’s third touchdown throw came on the very next play, making it a two-point game with four minutes left in the fourth. These veteran linebackers have to play better than that moving forward.

Defensive backs: C-

Too, too many penalties really hurt the Patriots secondary. Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty all gave away third-and-long situations with defensive holding penalties, and McCourty’s pass-interference penalty turned a 52-yard field goal attempt into a 27-yard chip-shot.

Despite the secondary’s inadequacies, three things picked up its grade: Chung’s fourth-down tackle, Steve Gregory‘s first-quarter interception, and the secondary’s overall high level of energy. For once, the Pats’ defense didn’t look exhausted by the fourth quarter.

Special teams: B+

Stephen Gostkowski made all of his field goals and extra points, and for the most part just kicked touchbacks. Excluding the Patriots’ two drives off turnovers, however, they lost the starting-yardage battle to the Ravens, and no one on the Patriots’ special teams did anything spectacular.

Acceptable play from special teams, but nothing distinguishing.

Coaching: B+

Belichick’s decision to leave the Patriots’ front seven to deal with the Ravens’ running game worked for awhile. But once Rice began running roughshod, Belichick had to bring a safety forward, because as good as Flacco is, Belichick knows Rice is much better.

Despite little success on the ground, Belichick continued running the ball, only throwing the ball about 53 percent of the time. Had the Patriots abandoned the running game, Brady likely would’ve taken far more than two sacks and six hits. The Patriots might have lost, but at least they left Baltimore relatively healthy (though the jury’s still out on Edelman and Arrington).

Belichick for the most part coached well, but his team just couldn’t maintain the level of execution necessary to win.

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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Super Bowl XLVI

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.

Continue reading Super Bowl Preview

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 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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 15

Patriots Report Card: Week 14

Rob Gronkowski's record-setting two touchdowns and career-best 160 yards Sunday earns him an "A+" in this week's report card. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

To beat the New England Patriots, a team must play perfectly for 60 minutes. Even when Tom Brady is so out of sorts he gets into a screaming match with his offensive coordinator, the Patriots still score so much that anything short of error-free football won’t cut it.

The Washington Redskins made two mistakes Sunday: one within the opening three minutes, another in the final 30 seconds. That was all it took for the defensively incompetent, offensively inconsistent Patriots to secure a 34-27 victory in Washington.

Can the Patriots defend their thesis any better than they defended against the Redskins? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady can scream at Bill O’Brien all he wants, but throwing a softball to a well-covered and very inexperienced Tiquan Underwood was a stupid decision. The Patriots only needed a field goal for a two-possession lead with six minutes left in the game. Instead, Josh Wilson intercepted Brady, and the Patriots’ linebackers had to save the game. The interception highlighted just how out of sync Brady was with his receivers.

Brady completed less than 60 percent of his passes Sunday, and his receivers’ ability to get yards after catches accounted for many of his 357 passing yards. But Brady still threw three touchdowns; a third-quarter 24-yarder showed Brady’s impressive mobility, with him ducking and dodging tacklers before hitting Wes Welker in the end zone. Brady went 8-for-10 in the third quarter.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 14

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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 12

Patriots Report Card: Week 10

Andre Carter's franchise-record 4.5 sacks were enough to earn the entire defensive line an A in Sunday's road victory over the New York Jets. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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.

Quarterback: A

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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 10

Patriots Report Card: Week 6

Andre Carter's two sacks highlighted a strong performance from the New England Patriot defensive line against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

For the first 25 minutes the New England Patriots had the ball against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, they played sloppy, uncreative football. But down three points with 2:31 left in the game, Tom Brady led a precision air-strike that culminated in Brady’s 8-yard bullet to Aaron Hernandez in the end zone, completing yet another comeback in the saga of Tom Terrific. Coupled with a Buffalo Bills loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots enter their bye-week in first place in the AFC East.

Who qualified for the AP class and who’s taking Remedial English? Here’s one analyst’s opinion.

Quarterback: A-

Brady played B/B- football for most of the game, struggling to solve the Cowboys’ complicated defense before their bloodthirsty pass-rushers could reach him. On his final drive, however, Brady’s play became immaculate. Brady went 8-for-9 on that drive, averaging nearly 10 yards per completion. The Cowboys never knew who Brady would throw to next: he targeted his tight ends three times, Wes Welker four times, and Danny Woodhead twice. He also converted a third-and-1 from the Dallas 29 with a QB sneak, capping a 17-yard rushing day to go with his 289-yard and two-touchdown passing day.

Brady’s only truly boneheaded play came in the fourth quarter, when he threw to Hernandez in double-coverage and linebacker Sean Lee easily picked him off. That interception – Brady’s second – killed a drive that had already entered field-goal territory, but better protection might have prevented the snap-judgment throw.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 6