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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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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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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Wild Cards, You Make My …

The Texans beat the Bengals in week 14 of the regular season. Expect the same result when they open up Wild Card weekend Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Finish the line yourselves, sickos. Here’s my preview for this weekend’s NFL Wild Card games.

Bengals vs. Texans

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. at Houston

Neither quarterback for this game terrifies opposing defensive coordinators. T.J. Yates, Houston’s starter since Matt Schaub went down with a shoulder injury in Week 12, has matched Schaub’s accuracy – 61.2 vs. 61.0 percent – but he’s coming off an injury. He also lacks Schaub’s decision-making skills, throwing three picks and fumbling four times in just six games. Cincinnati, meanwhile, counters with Andy Dalton, a less accurate passer who in his rookie year has thrown a troubling 13 interceptions, despite the 20 touchdown passes.

Fortunately for the Texans, they have one of the most elite running backs in the game: Arian Foster, whose 94.2 yards per game ranks second in the NFL. Houston can overcome a weak passing game with their juggernaut rushing attack.

Defensively, the Bengals are good, but the Texans are better. Texan linebacker Connor Barwin is tied for ninth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks, and the Texans have the third best pass-defense in the league. They also have the fourth best run-defense and allow the fourth-fewest points per game. Supposedly, defense and running the ball wins in the playoffs. If conventional wisdom holds, the Texans beat the Bengals. Pick: Texans.

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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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A Letter to a Patriot “Cornerback”

Maybe if Kyle Arrington didn't get beat on so many passes like this, the so-called "fake fans" wouldn't always be booing him. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Dear Kyle Arrington,

Your recent tweet filled me with concern. You seem so worried that “fake fans” (as you so cleverly hashtagged them) will try to jump back on the Patriot “bandwagon” once your team’s horrific defense improves. The thought of phoney-baloney cheers replacing the ever-present boo-birds currently echoing through Gillette Stadium clearly haunts your dreams.

Since journalists are in many ways “fake fans,” let me assure you – a fake cornerback – that you don’t need to worry: no matter how good the Patriots might get later, fans will never jump on your bandwagon.

Patriots fans do not like you, Arrington. They never have, and they never will.

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Pariots Hope to Right Ship Against NFC East-Leading Giants

Eli Manning is having a fantastic 2011 season, and that's bad news for the Patriots, who have the worst pass-defense in the NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It’s been almost four years since the New York Giants’ ended the New England Patriots’ bid for an undefeated season. That’s far too long ago to call Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium a “revenge game.” Instead, this game will simply be an opportunity for the Patriots to pull their pass defense out of the gutter.

What better way to make a statement than against the streaking, 5-2 Giants?

Eli Manning’s Giant Arm Against the Patriots’ Giant Defensive Gaps

The Patriots enter Sunday’s game with the dead-worst passing defense in the league. Seriously: they allow 323.1 yards per game, ranking them 32nd in the league. And while New England’s nine interceptions are somewhat impressive, remember that two picks belong to Vince Wilfork. Beyond the defensive line, the team’s potential for turnovers is just middle-of-the road.

The Patriots’ terrible pass-defense makes Sunday’s game a potential for total disaster. The Giants have the fourth-best passing attack in the NFL, and Eli Manning is one of the best quarterbacks this season. His numbers season are almost identical to Tom Brady‘s: Brady completes 67.6 percent of his passes, Manning completes 64.8. Brady throws 2.25 touchdowns per interception, Manning throws 2.6. Brady has a 104.4 QB rating (second in the NFL), Manning has a 102.1 rating (third).

Even their protection has been similar: Brady’s been sacked 14 times, Manning 15.

Manning has been nearly as good as Brady this season, but Manning will be throwing against a far inferior Patriots secondary. If Miami’s Chad Henne can throw for 416 yards, Manning’s final numbers could border on obscene.

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Patriots Look to Wrap Up Preseason Against Giants

Wes Welker may have scored a touchdown against the Lions, but his neck injury will likely keep him and most of the other Patriot starters from Thursday's preseason finale against the Giants. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

The 2-1 New England Patriots will finish their preseason Thursday night at Gillette against the 2-0 New York Giants. It will be the seventh consecutive Patriots preseason concluded with the Giants. The Giants beat the Patriots 20-17 last season at the New Meadowlands Stadium.

It’s been a Jekyll and Hyde preseason for the Patriots. They looked fantastic in their first two games, crushing the Jaguars with their reserves and the Buccaneers with their starters. Against the Lions – a team that ranks first in the league in passing and total yards per game, and second in the NFC in points allowed per game – they looked dreadful. Which team will show up Thursday?

Giants Not as Scary as Lions

The Giants do not pack quite the same punch the Lions did. Their defense is mediocre, ranking them in the nebulous middle of the pack in most categories. They’ve only recorded five sacks, lacking the dynamic pass rush that helped them derail the Patriots’ undefeated season in Super Bowl XLII.

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