Report card time and for Week 1 it's hard to do anything but act like a sleazy professor in a college sports movie and hand out "A's" and "B's" without a pause. But unlike Pete Bell's Western University Dolphins the Patriots earned the high marks on Sunday.
For one half and one kickoff on in the season-opener the Patriots looked every bit a Super Bowl contender, handling the Bengals in all three phases of the game to take a 31-3 lead. What happened after that might be a product of conservatism from the coaching staff or might turn out to be some weaknesses exposed, but it's hard to have garbage-time numbers play a major factor in grading guys who played so well when it counted.
Feel free to fire away with whatever you’ve got at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can handle it, even the Eddie Munster references. OK, those are starting to hurt a little. I know, having a receding hairline since the age of 14 should have toughened me up. But just like Randy Moss, at the end of the day I want to be loved. And make a crapload of money.
With that, to the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- A-
If you were hoping for a potential telling moment in this game from Brady and the offense -- something that could turn out to be key as the year goes on -- look not at the first scoring drive for the Patriots but the final one. The inability to close teams out in 2009 was almost shocking, particularly if you have watched Brady even casually over the years. The best closer in modern NFL history was under center for fourth-quarter blown leads vs. the Broncos, Colts, Dolphins and Texans. So when the Bengals scored back-to-back TDs on Sunday to cut the lead to 31-17 it was getting -- if not entirely uncomfortable -- a little warm in Foxboro.
But I guess Brady figured he had been in the middle of enough drama over the previous 72 hours, because he authored a 14-play, 81-yard TD drive that eliminated any "could this happen?" thoughts and put the game away. If you look at the throws he made on the drive, nothing really jumps out. He simply did what he did almost all game long -- took what the Bengals gave him. No pass play on the drive went for more than 12 yards, most of it underneath stuff, with Welker as the main target. Brady went to Welker on the first play of the drive, and both third-down plays on the drive were quick outs to Welker, moving the chains both times. The only throw that could be categorized in the tough department was the TD pass to Rob Gronkowski, a perfectly timed fade into the corner of the end zone.
Brady's numbers were very good on Sunday (25-of-35, 258 yards, three TDs and not even close to a pick). His passer rating was 120.9, and the Pats are now 20-1 in his career when that rating is 120 or higher. Seven different receivers caught passes, and five of them had a catch of 20 or more yards. I don't think we'll ever see 2007 again, but this team could be deeper than that group on the offensive end. Now Brady wasn't flawless on Sunday -- he overthrew and then underthrew a couple of deep balls to Randy Moss and almost got Kevin Faulk beheaded on a third-down pass in the second quarter -- but I'm pretty sure Bill Belichick would sign for the Brady we saw on Sunday for the rest of the season.
Key Number? Two. That's the amount of times Brady was touched by a Bengals defensive player on Sunday. When your QB has more TD passes than times hit by the opposing defense it's a pretty good sign that you'll be handing out game balls.
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
Do you know how many running backs from the 1998 NFL Draft are still in the league? That would be Fred Taylor and exactly no one else. Taylor looked about 10 years younger than 34 Sunday, running hard for his 71 yards in 14 carries. If there's a lead back on this team he's it (for now anyway). He also threw a nice late block to give Brady some time before his 45-yard completion to Aaron Hernandez in the game's opening drive. A nice day from Taylor, who couldn't stay on the field last year. If he's healthy he'll be part of the mix in 2010.
Kevin Faulk (one of two running backs still kicking from the 1999 draft and the only one left who is not a certified Sivananda Yoga teacher) had what I would call a forgivable drop on a third-down pass from Brady at the Cincy 14-yard line in the second quarter. He probably should have made the grab -- he got both hands on the ball and has made that kind of play a million times -- but it was a touch high and forced Faulk to adjust his body. But Faulk more than made up for the drop later in the quarter, managing to keep his feet inbounds as he hauled in a Brady bullet at the Bengals' four-yard line on a huge 21-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 that led to the Welker TD. You know how Dennis Johnson always knew where Larry Bird was? That's Brady and Faulk.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis played a key role in the previously mentioned game-clinching drive, taking over for Fred Taylor in the red zone and picking up 18 yards in four carries, taking the Pats all the way to Cincy's 1-yard line.
Key Number? How about 3.2 and 3.6? Those were the yards per carry averages in the season opener vs. the Bills and the playoff loss to the Ravens, respectively. Sunday the Pats ran 23 times for 118 yards, good for 5.1 yards per pop.
RECEIVERS -- A-
I was in the press box at Foxboro on Sunday, have watched the game twice on replay, and keep coming back to this: Wes Welker looks like the same player he was before he tore his ACL. No readjustment seems needed, no mental blocks to overcome, none of the stuff we always (rightly) hear about when a guy returns from that kind of severe injury. Welker caught eight passes for 64 yards and a pair of TDs on Sunday. His two third-down catches in the Patriots' final scoring drive were vintage Welker, finding the open spot and moving the chains. He also did a superb job blocking downfield on a couple of Moss catches. Unless Bronco Nagurski comes out of the grave and runs for 145 yards next week I'm thinking the Comeback Player of the Year race is over.
Randy Moss wasn't a huge factor in the offense -- just five catches for 59 yards -- but his presence alone played a factor. There wasn't a Bengals player within 20 yards of Aaron Hernandez when he made his 45-yard reception in the first quarter. Why? Two Bengals followed Moss on his route, leaving Hernandez wide open. A bad moment for Moss came as a blocker, as he missed Christopher Owens as the lead blocker on a Welker catch, but he used some physicality to push Jonathan Joseph away and pick up 32 yards on a quick hit from Brady in the second quarter.
Just two catches in total for the rookie tight ends, but both were impact plays -- the 45-yarder from Hernandez and the one-yard TD from Gronkowski in the fourth quarter. Alge Crumpler was targeted just once, but his catch was wiped off the books following a holding call on Dan Koppen. Both Crumpler and Gronkowski were blocking in front of Welker during the wideout's nine-yard TD catch in the first quarter. Gronkowski also laid the key block to spring Faulk's 10-yard first-quarter run.
Key Number? 354. The total number of receptions by Welker in his 47 games with Patriots. In nearly half of those games (23) he has caught eight or more passes. In his 46 games with the Dolphins he caught 96 passes and had one game with at least eight catches.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A
Not a great leverage day for Logan Mankins, huh? Might be time to dust off that apology. Just a dominant performance by this group across the board, both in the passing and running game. That Moss 32-yard catch? Wouldn't have happened if the O-Line hadn't picked up the blitz, which they did with ease all through the game.
It wasn't just that the Bengals didn't get a glove on Brady -- they didn't come close. There was a play in the second quarter where Brady had the time to look at Welker twice and Moss twice before finally moving up in the pocket and hitting Brandon Tate (forgot him -- four catches, 36 yards, good work as stand-in for Julian Edelman) for 20 yards.
There was some concern about Antwan Odom during the week, but Matt Light rendered him to a status a couple of slots below non-factor (a Burgess, as it's known in some circles). Sebastian Vollmer was a force in run blocking, clearing the way for Taylor's 24-yard run in the first quarter and teaming with Stephen Neal and Dan Koppen to give Green-Ellis a huge hole in his fourth-quarter run to the 1-yard line.
Picking nits here, but Koppen's penalty on Crumpler's third-quarter catch halted a drive and gave the ball back to the Bengals, who were then able to score again. But that's the only blight on the day for a unit that I felt was one of the two (secondary) that could almost be given a pass if they struggled early in the season. Instead they go out and play as about well as you'll ever see an offensive line play. I mean, the QB is virtually untouched and the backs go for over five yards a carry? No shame if that is the best they play all year.
Key Number? I stopped counting at 78, so does anyone have an exact total on the number of times Phil Simms sang a love song about this group on Sunday? I get that he was right to do so, but after a half or so it was like he was Steve Perry and the Pats O-Line was the girl in the "Oh Sherry" video. If I was a Bengals fan it would have been a vomit buffet. Of course, the fact that Marvin Lewis wasn't fired at halftime would have kicked off the vomitpalooza for me if I was living and dying with that team.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B+
The last time we saw Vince Wilfork in a game that counted he was getting tossed around by Matt Birk as Ray Rice blew past him on his way to about 960 yards rushing in the first quarter. Don't know of that served as motivation or not -- Wilfork stole one from Rodney Harrison and talked about lack of respect after the game -- but Big Vince was a playmaker on Sunday. The opening drive of the game for the Bengals saw Wilfork move away from a double team and knock Palmer down on a completed pass to Terrell Owens. And though it was Myron Pryor and Tully Banta-Cain credited with the sack on Palmer, it was Wilfork (with a pretty sweet spin move) who got his hands on the QB and disrupted the play. One game in, but if you were wondering how the Pats could give Wilfork $18 mil in guaranteed money in the offseason you saw the argument for on Sunday.
Mike Wright had some trouble with Cedric Benson in the second half, but it was Wright who had the initial hit that led to the back's first-half fumble. Wright also abused tackle Dennis Roland in the third quarter, pushing him to the ground with one arm and forcing an incomplete pass from Palmer.
Not much from either Gerard Warren or Ron Brace in Ty Warren's spot at left defensive end. Pryor did get to Palmer for half a sack in that first-drive nickel package but was quiet after that.
Key Number? Zero. That's the total rushing yards for the Bengals with 5:00 left in the first half.
LINEBACKERS -- A-
Banta-Cain was as integral as anyone in stopping the running attack of the Bengals on Sunday (who were ninth in the NFL in rushing last year), using his spot on the edge to keep Benson contained. He also got a few hits on Palmer and picked up half a sack. Watching the game again I was struck by his energy in the first half but thought he looked a little gassed in the third and fourth quarters.
Jerod Mayo (12 tackles, eight solo) looked better on Sunday than he did at any point in 2009, and Brandon Spikes (three tackles and a pass deflection) showed his ability to halt the run. After years of guts and guile play at LB from the Seau's and Bruschi's and Vrabel's we are officially in a new era of youth and speed.
Gary Guyton is probably destined to be a part-time player (think we learned that last year) but he made a terrific play on his TD, reading where Palmer was going, stepping in front of tight end Jermaine Gresham and showing some speed on his 59-yard return.
Rob Ninkovich had the strip and recovery of the Benson fumble and was another member of the law firm of energy, energy and energy. Jermaine Cunningham had a couple of decent rushes from the outside spot but had nothing to show for it. I expect his snap count to only increase as the season progresses.
Key Number? One. That would be the total number of TD's for Patriots linebackers in 2010, or one more than they scored in 2009. Have to think they'll have some chances to make some plays against Sanchez on Sunday.
SECONDARY -- B+
My first thought was to give these guys an "A", to be honest, but I have to give them a hit for allowing the Bengals to put up some big second-half numbers. Yes, I get it was done mostly in a soft zone in a game that was all but closed out, but it has to count a little, right? Put it this way: If this were a group I knew better or had seen turn it on and off when needed a couple of times I would have gone higher.
There are times when you look at a box score, see a guy had 16 tackles and wonder if you were watching the wrong game. Patrick Chung did not have that kind of 16-tackle game Sunday. Chung was all over the place, and was doing some serious hitting. At one point, both Ochocinco and Owens took the option of dropping to the ground after a catch instead of having to deal with a potential blasting from Chung. And his first real impact play of the game -- racing from the backfield to drill Benson for a three-yard loss in the Bengals' second series -- was a textbook "younger and faster" example. Brandon Meriweather gets a little lost in the Chung hype but he had a couple of loud hits after catches and now looks like he has a partner in the backfield.
Terrell Owens is still one of the best at wearing sunglasses indoors and pretending to be indifferent in postgame press conferences, but he was doing some inappropriate flirting with invisibility on the field Sunday (very quiet seven catches for 53 yards). Devin McCourty started the game with a nice strip of Owens and never gave him room when the game mattered. The guy looked like a 10-year pro in his first game (another example? How about the lockdown job on TO on the 3rd-and-7 pass to the end zone at the end of the first half.) and is already the top cover man on this team.
Not so sold on Darius Butler. I'd like to call Ochcocinco's monster second half the result of prevent defense, but there is at least some truth to the notion that the Bengals saw a favorable matchup and took advantage all half. The Ochocinco TD catch was just one guy beating another. Butler was on press coverage and couldn't handle him one-on-one. Even if you go along with McCourty -- after one NFL game-- as legit cornerback is still a major concern for this team.
James Sanders had a shaky opener, just never seemed in position to make a play. Jonathan Wilhite was OK, but just.
Key Number? 25. Solo tackles for Chung last year. He's about halfway there one game into 2010.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B+
Tate is going to be must-watch all year, gonna have to make sure you get to the TV or seat in time at the start of the first or second half (lots of empty seats on the TD return Sunday). His 97-yarder was a strange play, not any great blocks or moves by Tate. It was more a combination of A) a goofy bounce of the ball, B) a breakdown by the Bengals' special teams that left the middle of the field open and C) the speed of Tate.
Tracy White looks like a potential keeper for this unit, starting off the game with a tackle on the opening kickoff. He played on all four units and if he sticks could be a bargain for what was an undisclosed (but must be late) draft pick in a trade with the Eagles a week and a half ago. All in all solid work in general by the coverage units, allowing just 17.5 yards per kickoff return (compared to 46.0 for Tate and the Pats).
Only one punt for Zoltan Mesko and it was a 43-yarder with no return. I guess we'll find out soon enough if there is going to be a problem with Mesko holding for Stephen Gostkowski, but I can't put much stock into a misses from 47 and 56 yards into the wind. His made a 32-yarder and his kickoffs were fine.
Key Number? 188. Return yards from Tate on Sunday, 118 more than the Bengals.
COACHING -- A
Bill Belichick had a team on the field that looked like they had spent every second of the offseason preparing for this game, and Marvin Lewis had a team that looked like they were playing the last game of a 3-13 season.
The Patriots mixed it up with different packages and personnel on both sides of the ball in the first half, confusing the Bengals defense and Carson Palmer right from the start. Cincy had no answers.
Bill O'Brien (I'm going along with the idea that O'Brien calls the plays) had a flawless game plan, the theme of which was to keep it simple. Lots and lots of short stuff to Welker and Faulk and Moss and wait for the Bengals to stop it. Never really happened (not even in the second half, the Pats only had two real possessions and one was the 14-play TD drive). And even though the tight ends only caught two passes, the way they were featured in formations (lined up as WR next to each other in overload packages, using Hernandez in the backfield) was troublesome for Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer.
Carson Palmer called Bill Belichick the best coach he has ever faced after the game Sunday. And for the first half it looked an awful lot like a lesson from the master -- remember the days when we thought Belichick could play mind games with an opposing QB? Constant motion from the defense before the snap clearly flustered Palmer, who threw one pick and could have had a couple more. But shifting to a prevent defense in the second half -- while the right move up 31-3 -- took away any chance of further dominance from Belichick and his group.