Report Card time but first a thought on the end of the Randy Moss era in Minnesota, which started during the first round of the MLB playoffs and didn't quite make it to the end of the World Series.
If Moss had 34 catches for 386 yards and three TDs in his four games with the Vikings and gone up to the podium at Gillette Stadium and said the exact same stuff on Sunday night he'd still be on the Vikings today. Brad Childress wouldn't have cared that Moss had done everything short of carrying Belichick around the field on his shoulders after the game as long as he produced like the Vikings had expected Moss to produce. Sure, he opened the field up for Percy Harvin, but the Vikings wanted numbers from Moss, not just to be a decoy. A decoy isn't allowed to blast the coaching staff and dog it (yup -- I've defended Moss forever, but he flat-out quit on several times Sunday, including that pass interference play) during a game that the team probably needed to win to have any kind of postseason pulse. Randy Moss in 1999 or 2003 or maybe even 2007 could get away with that, but this isn't the same player anymore. And that's really why he's gone from Minnesota and why the Patriots didn't want to deal with whatever Moss was going to sling around all season if he didn't get his contract (and now Moss will be just another free agent looking for a one-year deal. Well played, can't wait to hear Moss interview himself on how to piss away $10 million in 26 days).
You have to figure that one of the 30 teams ahead of the Patriots in the waiver process will claim Moss, but even if he somehow cleared I don't think Belichick wants any part of him here this season. Belichick knows how it works with Moss. You think Moss will still be praising Belichick if he comes back here and has nine catches in the first four weeks, or do you think the same old Moss will reappear? And if Moss goes off in the first month you don't think he'll start making noise about a contract extension? It's all about Moss, and he's just not worth it anymore. Belichick is the only guy who got rid of Moss before it got ugly. He traded a fourth-round pick for Moss, got three unbelievable years (most TD catches ever in a three-year span) and traded him for a third-rounder. He'll be happy to sit this one out and take a shot with the team he has.
To the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- A-
Again, not a good start for Tom Brady on Sunday. He made a couple of poor throws in the first half, badly under-throwing Brandon Tate in the first quarter, but getting a break when the ball managed to get through Madieu Williams and into Tate's hands, and then missing a wide-open Deion Branch on a deep ball in the second quarter. But Brady again managed to step up when it was needed most, leading the Pats on three TD drives in the second half. The highlight play from Brady was the 65-yard TD pass to Tate in the third quarter. He just showed great awareness on the play, first moving to his right to avoid the rush, having the presence of mind to step back and spin (least graceful spin move on the Fox Network since Brian Austin Green in 1992), which gave Tate time to break free from Asher Allen. And on the final TD drive -- when things were tight at 21-18 -- Brady got it done on a pair of third-down plays, connecting with Wes Welker on a third-and-6 and Danny Woodhead on a third-and-12. Another game with a passer rating over 100 (100.9), Brady did nothing to move out of the front-runner spot for league MVP. The stats don't jump out at you, but he's playing mistake-free football with an offense that is seriously lacking star power.
RUNNING BACKS -- A
BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 20 yards vs. the Ravens, 24 yards vs. the Chargers and had four yards on four carries in the first half on Sunday. A wall had been hit, it seemed. That's only part of what made his second half on Sunday (108 yards, two TDs) so stunning. This is not the Bills defense he ran over for the final 30 minutes, the Vikings may not be as strong as the past two seasons but they are still a top 10 group against the run. Green-Ellis carried the Pats to the end zone following the Devin McCourty third-quarter INT, rushing three times for 37 yards, including the 13-yard TD run. And the game-clinching 13-play, 84-yard TD drive that gave the Pats a 28-18 lead was led by the back, who picked up 62 yards on the ground, highlighted by his 26-yard burst to the one-yard-line. He did a good job of closing after the two third-down conversions by Brady on that final drive, picking up rushes of five and seven yards (terrific block by Alge Crumpler on Jared Allen on the seven-yard rush) before the 26-yarder.
Danny Woodhead found the end zone with a direct-snap two-yard run in the second quarter (Vikings were totally fooled on the direct snap -- they moved him over to Brady's right side and he was able to take advantage of a huge opening on the left side created by Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen. Not sure why they were so surprised by the play call, the Pats ran it in the first quarter and have had it in the rotation since the Weis days ) and led all Patriots with five catches, including that third-and-12 conversion with five minutes left in the game. The two backs combined for 181 yards of total offense and three TDs, numbers Belichick would have signed for in a second before the game started.
RECEIVERS -- C+
The two Tate catches were really about it in terms of impact plays from the wideouts, as Brady continued to stick mostly to the short stuff. Better or worse, this is a markedly different offense without Moss. Wes Welker did make the third-and-6 catch late to keep the final TD drive going, but he once again struggled to find openings in the post-Moss offense. Welker finished with just three caches for 25 yards, and his seven catches over the last two games is his lowest back-to-back output in his New England career.
Deion Branch was not on the field for much of the second half (hamstring) and caught just one pass in the first half. The tight ends were quiet, as Aaron Hernandez finished with two catches, his lowest total since Week 1, and Rob Gronkowski had just a single catch (and an easy drop). Alge Crumpler had the block on Allen and another on Chad Greenway to spring Ellis on his first TD rush.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Here's Brady when asked by Dennis and Callahan who he'd pick as player of the game for Sunday:
"I’d take the O-line. The whole O-line. I thought they all played good. They stood up to those guys. Some real critical running situations that we had, that third-and-2 at the end of the game on the goal line was a huge play. It was just a great offensive performance by those guys, that whole group. They continued to show what they’re all about. They’re a group of tough guys that work their butts off."
I'd go with Green-Ellis, but tough to argue with Brady's stance. I mean, no sacks of Brady in 27 pass attempts and the Patriots averaged 4.5 yards per carry. That's as good as you can expect to do against the Vikings (or any team, really). There was some pressure on Brady in the first half (he was knocked down four times) but it was a pretty clean effort in the final 30 minutes. Connolly was the lead blocker on two of the three TD rushes and Matt Light shut down Jared Allen (which is not a shock Light's struggles have come against speed guys this year, he's still a good bet against a power guy such as Allen, who did give off the "I'm here for a paycheck" vibe).
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B
Well, the biggest defensive play of the game was made by Ron Brace, who was able to move the Vikings' O-Line back and allow Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Jermaine Cunningham to make the stop on Adrian Peterson's fourth-and-goal rush at the end of the first half. Just another example of a surprise guy stepping up and making an impact in a win -- has been happening all year (Guyton in Week 1, Woodhead vs. the Bills, the special teams vs. Miami, Branch vs. the Ravens, Jarrad Page vs. the Chargers, stuff like that) and reminds you and I of 2001. Brace also had a nice solo tackle for a loss on Peterson in the third quarter.
Vince Wilfork moved back to nose tackle and was in on a couple of Peterson rushes and got into the backfield for one of Favre's intentional grounding penalties. Myron Pryor almost knocked Favre back into the days when we actually liked him with that fourth-quarter hit. All that money for braces almost went down the drain. Brandon Deaderick seemed to struggle with the run and didn't play as much as he did last week. Peterson was able to rush for 93 yards on 25 carries, but the Pats have still not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 2010.
LINEBACKERS -- B
Rob Ninkovich just seems like he would have fit on that 2001 defense, right? Just makes plays, always seems to be around the ball. Kind of an old-school throwback surrounded by this young defense (not that Ninkovich is 40 years old or anything -- he's 26 -- but you get the idea). It was Ninkovich who forced Favre to pick up a first-half intentional grounding penalty, blitzing and getting to Kenny Powers 2.0 untouched. Ninkovich also had a series-ending third-and-3 tackle on Shiancoe in the third quarter.
Jerod Mayo is second in the NFL in tackles, picking up 14 more (seven solo)on Sunday. He was in on the fourth-down stop of Peterson and made the third-and-1 tackle of Peterson on the Vikings opening drive (good job by Mike Wright and Wilfork to push the line back on that play, which was the first time Peterson was stopped on a third-and-1 this season). And it was Mayo (and Jonathan Wilhite) with a stop of Toby Gerhart at the one-yard line on the play preceding the Peterson goal-line stop, it looked like Gerhart had a shot to get in with a couple of yards to go.
Brandon Spikes made the tackle on Peterson at the goal-line, one of five solo tackles he was credited for on Sunday. Spikes and Mayo are turning into a top LB duo, particularly vs. the run (still work to do vs. the pass). Jermaine Cunningham got a clean hit on Favre on the play following the Ninkovich-forced intentional grounding and also had a stop for loss on Peterson. Two "L's" in Goodell, Gary Guyton, in case you make out a check for that 10K fine you're going to get slapped with after leading with your helmet on that third-quarter hit on Favre. And there should've been a face mask call on Tully Banta-Cain on the same play.
SECONDARY -- B
When you play Randy Moss the way the Patriots did on Sunday -- jam him up at the line and give the corner lots of safety help -- guys like Percy Harvin are going to find spots and make plays. Simple, it's just pick your poison. And while Harvin had six catches for 104 yards (both game highs) he did not get into the end zone. And neither did Moss, who was made as irrelevant as a female character in a Michael Bay film thanks to a constant double team and physical work at the line by (mostly) Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty. Arrington deserves top billing on Moss, though, he just didn't give him any room to make a play. His best game as a Patriot.
McCourty had his second INT in as many games with a strip of Percy Harvin in the third quarter. He returned the pick for 37 yards, and if you get the chance to see the play again watch Jermaine Cunningham, who came across the field to wipe out Adrian Peterson with a block. A couple of plays -- the pick and block -- we haven't seen from a Pats defender in a long time. And it was McCourty with superb, future All-Pro kind of coverage earlier in the third quarter, matching Percy Harvin (as fast as any WR in the league) stride-for-stride before breaking up a pass at the New England five-yard line.
Brandon Meriweather picked up a 24-yard pass interference penalty on Moss in the fourth quarter, not the dumbest penalty in history when you realize that he was about to get beat for a pretty easy TD (McCourty had blitzed, leaving Meriweather alone -- and did it look like Moss maybe could have tried to dive and make a play on that ball? Not like if he made that catch his QB wouldn't have been knocked out three plays later or anything.)
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C-
The weakest group of the bunch on Sunday. Stephen Gostkowski didn't attempt a field goal, but did slice a kickoff out of bounds after the Woodhead TD. The Vikings didn't score after the penalty, but did move the ball far enough to pin the Pats inside the 10-yard line on the following punt. Wes Welker dropped a punt in the third quarter (second time this season) but was able to make a recovery. And Dane Fletcher ruined a Zoltan Mesko fourth-quarter punt that would have finished somewhere around the Vikings' 10-yard line or so, running into the ball and driving it into the end zone. The Vikings take the ball at the 20 and go down the field for a TD drive. Fletcher to his credit did bounce back to make a play on Favre, blitzing up the middle untouched to force a second intentional grounding.
COACHING -- A-
Bend but don't break special on defense worked perfectly. Sure, the Vikings put up 410 yards of offense, 23 first downs and controlled the ball for over 35 minutes, but for all that they scored 10 points in the first 52:30 of the game. Belichick wanted to take Moss out of the game -- and Moss had one more catch than the guy with the Randy Moss mask who worked the front desk of the media entrance. OK, Favre played well and Peterson was a factor and Harvin had his 106 yards, but the Patriots game plan on defense was an absolute success. As for the offensive side of the ball, there still seems to be a figuring out process going on without Moss. It strikes me that the Pats are being as creative as possible without having a legit deep threat. They'll put Hernandez in the backfield, throw a double reverse into the mix, use Woodhead more as a receiver. What they are trying to do for now is basically redecorate a 800 square-foot condo as much as they can. But the play calling has been sharp the last few weeks, especially when it comes to changing things up in the second half.