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.

Matt Light Made Patriots Offensive Line Much, Much Better

Matt Light retired from the NFL Monday. He played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting nearly every game and anchoring a much-improved offensive line. (AP/www.Boston.com)

When the 2012 New England Patriots kick off their season in a few months, many of the faces will look familiar. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker will still be there, picking apart defenses. Jerod Mayo will still blow up any receiver foolhardy enough to run across the middle of the field. Stephen Gostkowski will still split the uprights with computer-like proficiency.

But one familiar face won’t be there: Matt Light, who retired from the NFL Monday. Light played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting 153 of 155 total regular season games, plus 16 playoff games. He started all 16 games in seven different seasons, playing a key role in the Patriots’ transformation into the premier NFL franchise of the 21st century.

Light Anchored Competent Offensive Line

In the five years before Light arrived, the Patriots’ offensive line averaged just under 41 sacks per season, with an average rank smack in the middle of the NFL (16). With Light anchoring the team starting in 2001, average sacks dropped down to 30.5, and average ranking improved to 11.1.

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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

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.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Divisional Round

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 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 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

Jerod Mayo’s Tackling Anchors Patriots’ Defense

Jerod Mayo's solid tackling has anchored the Patriots' run-defense, forcing opponents to throw almost exclusively. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If you can only do one thing in the NFL, make sure you do it fantastically. Chicago’s Devin Hester is almost exclusively a punt-returner, but he’s the best punt-returner there’s ever been. Dallas’ Dan Bailey is just a place-kicker, but he’s only missed once in a season in which seven of the Cowboys’ 11 games have been decided by four points or fewer.

And for the New England Patriots, Jerod Mayo continues to be the best pure tackler on the team. He might lag behind tight ends, he might rarely pick off a pass or blitz the quarterback, but he doesn’t allow yards after receptions. He stops running backs cold. He doesn’t allow big plays.

The Patriots made Mayo a captain before the 2010 season – the best of his four-year career, earning him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. A league-leading 175 tackles, two sacks, five defensed passes, a forced fumble and three recoveries – all last season, Mayo sent a stern, painful message to opposing teams: “don’t test me.”

Mayo hasn’t done nearly as much for the Patriots this season. He leads the front seven with 52 tackles, but that’s where his contributions stop. An early-October MCL injury that cost him two games might be in part responsible.

Some would argue Mayo’s poor numbers reflect a down season for the 10th-overall 2008 draft pick. Quite to the contrary: Mayo’s fewer tackles are a testament to just how good he really is.

Teams no longer challenge Mayo by throwing against his coverage. Quarterbacks know that even if the receiver catches the ball, he won’t get much after the catch. And a receiver worrying about Mayo’s shoulder crashing into his chest is way more likely to bobble the pass.

Continue reading Jerod Mayo’s Tackling Anchors Patriots’ Defense