It's Report Card Time, and the defense was the story for the Patriots in the 23-20 OT win over the Ravens Sunday, as satisfying a regular-season game since the victory over the Giants that capped the 16-0 season in 2007.
Sure, Act II of Deion Branch was emotional and he did all the things he always did (and maybe even some stuff Randy Moss never did) and Tom Brady was vintage when the stakes were highest (more on that later) and we know now that Danny Woodhead has moved past reality TV star and inched closer to Disney movie subject. (Who plays Woodhead? I'm usually pretty good with casting but this one is a blank.) We know the offense -- even without Moss -- is still going to be tough to stop. We get it.
The defense -- a group that was one of the NFL's worst through the first three games -- made progress vs. the Dolphins, though it's still hard to look at that game as a whole lot more than a once-in-a-lifetime special teams performance. It was on Sunday, however, when the defense made the first real steps towards taking the ol' training wheels off. (Can you take just one off at a time? Guess not.) They made big play after big play in the fourth quarter and overtime, giving Brady plenty of chances to erase that 10-point spread.
They held the Ravens to a field goal at the start of the fourth, they stopped Flacco on a sneak on 3rd-and-inches at midfield with 9:00 left at 20-17 (and I'm thinking John Harbaugh must be kicking himself for not going for it on fourth down -- didn't consult the "WWBD?" chart on that one) and then forced a three-and-out on the Ravens' final possession of regulation.
Then in overtime it was three more stops (you know, two is a big ask for a really good defense in an overtime situation) before the combination of Zoltan Mesko's foot and Le'Ron McClain's brain gave the Patriots a short field and allowed Brady and Branch to make a couple of plays to secure the win.
So for this week it's the defense (or most of the defense; you can probably figure out which part of the group doesn't grade real high) that leads the way in the report card. But two huge tests await in the Chargers (Philip Rivers is on pace to break Dan Marino's passing yardage record and this is Stage 5 Must Win for that team) and Brett and Randy on Halloween. We'll know more 12 days from today, but on October 19 this much is true: If you are trying to make a serious list of teams that can win the Super Bowl, the Patriots must have a place. I'm not sure I could have written that with a whole lot of conviction at any time last year or the first five weeks of this season.
To the report card we go (and email away at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, beefs, Danny Woodhead casting thoughts, ideas on how to get Ernie Johnson out of the TBS broadcast booth and thoughts about the Mad Men season finale (angry Ed. note: a brutal spoiler was removed in hopes of saving the season for all other readers, after many angry emails were delivered to the inbox of the author)) …
QUARTERBACK -- B+
Peter King has Tom Brady at the top of his MVP ballot at this point of the 2010 season, and I'm inclined to agree with him. OK, his numbers Sunday were pedestrian (27-44 for 292 yards, one TD and two INTs -- including a Hail Mary pick at the end of regulation) but when the Pats needed him to be great he came through. He was 15-of-23 for 145 yards and a TD in the fourth quarter and overtime against one of the three or four best defenses in the league.
One of the things that makes Brady an all-timer is plays like the the one he made on first-and-25 in the fourth quarter. Knowing he was going to get crushed by Haloti Ngata (who just ran over Dan Connolly), Brady had the grapefruits to dig in and find a way to get the ball to Rob Gronkowski for 24 yards. If he gets sacked on the play it's second-and-forget it. Look, Brady wasn't perfect Sunday (some ugly throws in the first half, including a couple of skippers to Brandon Tate and Branch) but he was there when it mattered, which, to be fair, wasn't always the case in 2009.
The Patriots are 4-1 with a defense that has been up-and-down, a pair of undrafted players taking virtually all the snaps at running back, a couple of rookies at tight end and a less-than-100 percent Wes Welker and almost no production from Randy Moss when he was actually here. That's your case for Brady as MVP today.
RUNNING BACKS -- B+
The Patriots -- without Faulk, Fred Taylor or Laurence Maroney, the three major party candidates for carries before the season started -- are 12th in the NFL in rushing yards through five games. And the running game is good enough right now to set up play-action, which Brady employed several times with success Sunday (most notably on the 23-yard completion to Branch on the game-winning OT drive).
Loved the Dave Meggett (not "Maggot," Jim Nantz) call out from Phil Simms on Sunday when trying to find a comparable back to Danny Woodhead. A good one. Woodhead just always seems to make at least that initial defender miss, just as Meggett did, and just seems to slip through the defensive line. He finished with 63 yards on 11 carries Sunday, and also chipped in with five catches for 52 yards. Woodhead was the best RB on the field Sunday for either team, and his back-to-back runs for 24 total yards in the fourth-quarter TD drive were overshadowed by the Branch catch, but were hugely important plays in the comeback.
(Woodhead threw a couple of Kevin Faulk-esque blocks as well, knocking Ray Lewis down in the second quarter and stopping a blitzing Dannell Ellerbe in his tracks in the third quarter.)
Not much from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for fewer yards in his 10 carries (20) than Brandon Tate picked up on his first-quarter reverse (22).
RECEIVERS -- B-
Too many drops to be graded higher. Aaron Hernandez had what could have been a killer drop in OT -- a first-down play that would have gone for about 20 yards and taken the ball into Baltimore territory on a drive that instead turned into a three-and-out. He also failed to hold onto an easy one the following drive -- which led to Brady going sort of Dan Marino on him. First chip in the gold for Hernandez, who did have a 33-yard catch and 18-yard rush in the second half. Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Alge Crumpler also turned should-be catches into drops.
Deion Branch (nine catches, 98 yards and a TD) couldn't play in Seattle? Really? Who knows how it'll end, but in the fourth quarter and OT on Sunday he looked exactly like the guy who was the MVP in the Super Bowl vs. the Eagles. He just knows how to run routes and get the ball -- which has been missing around here. Plus this: He made the biggest catch of the game -- remember, if the Patriots don't convert that third-and-2 in OT you are looking at a 48-yard FG attempt from Gostkowski. Instead, Brady hits Branch for 10 yards and the Pats run the ball twice and kick the winner.
Wes Welker is quietly on pace for 106 catches, but he's only averaging 8.2 yards a reception, which would easily be the lowest mark of his career. Seven more grabs Sunday, but the yards after the catch just haven't happened yet this season.
Rob Gronkowkski had his best game since the season opener, catching the aforementioned 24-yarder from Brady and drawing a pass interference on a third-down play in the second quarter.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B-
If you are looking (for some reason) to put together footage for a Matt Light tribute video on YouTube it's OK to skip this game -- Light was beat a couple of times by Terrell Suggs (once for a sack) and once each by Ngata and Ellerbe. And it was a Light hold on Suggs (correct call -- no gimme when you realize this crew had three calls overturned in the first half) that set up that first-and-25 Brady-to-Gronkowski connection.
The rest of the group gave a more than representative effort against a top D-Line. Take the TD pass to Branch: I was in the middle of my fifth "Mississippi" when Brady made the throw (I don't care -- still the best way to count). And 4.9 yards per carry is of course in large part due to the blocking of the O-Line. The tight ends also contributed nicely to the effort, with Crumpler (and Sebastian Vollmer) leading the way on Green-Ellis' TD run and Gronkowski opening a hole for a nine-yard Woodhead run in the fourth quarter.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- A-
All week long the story was about stopping Ray Rice, limiting that rushing attack that was so key in the playoff rout. In that game the Ravens ran for 234 yards at an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Sunday? Just 99 yards, and 2.9 yards per rush. Gerard Warren made his first career start at nose tackle and Vince Wilfork shifted to right end, and the Ravens were not able to establish any kind of push from their O-Line. We talked about the third-and-1 stop of Flacco, but Wilfork was also in the backfield on a number of plays, tackling the QB after a Jermaine Cunningham strip and stopping Rice for a loss on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage (the same play as the 83-yard TD run in the postseason game). I'm not a fan of "revenge games" -- I think it's nice for a mid-week story but rarely see proof that it means much on the field -- but it sure seemed that Wilfork was inspired by his poor performance vs. Baltimore last January.
LINEBACKERS -- A-
Jermaine Cunningham might just turn out to be the most important player from Florida the Patriots added in the 2010 draft. The guy makes plays. He made a backfield tackle on Rice for a loss of three yards on Baltimore's opening drive. On the first play of the second quarter he beat Michael Oher and stripped Joe Flacco of the ball. Cunningham would have had a sack on Flacco in the same quarter but Oher tackled the linebacker, picking up a holding penalty. Oher also had a false start penalty with Cunningham lined up in front of him. And it was Cunningham who was shoved by Le'Ron McClain in overtime, which led to a monster personal foul flag. To his credit, Cunningham kept his composure and did not retaliate.
Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo (who is playing at an even higher level than his 2008 form) combined for 32 tackles and were key in slowing down the rush, and Rob Ninkovich had eight tackles and pressured Flacco on two occasions.
SECONDARY -- C-
At one point on Sunday Joe Flacco had completed 22-of-26 passes. This isn't Joe Montana, folks. We are talking about a guy who completed 4-of-10 passes in the playoff game last year and is 19th in the NFL in 2010 in completion percentage (just behind the Mt. Rushmore pair of Shaun Hill and Ryan Fitzpatrick). Clearly that's not a product of just the secondary, but this was easily the weakest group on Sunday. Kyle Arrington was torched by Anquan Boldin for a TD (at least two yards of separation) and wasn't able to figure out how to cover Derrick Mason, who repeatedly was able to get plenty of room in one-on-one coverage to make plays. Arrington is an upgrade over Darius Butler (who was not one of the 21 players to take the field on defense) but the "other cornerback" spot is still a glaring weakness.
Simms and Nantz spent a lot of Sunday drooling over Devin McCourty (Belichick -- who meets with the announcers -- clearly has a soft spot for McCourty, who he compared to Ray Lewis and Lawyer Milloy in terms of football IQ last week; Belichick wouldn't just let that one slip) and with good reason. The rookie made one just mistake -- a clear pass interference as he failed to look back at the ball when covering T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- but gave up no big plays to the Baltimore wideouts. Mike Wright's second-quarter takedown of Flacco was a classic "coverage sack" -- the QB was focused on Boldin but could not make the throw because McCourty was locked in on the receiver. And it was McCourty who batted down the pass intended for Todd Heap on the third-and-6 play at the Pats 48-yard line in OT.
Brandon Meriweather should have been tossed for that hit on Todd Heap, and I hope the NFL figures out a way to suspend him for at least a game. Total cheap shot. Completely reckless and the kind of play that tells you a lot about a guy. He just doesn't learn -- this was the second time in the game he led with his helmet to try and hit Heap. There's a really fine line between aggressive and dirty, and I just can't give the benefit of the doubt to Meriweather. Sorry, the image of Meriweather stomping a hole through the head of Florida International players during a brawl in 2006 still sticks.
"I'm going to be aggressive, point blank," Meriweather said on 'EEI Monday. "I won't change my game, period."
Great. This isn't a Western, Brandon. Don't need the tough talk. And your on-field game isn't so swell right now, so you might think about changing it. He was late coming over for help on the Heap TD and continues to struggle helping in pass coverage. Right now, Patrick Chung is the standard for this team at safety. It was Chung who made a great play on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was 17-10 Ravens, and Baltimore had a third-and-2 at the NE 7-yard line. A TD and the game might be over. Flacco looked for Mason but Chung came in with a huge (and clean) hit to cause the drop.
(Two quick thoughts on these brutal hits over the weekend. This is another reason why the NFL can't have an 18-game season. This just puts the players in danger two more times a year, which over the course of a 10-year career adds up if you're a guy with concussion history. Not worth it. And if NFL VP Ray Anderson wants to talk about how this has to stop, great. He's right. But maybe the NFL should stop taking money from any video game company that produces games that celebrate hits that injure a player. Just saying. Oh, and one more. Meriweather was 100 percent correct when he called out Rodney Harrison for suddenly seeing the light on this issue. No player head-hunted more than Rodney and he would not have stopped after this weekend were he still active.)
SPECIAL TEAMS -- A-
Zoltan Mesko's 65-yard punt in OT flipped the field and (along with the 15-yard McClain penalty) gave the Pats superb field position after the defense forced a three-and-out. Stephen Gostkowski made the game-winning field goal and consistently had his kickoffs go into the end zone for touchbacks. The punt and kick coverage teams continue to do their jobs (the Spiller TD is the only blemish this season). It was a quiet day for Brandon Tate all around (one kickoff return for 19 yards, no catches) but I think we can give him a pass after his work on special teams this season. Tracy White had another tackle on the opening kickoff of the game; he's been a standout on kick coverage all season.
COACHING -- B
I didn't think Bill Belichick forgot how to coach a defense last year, when Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez and Matt Schaub did whatever they wanted. Belichick just didn't have the players to compete. That's his fault, but it's Belichick the GM letting Belichick the coach down. And after watching the defense on Sunday hold the Ravens to 80 yards and no points over the last 25 minutes I don't believe Belichick suddenly remembered how to coach, either. If he has the players, you know he's going to get it done -- there's way too much history to suggest otherwise. This is going to be life with this group in 2010 -- lots of highs and lows. It's a rebuilding job on defense, and with a whole bunch of young guys you'll see plenty of mental whiffs that you would never have seen with Seymour and Bruschi and Vrabel and all those guys, but you'll also see lots of speed and energy that hasn't been a part of this defense the last couple of years. Should be fun to watch, and it's clear that Belichick is enjoying this season as much as any since the pre-SpyGate years.