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.

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Peyton Manning: All-Time MVP?

The Colts' abject failure this season without him proves that Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in the NFL. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

As I watched the New England Patriots easily handle the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a question occurred: is Peyton Manning the most valuable player in the NFL? I’m not saying he should win the 2011 MVP Award – that will in all likelihood go to Aaron Rodgers. But after watching the Colts, it became clear to me that no player in the NFL is as crucial to his team’s overall success as Manning is to Indianapolis.

Consider this contrast: when the Patriots lost Tom Brady in the opening quarter of their 2008 season, Matt Cassel still managed to win 11 games, barely missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Colts have started three different quarterbacks this season and have gone 0-12.

With upcoming games against the playoff-bound Texans and Ravens, plus two against Titans and Jaguars teams that have already beaten them, there’s every possibility the Colts will go 0-16.

Cassel might have been a better backup than Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, but with a receiving corps as good as the Colts’, shouldn’t they have still found a way to win a game?

Evidently, Manning means so much to everything else the Colts do that losing him for the season sunk the team right at the starting line.

Former Pro Bowler Joseph Addai‘s limited success due to injury has certainly played a part. Donald Brown has never been even a 500-yard running back, let alone a 1,000-yard RB, and without Addai, the running game has been so atrocious (99.0 yards per game, 26th in the NFL) that teams are just keying on the pass.

But again, that doesn’t really explain it, because a team’s rushing success doesn’t matter much in the regular season. The 4-8 Eagles lead the league in rushing yards, while the 12-0 Packers rank 28th.

To not win a single game, beyond the offense failing to run or pass, the defense must be truly horrific. Which it is: 19th against the pass, 31st against the rush, worst at preventing points. But how can Manning’s absence destabilized the defense?.

Manning’s benefit is that usually when the defense takes the field, they will be a) defending a lead, and b) rested. Manning is a terrific scoring quarterback – he puts points on the board most times he gets near the end zone. And he makes very few poor decisions, which has led to a career 64.9 completion percentage, a 2-1 touchdown-interception ratio, and a 94.9 QB rating.

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