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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 11

Kyle Arrington's two-interception night highlighted a terrific Monday Night Football performance by the Patriots' depleted secondary against the Chiefs. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Kansas City Chiefs threw everything but the kitchen sink (unless you count Jerrell Powe) at the New England Patriots Monday night, hoping to disrupt Tom Brady early on and keep the game close late. It worked for about 20 minutes, but the Patriots eventually solved the Chiefs’ defense. The end result: a 34-3 Patriot victory and a tie atop the AFC standings.

Who published and who perished? Here’s my weekly report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady showed considerable poise in the midst of the Chief’s early onslaught, then used a combination of screens and hurry-up offenses to regain control at the line and beat that onslaught. Once Brady could breathe again, he began to pick apart the secondary, finishing the game with 234 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs played early on as if they really felt they could beat the far-superior Patriots. Instead of panicking when they made a few plays, the unflappable Brady simply waited until they returned to earth, then swatted them aside like the flies they were.

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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.

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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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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 Report Card: Week 8

Andre Carter's two-sack game highlighted an A- performance from the Patriots' defensive line in Sunday's loss to the Steelers. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

I don’t know why, but football players more than any other athlete legitimately rally around negative press. So when the media almost universally gave Sunday’s New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game to the visiting Patriots, a Steelers victory became a near-guarantee. And the Steelers won in truly convincing fashion, doubling up the Patriots in both total yardage (427 vs. 213) and possession time (39:22 to 20:38). The Patriots never led and, coupled with a Bills’s shutout of the lowly Redskins, fell back into a tie atop the AFC East.

In a game this poor, did anyone play well? Here’s my report card.

Quarterback: B+

Tom Brady had to withstand a constant barrage of Pittsburgh pass-rushers while his receivers hurried to get open. That he completed over 68 percent of his passes and threw no interceptions is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable: his second-to-last drive of the game, in which Brady went 8-for-10 in a pass-exclusive offense. Brady’s high completion percentage and two touchdown passes helped him finish with his highest QB rating (101.8) since beating the Chargers in Week 2, but Patriots fans have seen far superior performances from Brady, especially at Heinz Field.

Running Backs: C

Nice to see Kevin Faulk (32 yards on the ground, 20 in the air) back, but Sunday’s game was a no-show for the Patriot running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for just 9 yards; neither back made it into the end zone, and Faulk could not convert any third down in which he carried the ball. Granted, these were usually third-and-long situations, but Sunday was a huge step back for a ground game the Patriots need to keep opponents from eating Brady and his receivers alive.

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