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.

Wes Welker Signs $9.5M Franchise Tender

Many movie moments could symbolize Wes Welker‘s decision to sign his $9.5 million franchise tender Tuesday and return to the Patriots for the 2012-13 season. Perhaps the Hulk destroying enemy ships in The Avengers. Or Dean Portman showing up at halftime of the JV-Varsity game at the end of Mighty Ducks 3. Really, any clip of someone returning from somewhere and then going on a rampage would do.

But none could do it better than Randy Quaid in Independence Day:

Just pretend the spaceship is an opposing defense and the metaphor works perfectly. Kinda like Welker and Tom Brady.

Continue reading Wes Welker Signs $9.5M Franchise Tender

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.

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Super Bowl Preview

Unless Vince Wilfork or another Patriot can disrupt Eli Manning, Manning will pick the Patriots apart in Sunday's Super Bowl. But the reverse holds for the Giants' pass-rush and Tom Brady. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Each conference’s representative in the last two Super Bowls have been identical. Both the Colts and Saints were pass-heavy offenses without much defense. Both the Steelers and Packers liked to build big leads early, then rely on opportunistic defenses to force turnovers in the second half. And this year, the Patriots and the Giants have incredible quarterbacks backed up by dominant receiving units.

Both teams try to run just enough to ease up the pass-rush, and both rely on pressure up front to bail out bad secondaries. Whichever team better executes their identical strategies will will the game.

Here’s my Super Bowl preview.

The Battle for the Line

Super Bowl XLVI will be won at the line of scrimmage. The Giants will try like hell to either hit Tom Brady or force him to throw before Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski inevitably get open. Even with the ankle injury, Gronkowski’s physical size makes him particularly tough on the Giants’ defensive backs, the biggest of whom are still four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Gronkowski.

The Patriots’ offensive line will face quite a challenge themselves, because not even the Ravens could match the pass-rush onslaught of the Giants’ linemen. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora can all get to the quarterback, as can linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. If the offensive line can control those four, Tom Coughlin may have to pull an extra linebacker out of coverage, freeing up one of the Big Three receivers, who are all lethal in single-coverage.

The Patriots have the personnel to counter the pass-rush, with Logan Mankins and Matt Light healthy again. Whether they can do so without drawing holding penalties is another question entirely.

Flipping things, Vince Wilfork has had a monster postseason on the Patriots’ defensive line, but he’ll need help to shut down Eli Manning. Some combination of Mark Anderson, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich will have to step up. If they can get to Manning early, they might rattle the sky-high confidence he’ll feel, having already beaten the two best teams in the NFC and beaten the Patriots in a Super Bowl.

A confident Manning is dangerous, because receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are very, very good. Even if the Patriots double-team them, either one could break away for 15- to 20-yard receptions without much difficulty. And considering the tackling problems the Patriots had with the Ravens, a 20-yard reception could easily become a 40-yard reception.

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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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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

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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Rob Gronkowski Has Returned the Tight End to the NFL

Gronkowski's unique combination of size, strength and sure-handedness presents a model by which the tight end might survive in the speedier 21st century NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As strength and conditioning training has gotten better and better over the years, NFL players have become stronger and faster. Running backs like Adrian Peterson can both bust through lanes without a lead-blocker and also break tackles on short-yardage runs. Slot-receivers like Wes Welker can slip into the middle of the field, then burst for big gains after the catch.

Slower, strength-based offensive positions like the fullback and tight end are becoming redundant. Teams just don’t need as much talent at these spots because they have other position-players who can match the muscle without sacrificing speed. And when teams need muscle, offensive linemen (think Nate Solder) have become fit enough to double as blockers.

With only two marquee tight ends in the NFL through the first decade of the new millennium – Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates – the position was in danger of extinction.

Then Rob Gronkowski arrived, and with him a second renaissance for tight ends.

Fullback Fading Away; Tight End, Too

A look at Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees shows how the league has moved away from certain positions. Gale Sayers was the last halfback to make it to the Hall of Fame, and his career ended in 1971. The fullback seems headed that way as well: Larry Csonka – whose career ended in 1979 – was the last fullback inducted.

The tight end, meanwhile is the third-least-represented position in the Hall of Fame, trailing just place-kickers and the near-extinct fullbacks. Only eight modern-era tight ends are in the Hall of Fame, and the only one who played in the 1990s or later is Shannon Sharpe. Of the remaining seven, most played in the 60s and 70s.

Y2K Almost Killed the Tight End

Though tight ends had hung around longer than the fullbacks, the NFL looked by the mid 2000s like it was sending the position the way of leather helmets.

From 2001 to 2010, a tight end only finished among the top 10 receivers in yardage once: Gonzalez, who finished seventh in 2004. Otherwise, the top tight end – Gonzalez or Gates in eight of those 10 years – averaged a below-18th final ranking in the NFL. Tight ends have been decent scorers, however, finishing among the top 10 for touchdown receptions nine times during that decade, and six times placing among the top five.

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