Report Card time and it's becoming clear that this team is going to go as far as Tom Brady can take it. Forget the salad days of 2003 and 2004, with the offense and defense as equal partners in the road to glory. Through three weeks, the 2010 defense can't even carry the jock of the 2009 defense, a group we all remember best for turning guys like Chad Henne, Trent Edwards and Kyle Orton into Pro Bowlers.
So far in 2010, five teams have allowed 80 or more points through the first three games. Four of those teams (Giants, 49ers, Jaguars and Bills) have a combined record of 2-10. The fifth are your New England Patriots, checking in at 2-1 thanks only to the offense, which leads the league with 90 points.
(And to be fair, the Bills have played the Pats and Packers, the 49ers have played the Saints, the Giants have played the Colts and the Jags have played the Chargers and Eagles. All the other members of the "80 points allowed" crew have faced a top 10 offense. Would you put the Bills, Jets or Bengals in that group?)
Ryan Fitzpatrick entered Sunday's game with a career 68.6 passer rating and a completion percentage of 58.3 percent. Against the Pats he had a 92.4 passer rating and was good on 71.4 percent of his throws. The Bills had put together a total of four scoring drives the first two weeks of the season. On Sunday, they scored on four of their first five drives. First two weeks, the Bills had 352 total yards of offense. Against the Pats? They racked up 374 yards. And this isn't a good offense off to a slow start in 2010 -- the Bills were 30th in the NFL in total yards last year, dead last in first downs and 28th in points.
So what happened Sunday was probably not a breakthrough game for a Bills offense on the rise, but instead another sign that the Patriots will have to score 38 points more than a couple of times if they want to keep playing after Week 17.
To the grades we go … (and let me know what you think -- good and bad, it all goes in the mailbag-- at email@example.com)
QUARTERBACK -- A
What jumps out when you watch Brady this year is his arm strength. Last year it seemed he was never quite comfortable with his left knee. He just didn't seem to plant and throw with the same conviction as he had done pre-Bernard Pollard. Well, it's been 24 months and change since the injury and as a thrower of the football he sure seems all the way back. I can't recall seeing Brady throw a ball as hard as he did to Rob Gronkowski for a 16-yard completion in the fourth quarter, right after the Chung INT. He had about a foot of room to fit the pass and put it right in Gronkowski's hands. Not sure he makes that play last year.
This was one of those games the Patriots won because Tom Brady is the quarterback. They needed him to be great -- which, given the opponent, is not a good sign -- and he was just that. He completed 21-of-27 passes for 252 yards, three TDs and zero picks (passer rating: 142.6). And unlike Week 2, where he got stuck trying to take advantage of Moss vs. Cromartie, Brady took what was open. There was balance. He hit seven different receivers, and not one player had more than 65 yards receiving.
Take away the second half of the Jets game and Brady is 59-of-82 for 689 yards with eight TDs and no picks so far in 2010. You could make the case that the second half of the Jets game is the only 30 minutes of the season so far that really mean anything, but the glass-half-full guy would tell you that for five of the first six halves of 2010, Brady has been every bit as good as he was in 2007.
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
Was that the quietest 200 yards rushing from a team in NFL history? Not that the group failed to make an impact, but it was under the radar. If I had no access to stats and you had asked me at the end of the game, I would have guessed that the Pats had about 125 yards on the ground.
What we saw from BenJarvus Green-Ellis (16 carries, 98 yards and a TD) Sunday is a big reason why Laurence Maroney is getting stuffed on fourth-and-1's in Denver and no longer trying to remember which thigh he's supposed to pretend is injured. Belichick traded Maroney because he thinks Green-Ellis is a better back for this team. And on Sunday Green-Ellis was exactly what Maroney struggled to be -- a north-south runner with the ability to move the chains and carry defenders after contact.
Danny Woodhead (three carries, 42 yards) really was Kevin Faulk on his 22-yard TD run in the second quarter, shifting from the right side of the field to the left after (very patiently) staying behind his O-Line and reading the defense. He also had a 15-yard rush on the final TD drive.
Fred Taylor didn't contribute much (six carries, 16 yards) and you have to wonder if this toe issue is going to stick around. Sammy Morris was expected by some to take over the Faulk role, but he didn't catch a pass and had just 19 yards on six carries.
RECEIVERS -- B
Randy Moss (two catches, 42 yards, two TDs) didn't start on Sunday (it was Brandon Tate and Wes Welker) but ended the Pats' opening drive with a wide-open seven-yard TD grab after some play-action work by Brady. Moss beat three Bills (and an official) to the ball for a third-quarter TD catch, but that was it for Randy. He answered more questions from the press in his post-game chat Sunday (three) than he had receptions on Sunday.
Is Moss losing touches simply because of Hernandez and Gronkowski or is there something more? Three games in and he has just nine catches. After three games in 2007 he had 22 catches, in 2008 (with Cassel) he had 12 and last year he had 26.
Wes Welker had two clear drops and finished with just four catches. He did have a 27-yard reception on the opening drive of the second half (which ended in the second Moss TD catch) and threw a nice upfield block on the Woodhead TD run.
(Not counting the game at Houston last year --- Welker blew his ACL out in the first half -- the six catches by Welker and Moss were the fewest combined in any game with Tom Brady as the QB. And Brady finished with one of the top 15 passer ratings in any game of his career. Shows what a solid running game, terrific O-Line and some new weapons can do).
Aaron Hernandez was the dominant figure on the opening TD drive, producing 52 yards of offense. He made catches of 27 and 13 yards (the shorter catch included a stop-and-go move that caused Bills' linebacker Keith Ellison to take a tumble in a futile attempt to make the stop) and picked up 12 yards on an end-around rush (with help from fellow tight end Alge Crumpler -- remember him?-- who led with a strong block). Hernandez finished with six catches, the second straight week he's topped the Pats in receptions. Ben Watson has the single-season tight end mark for catches during the Brady-Belichick Era with 49 in 2006. I'm setting Week 12 for the over/under for Hernandez breaking that mark.
Rob Gronkowski took advantage of a one-on-one matchup with safety Bryan Scott (five inches and 60 pounds on Scott) on his TD catch -- another example of the Patriots (OK, Brady) not forcing the ball to Moss or Welker.
Brandon Tate had a diving 29-yard catch in the final drive of the first half (just two plays to set up the FG) on another absolute bullet from Brady, but coughed up a fumble earlier after a second-quarter catch at the Pats 37-yard line. The Bills took advantage of the short field to score a TD and take a 13-7 lead.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A
On that 27-yard completion to Hernandez on the opening drive, Brady was in the pocket for six seconds before throwing the ball. Just one example of a day when the pass blocking was nearly flawless. A clean pocket for Brady plus all the weapons he now has at his disposal will usually equal the kind of production we saw Sunday.
The run blocking was at least as good, with Dan Connolly (highlighted by his work on a Green-Ellis 20-yard second-quarter run and both Woodhead and Green-Ellis' TD runs) and Sebastian Vollmer (opened the big hole on Woodhead's 16-yard fourth-quarter run) leading the way and pushing into the Bills defensive group. The unit as a whole set the tone during the final Pats TD drive, which had 10 rushing plays against just three passes.
It's just three weeks in, but the Patriots are averaging 123 yards a game on the ground (10th in the league) on 4.6 yards per carry (last year, they averaged 4.1 YPC) and Brady has been sacked just twice (in a pass-happy offense). What a job by Dante Scarnecchia.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- D
Hey, if we were grading for "telling it like it is on the Dale & Holley Show," Vince Wilfork's weekly spot might move this up to a C or C plus. Always a good segment. But the $40 million man was as invisible as a 340-pounder can be on Sunday, putting up a line of zeros on the stat sheet. A lot of the big rushes from Spiller and Marshawn Lynch came from the outside, but they were able to find holes in the middle (mostly in the first half) and the Bills did finish with a 5.6 yards per carry average. It was just a poor day from the defensive line (Gerard Warren was a non-factor after his two-sack performance vs. the Jets), a group that will be severely tested by the next four opponents (Dolphins, Ravens, Chargers and Vikings).
LINEBACKERS -- C
Jerod Mayo (nine tackles) was the bright spot of the group Sunday, picking up a second-quarter sack and following up with a takedown of C.J. Spiller in the Bills' backfield on the very next play. That sack was helped greatly by Tully Banta-Cain, who was first to Ryan Fitzpatrick and forced him to the outside where Mayo was able to track him down.
Jermaine Cunningham is a work in progress as he continues to learn the ropes as an outside linebacker. For now, he's a liability against the run (see his inability to contain Spiller on his 19-yard second-quarter burst). But the former defensive end just knows how to get to the quarterback, and his pressure of Fitzpatrick on the first Buffalo INT is another example of that. And Brandon Spikes had the game's biggest hit, popping Lynch in the second-quarter for a red-zone loss.
There was a Shawn Crable sighting in the fourth quarter, as the 2008 third-rounder finally made his NFL debut. He picked up a tackle on Lynch in the fourth quarter.
SECONDARY -- C -
At the start of the season, would you have ever thought that Leigh Bodden would be missed more than Ty Warren or Logan Mankins?
Devin McCourty gave up his third touchdown in two weeks (this one on a 37-yard catch from Steve Johnson in the fourth quarter) but continues to be the gold standard of the cornerback group, which pretty much sums up the State of that Union. The rookie did a more than respectable job on Lee Evans, limiting the receiver to five catches for 54 yards.
Kyle Arrington was up-and-down as the other starting corner, but his work was an upgrade over what we saw from Darius Butler last week. He was burned by Roscoe Parrish on a 32-yard catch in the third quarter and (along with Brandon Meriweather) was responsible for Spiller's easy TD catch in the second quarter. But on the play before that score he defended an end zone pass for Lee Evans and he did manage to make it through the game without a pass interference call, which might not be enough to break the NFL Network's Top 100 list but it's another improvement over Butler.
Yep, Butler Island sunk in the New Meadowlands, and all we got from Darius was a cameo on Sunday. But even that brief appearance did some damage, as he gave up a catch to Roscoe Parrish on his very first snap and then took a terrible angle on Spiller that allowed the rookie to break off a 19-yard run. I'm not ready to suggest that Butler is at the crossroads of his career -- he's 24 years old and has played 17 NFL games -- but if he continues this level of regression he might be looking to crack the dime package for the Connecticut Colonials of the UFL next season. Everyone loves a homecoming.
Patrick Chung was closer to his Week 1 excellence than his Week 2 irrelevance, picking up an end-zone INT (a terrible throw from Fitzpatrick -- compare that toss with Brady's 35-yard TD to Moss, which came from almost the exact same spot on the field) and seven tackles. It was a very aggressive effort from Chung, who has been the best Patriots defender to date this season (which is a little like saying "The Presidio" is Mark Harmon's best film, but someone's gotta take the gold).
Brandon Meriweather was a mixed bag Sunday, putting the game on ice with an INT (another floater from Fitzy; I guess accuracy wasn't on the Wonderlic) at 38-30 with just under three minutes left. He also showed a burst on Buffalo's second series, catching Lynch from behind for a three-yard loss. But Meriweather also whiffed on a tackle of Parrish (along with Wilhite and Guyton) on a 3rd-and-18 for the Bills, and the wideout was able to go another 10 yards to convert the play (the Bills were zero for their last 40 on third-and-10 or more yards before that). And it was he and Arrington with the aforementioned miscommunication that led to Spiller's TD catch.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C-
On the Spiller 95-yard kickoff return, Gary Guyton (forgot to mention him with the LB's -- actually got to the QB a couple of times) wasn't able to get free of a block and Gostkowski and McCourty collided right as Spiller blew by. All it takes is one or two little screw-ups on a play like that and you've given up six points.
Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were just OK in the return game, and other than the Spiller return the coverage teams were fine (good tackle by Meriweather on opening kickoff).
Zoltan Mesko had the worst game of his young career, averaging just 37.7 yards for this three punts. He's currently ranked 21st in the NFL with an average of 43.1, so if you want to put him in the "slight disappointment" category to this point I think that would be fair.
Stephen Gostkowski made his only field goal attempt of the game, a 43-yarder at the end of the first half. Could be the one that shakes him out of his mini-slump.
COACHING -- B+
I'm not sure what can be done about the defense from a coaching perspective -- they tried changing personnel and gave the Bills a bunch of different looks. The reality is -- at least for now -- the players just aren't good enough.
But give Bill O'Brien credit for staying on the gas in the second half, starting the third quarter with a five-wide, no-huddle look that had the Bills reeling. It was a terrific offensive plan from the first series (love the Hernandez end around and the easy Moss TD catch) to the end.
(Yes, I'm calling O'Brien the O-Coordinator for now. Why? Because Belichick lit into him on the sidelines after a three-and-out from the offense in the second quarter. That's all I'm going on. Maybe it was a ruse and Belichick is into some kind of Joaquin Phoenix act but I have to think he's too busy for that, right?)
Two From the Moron Files:
-- Chan Gailey must've left the twins in Buffalo. Only excuse I can think of, because there is NO WAY you kick a field goal on fourth and (maybe) six inches at the Patriots' 16-yard line with 30 seconds left in the second quarter if you are the coach of this Bills team. What good does three points do for you when you know the Pats are going to put up something in the 30s? That's the kind of call you make if you have a 2-0 team and the game is shaping up to be a 17-16 final, not halftime score.
-- Solomon Wilcots and Kevin Harlan clearly had no clue that a team can't call back-to-back timeouts as the Bills did before kicking that field goal. Belichick was going crazy on the sidelines and the two announcers were laughing about it but offered no insight as to why it might be happening. Look, I'm not asking for perfection, but would it kill these guys to maybe skim through a rule book before the season starts?