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).

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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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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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