Report Card Time and I think this idea that Bill Belichick's pregame speech was the difference on Monday night is great if you are either 11 years old or couldn't think of a better angle to write about after the game.
It's great that he dusted off the us against the world line (does he have to pay Rodney Harrison copyright fees?), and reports indicate that he called out every player in the locker room. I'm sure it was a classic, right up there with Knute Rockne and Reg Dunlop, and it would be an all-time must-watch if NFL Films had somehow snuck a camera in there.
But what did it mean? The Patriots players were so moved by the speech that they ran onto the field at Sun Life Stadium and scored zero points in the first quarter, gave up a TD to the Dolphins on their second drive and were outgained 119-31 in total yards for the first 15 minutes.
And with 2:47 to go in the first half the Dolphins had first-and-10 at the Pats 27-yard line. Already up 7-3, Chad Henne was making it look easy. Another TD and it's 14-3 and starting to get ugly.
And when Henne dropped back to pass, I guess Rob Ninkovich must've suddenly remembered that Belichick gave that speech. Why else would he have made the first of two INT's? And sometime at the half Ninkovich made his way over to Brandon Tate, who if you watched the celebration after his 103-yard kickoff return TD can be seen whispering something to Pat Chung. This is how it worked. It had to have been the speech.
I didn't think the Patriots were a Super Bowl team heading into Monday's game and nothing that happened in the 41-14 win changed my mind (or Belichick's, if you believe Jay Glazer). It was a lot of fun to watch, a once in a lifetime deal. But if we are talking Super Bowl I keep coming back to this: Does Peyton Manning throw those picks? How about Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers or even Philip Rivers? If they keep scoring 21 points a game on special teams (counting the 11-yard TD drive off the blocked punt) then sure, they are the favorites. But that is never going to happen again, no matter how good the pregame speech is.
But the Pats are 3-1 heading into the bye and have to at least be part of the conversation when trying to figure out who goes where when looking at the playoff picture. Not bad for a rebuilding year on defense, a patchwork O-line and a running game with a pair of undrafted backs. Getting to 3-1 with all that? Now you are talking coaching.
To the card we go (and feel free to fire away with any and all to firstname.lastname@example.org) …
QUARTERBACK -- B
You know who Tom Brady reminded me of on Monday night? The Tom Brady of 2001-04. A very good quarterback who made plays when he needed to but didn't have to win the game on his own. He took what the Mike Nolan Dolphins' defense gave him -- all underneath stuff, no deep shots -- played it safe and let the defense and special teams do the heavy lifting. The numbers were fine (19-24, just 153 yards, a TD and passer rating of 107.1) and really could've been better (dropped Moss TD pass, 36-yard completion to Hernandez wiped out by a penalty) but what Brady did in the win was stay clear of mistakes. Nothing even close to an INT, which is impressive when you consider the pressure he faced. Really sharp work on the two-minute drive at the end of the first half, missed a TD only because of the Moss drop on the "fake spike" play. And the one spot Monday where the Pats needed Brady to be Brady -- following the third-quarter Ricky Williams TD that cut the lead to 20-14-- he came through, leading the Pats on a 12-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a Danny Woodhead TD catch. Again, take away the second half of the Jets game and Brady has nine TDs and zero picks in 2010. Just a quarter into the season, but he has to be on any short list for MVP.
RUNNING BACKS -- B+
This is why I'll never understand why a team would ever take a running back with a first-round pick. The Patriots went into Miami Monday and did whatever they wanted on the ground with a couple of undrafted free agents getting 24 of the 26 carries. No more Mark Ingram talk with that Oakland pick, let's stick to pass rushers. All the preseason RB buzz was, "Can Fred Taylor stay healthy?" and "Is this finally Maroney's year?" and right now the backfield is, of course, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. The two combined for 112 yards and a TD on the 24 carries, and Woodhead also caught an 11-yard TD pass. Green-Ellis (16 carries, 76 yards) just keeps putting his head down and picking up four, five yards a pop. You've read this before but it's the truth: Over the last two weeks he's been everything Maroney wasn't -- north-south, yards after contact and does not fumble (doesn't have a single fumble in his 147 career carries). You never know what the Patriots are going to do with the running backs, but it's hard to imagine that Green-Ellis' carries are going to decrease even with the return of Taylor.
Woodhead (eight carries, 36 yards) just knows to how find holes, he uses his size to his benefit, just seems to slip through the cracks and all of the sudden it's second-and-4. He carried the ball five times for 25 yards on the TD drive that ended with his 11-yard catch.
RECEIVERS -- C+
Randy Moss was in full decoy mode Monday, only targeted once by Brady the entire game. That play was the drop in the end zone at the end of the first half. Was it an easy catch? Nope. If Brandon Tate had dropped it I would have given him a pass. But this is Randy Moss, one of the three or four best receivers in the history of the game. He got both hands on the ball, he has to make that play.
Just nine catches for Moss -- and zero 100-yard games-- in 2010 through four games. In his three previous years in New England he had 31 catches and four 100-yard games through four games in 2007, 17 and two in 2008 and 29 and two in 2009.
(Well, well. I'm assuming this is going to happen, and it makes sense if Belichick doesn't think the Pats are going to win the Super Bowl with Moss this year. What team in the NFL is most desperate for a player like Moss? Which player has Brett Favre longed for since the days when some people actually bought his act? If the Pats kept Moss for the rest of the year and he signed somewhere else they would get a third-round pick as compensation. They aren't making this trade to move up just one round. I smell another first-rounder and let the Vincent Jackson talk begin. Oh, and do you think Vikings @ Pats on Halloween will have any juice?)
Wes Welker had eight catches for 70 yards and made the biggest catch of the game -- 3rd-and-7 at the Pats 36 with the score 20-14 and the prospect of another second-half blown lead looming-- finding an opening in the middle of the field and hauling in a 17-yard conversion. But there is no question that Welker isn't the same player right now -- and that's understandable and the reality of coming back four months after ACL surgery. But a quiet Moss and a less than 100 percent Welker has to be a concern for this team.
Aaron Hernandez finished with five catches for 29 yards, but had a 36-yard catch in the first quarter (complete with one of his trademark video-game moves that caused a Jason Allen wipe out) taken away by a Matt Light holding call. Only one catch for four yards from Rob Gronkowski, but his block was key in the Green-Ellis TD rush.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C+
Worst game of the season for the most consistent group through the first three weeks. Sebastian Vollmer was dominated by Cameron Wake throughout the first half, just wasn't quick enough to keep the linebacker in front of him. Wake was able to get three hits on Brady in the first half. The Light hold was a drive killer, turning a 1st-and-10 at the Miami 26 into a 2nd-and-17 at the NE 28.
The O-line did have another solid run blocking week, however, and through the first quarter of the season the Patriots are averaging 122.3 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. And on the aforementioned TD drive that put the Pats up 27-14 the unit was clean, giving Brady plenty of time (the Welker play a prime example) and opening holes for Woodhead (something about those four words just feel wrong to type).
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
That was the best Vince Wilfork has looked since Week 1. He played on both the left and right end and was in the middle of a lot of plays, including a solo stop of Ronnie Brown in the backfield.
(Brown has done almost nothing since his one-man Wildcat destruction of the Pats in Week 3 of 2008. In three games since he's had 36 carries for 112 yards and no touchdowns.)
Mike Wright just isn't a run stopper, and the Dolphins went right at him multiple times on the TD drive that ended with a Ricky Williams 28-yard catch. Myron Pryor was able to get a clean hit on Henne on a third-down play that ended with a (bogus, in my opinion -- where was the contact?) pass interference call on Devin McCourty. The Dolphins -- mostly Ricky Williams, who I think is the best back in the AFC East -- were able to move the ball on the ground, finishing with 95 yards on 20 rushes.
LINEBACKERS -- A-
The first Ninkovich INT wasn't a great catch -- Henne threw behind Marshall and right into the LB's hands -- but how many times do we see defensive players drop easy picks, especially when dropping back into coverage? There was a play to be made and he made it. I thought the second INT was a terrific play, though, as he read where Henne was going with the ball and made a diving catch in front of Patrick Cobbs. And it was Ninkovich's third-down sack of Henne -- who had a wide-open Marshall but with the pressure was unable to make a throw -- that led to the Dolphins attempting the 53-yard field goal that was blocked and returned for a TD that gave the Pats a 34-14 lead and put the game on ice.
Jerod Mayo (14 solo tackles and one pass defended-- a near-INT in the third quarter) is this close to his 2008 form. All over the field on Monday. Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham both put pressure on Henne on several occasions and Cunningham knocked down a pass. A very good night for the linebacking crew.
SECONDARY -- C+
Devone Bess was more Wes Welker than Wes Welker on Monday (nine catches, 93 yards and a TD) but that's going to be the deal when you choose to double-team Brandon Marshall for virtually the entire game. On the TD catch, Bess was able to make Chung miss on a tackle, and James Sanders was also unable to make a play on the score. Chung had the special teams game of his life but was just OK on defense Monday, joining Kyle Arrington and Brandon Meriweather as members of the secondary who missed several open-field tackles.
(Chung's TD was not a product of a poor throw by Henne but a lousy route by Marshall, who just quit in the middle of the play. Randy Moss didn't have a catch Monday and I'm sure wasn't thrilled about it, but he played hard every snap. Marshall could learn from that. He's got a lot of dog in him and I suspect this is the second of about five or six teams he'll play for in his career and each one will think they'll be the team to figure him out.)
It's swell that he had a TD Monday, but Arrington isn't going to be on the field much if he keeps making half-efforts to tackle. On a 3rd-and-11 catch by Bess in the second quarter, Arrington had a chance to bring the WR down before he reached the first-down yardage. Instead he gave a wave and watched Bess pick up another five yards. In fairness, Arrington saved a TD by making a shoe-string tackle on a Ricky Williams after a 16-yard rush in the second quarter, one that could have been a three or four yard gain if Meriweather hand't whiffed earlier in the play.
But Meriweather was at least aggressive before leaving a game with a knee injury, blasting Bess for a three-yard loss after a catch and teaming with Cunningham to stop the lone Wildcat play of the night, a two-yard loss from Ronnie Brown on 3rd-and-6 on the Dolphins opening drive (Moron File call from Moron File Hall of Famer Dan Henning. The Wildcat is done, it's basically a sitcom in its eighth season. It'll probably have a new baby and Tim Conway for a neighbor by Week 11).
Devin McCourty continues to distinguish himself as the clear No. 1 defensive back on the team, and his tackle of Brown on fourth-and-2 at 34-14 put away any hope of a miracle comeback (pressure from Ninkovich on Henne was a key to that fourth-down stop as well).
SPECIAL TEAMS -- A+
First A-plus of the year, but we are talking about a historical effort here. A blocked punt and kick return for a TD isn't a shabby month for an NFL special teams group. The Pats did both in the first 1:34 of the third quarter Monday night. Toss in another second-half special teams TD and you've got the gold standard.
Brandon Tate got a pancake block from Sammy Morris on Roberto Wallace that allowed the kick returner to get to the corner and go into hyperdrive. Hard to argue with the Devin Hester comparisons -- you are almost expecting Tate to break one whenever he gets the ball in his hands on a kickoff.
Patrick Chung is the reason John Bonamego gets to sleep in for the rest of the NFL season. Tough beat, but somebody's head has roll after those two blocks (and if I'm a special teams coach playing against the Pats the rest of the season I'm not sure I'm kicking the ball to Tate in the middle of the field). Chung wasn't even touched on either play, it was Globetrotters vs. Generals stuff, only without Tony Sparano getting the confetti dumped on his head.
Arrington would not have scored his TD without the work of Jarrad Page, who beat two Dolphins to the loose ball after the Chung block and knocked it forward so Arrington could make the play. Page also picked up a garbage-time INT off of Tyler Thigpen.
Five of Stephen Gostkowski's seven kickoffs were touchbacks, and he made both of his field goals. Zoltan Mesko made a nice save on a high snap on the first Gostkowski field goal and added a 60-yard punt in the first quarter. The kick coverage -- solid all season -- was again strong Monday.
COACHING -- A-
I have no idea if what happened Monday was more the cause of an inept Dolphins special teams unit or an extraordinary effort from the Pats crew -- as always, I'm sure the middle ground hosts the truth -- but Scott O'Brien sure would get the heat if he allowed two TDs and two blocked kicks, so today the praise is his.
Again, pregame speeches and "us against the world" angles are overrated (Belichick pretty much agreed on The Big Show Tuesday). But stopping the Wildcat play, knowing it was coming and what they were going to do -- that's coaching. Ninkovich knowing what Henne was going to do on the two picks -- that's coaching. Keeping Randy Moss motivated when he's not getting the ball -- coaching. You saw again on Monday why Belichick is the absolute standard for coaching in the NFL today.