Report Card time and I'm still not sure what he would have done.
Bill Belichick, I mean. Let's just say that Tom Brady's incomplete pass to Wes Welker on third-and-7 with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter had in fact been completed and turned into a five-yard gain.
So Belichick would have been looking at a fourth-and-2 from his own 37-yard line, up three points after being up 17 earlier in the quarter, against a Hall of Fame quarterback who has just marched up and down the field on the previous two drives. I know, I know, the same old song and all that.
The only difference from last year? It's a three-point lead instead of a six-point edge. Of course, it was only a three-point lead in San Diego when the Pats went for it and were stuffed at midfield.
I think Belichick goes for it again if he's in that fourth-and-2 spot Sunday. Why? He still trusts his offense (meaning Brady plus his O-Line) to pick up three yards more than he trusts his defense to stop Manning. If he's in that situation vs. Shaun Hill on Thursday he probably punts.
Who knows? Only Bill, I guess. And he probably won't tell me until I finally give in and let him be a guest on "The Bradford Files" podcast. His begging has passed the point of embarrassment. It's called life, Bill. Sometimes you get bumped for DJ Bean. Deal with it.
So enough of the "what if's" and on to the grades …
QUARTERBACK -- B+
So much of it is luck, isn't it? If Tyjuan Hagler holds onto the ball and picks off Brady at 31-28, who knows what happens? Brady was terrific in the first half (12-14, 131 yards and two TD passes) but was quiet over the final 30 minutes (7-11, 55 yards). Brady was very sharp early on -- he was a third-down machine in the first half, converting on the first six third-down plays, including the two TD passes -- continuing what had been so effective in Pittsburgh by keeping it short (he did not throw a ball 20 yards in the air on Sunday) and using play action to open things up over the middle.
But let's be fair: If the Patriots had blown another 31-14 lead to the Colts, at least some of the blame would have had to fall on Brady. That's the life of a Hall of Fame quarterback. It's not fair to lay it all at the feet of the defense. Manning is going to make some plays eventually. But the offense has to do better than seven total plays over the last two drives. We've been giving Brady credit for playing well in the second half after rough starts this season, so he's gotta take a minor hit for the way he played in the fourth quarter (and that near-pick to Hagler was shocking -- Brady never saw him).
But it was still a very strong overall game from Brady, who again has to be the NFL MVP at this point. You can argue Vick, I suppose, but ask this: If Kevin Kolb had played all season for the Eagles, do you think they would be a lot worse than 7-3? Maybe a game or two, right? Well, how about if Kolb had played for the Pats all season? You think they'd be anywhere close to 8-2? Another advantage for Brady is the little-known tiebreaker that gives the MVP to the guy who has never electrocuted dogs.
RUNNING BACKS -- A
The Dynamic Undrafted Duo was at it again on Sunday, combining to rush for 165 yards and two TDs on 28 carries (6.5 per pop). BenJarvus-Green Ellis handled the large majority of the carries, picking up 96 yards on 21 rushes. Lots of four and five-yard pickups from Green-Ellis, who did not have a single run for negative yardage on Sunday (the Colts had zero yards after their first six carries). He just moves the chains and never, ever fumbles the ball.
As for Woodhead, his 36-yard third-quarter TD run was as good an individual effort by a back as you'll ever see. He saw that he had nothing on the left side, elected to cut right (where a hole had opened thanks to a pancake block on Keyunta Dawson by Dan Connolly) and then made Aaron Francisco miss with a move to his right, finally breaking to the outside where he got help from Branch and Welker to find the end zone. Oh, and he almost fell down at the 20-yard line. I think we can all sign off on the idea that Woodhead has now made the complete transition from "The scrappy White Guy from Hard Knocks" to "Absolute Legit NFL Running Back." He's for real. Woodhead also had a couple of key third-down catches in the first half, including a third-and-5 catch on the second TD drive that saw him shake off two would-be tacklers a couple of yards off the line of scrimmage before getting past the first-down marker.
RECEIVERS -- B+
Nice to see Wes Welker (five catches, 58 yards -- didn't it seem that he had a bigger game?) carrying some defenders after the catch. Strikes me as a sign that his knee is coming around. He (and Brady) took advantage of a sweet matchup on the first-quarter TD, as Welker was able to get past rookie linebacker Pat Angerer (who had a rough day, missing Woodhead on a couple of tackles) for a 22-yard score. Welker dragged Angerer for the last three yards before finding the end zone. Deion Branch (seven catches, 70 yards) looks to be fully recovered from the hamstring issues that limited him in the two or three weeks before the Steelers game. And although Aaron Hernandez had just a single catch (and just eight in the last four games -- 21 in the four games before), it was his third TD of the season, another third-down conversion from eight yards out that put the Patriots up 14-0. Julian Edelman continued his struggles -- dropping a goal-line pass from Brady that would have put the Patriots up 35-14 with 11 minutes left. It wasn't an easy play -- Brady delivered a serious fastball -- but Edelman needs to make that catch. The drop was sure looming large as Manning drove down the field in the final minute.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A-
OK, Matt Light gave a up a sack to Dwight Freeney on the opening drive of the second half. Anything else? Another nearly flawless effort by this group (that sack was the first in 89 passing plays), allowing Brady time to make plays and opening holes for a rushing attack that averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Light was matched up one-on-one with Freeney for most of the game and did a more than acceptable job (he did receive some help from Alge Crumlpler). And Sebastian Vollmer (with a huge assist from Rob Gronkowski) handled Robert Mathis. What a job by the tackles the last two weeks against the likes of Freeney, Mathis, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Logan Mankins bulldozed Angerer on the Green-Ellis TD rush, with Connolly helping to open a hole up the middle. And on the play right before the Woodhead TD, Mankins, Gronkowski and Light opened a massive path on the left side for Woodhead to pick up eight yards.
(Forgot to mention him with the backs, but it was a quietly productive game for Sammy Morris. He converted a pair of third-downs on the ground and it was his block that sprung Green-Ellis for a 16-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.)
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
Just not enough pressure overall on Manning. To me, this is still problem No. 1 with this defense. Are Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler future Pro Bowl cornerbacks? No, but I just don't buy that they are the reason opposing quarterbacks are completing nearly 70 percent of their passes (only one team in NFL history has allowed 70 percent passing, and that's the 0-16 Lions of a couple years ago). But when the Pats got to (or at least close to) Manning, things happened. His first pick was a direct result of pressure from Mike Wright and Tully Banta-Cain. And it was Jermaine Cunningham who got close to Manning on the game-icing pick to Sanders. I've watched the play a number of times and it doesn't seem that Cunningham made contact with Manning, but his presence clearly altered the throw.
Overall solid effort against the run by the defensive line, holding the Colts to just 3.6 yards per carry. Vince Wilfork (six tackles) blew up the Colts O-line on a couple of occasions, picking up tackles for a loss on Donald Brown.
LINEBACKERS -- B-
Jerod Mayo finished with 15 tackles (11 solo) and deflected a Manning pass on the Colts' second drive of the game (it looked like McCourty might have had a chance at an INT if Mayo hadn't gotten a hand on the ball). Brandon Spikes had a backfield stop on Donald Brown, but he spent a lot of the second half on the bench in favor of Gary Guyton, who had seven tackles as he spent a lot of time in coverage on tight end Jacob Tamme (with mixed results -- Tamme had seven catches for 60 yards).
The Patriots would have had a penalty-free game were it not for Tully Banta-Cain's Moron File entry in the fourth quarter, a no-doubt 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for pushing a Colts lineman. It just was not worth it, and the 15 yards helped Indy find the end zone to cut the lead to 31-28. Not the best way to find a way into the rotation. And Banta-Cain had a clear shot on Manning in the second quarter but couldn't make the play, and that allowed Manning to make maybe his best throw of the game, across the field to Brown for 26 yards. It was a second-and-9 play. If TBC makes the sack, you're looking at 3rd-and-18. Instead it's first-and-goal at the 8. At 14-0, who knows what happens if TBC picks up the sack and the Pats force a punt? It really did feel like the game changed when the Colts cut the lead to 14-7.
SECONDARY -- C
Kyle Arrington on that final drive of the first half:
(1) Gives up 12-yard catch to Wayne on the first play
(2) On a second-and-15, gives up a 17-yard pass play to Wayne with 35 seconds left.
(3) On the very next play, Arrington had Wayne for a six-yard gain, but failed to finish the tackle and Wayne turned it into a 27-yard pickup, all the way to the NE 11.
(4) And two plays later, Manning found Wayne in end zone (left corner) for a TD -- Arrington never turned his head (and Brandon Meriweather was late with safety help -- which happened on a number of plays Sunday).
Worst four-part saga since "The Substitute" movies of the mid-1990s.
Darius Butler started the second half in place of Arrington and acquitted himself nicely against Wayne, with good coverage to break up a pass play on the final drive that -- if caught -- would have set up a first-and-10 at the NE 20-yard line. It'll be interesting to see if Butler gets some more snaps on Thursday.
Pat Chung continued to make plays against the run (seven tackles) but really had a tough time in pass coverage, allowing a pair of TDs over the middle to Blair White, who was in the game for Austin Collie. Brandon Meriweather had a 39-yard return on his INT (nice block from Chung on the return) and helped with coverage on Wayne but was late to the ball on several occasions.
Devin McCourty nearly had an interception in the first quarter, knocking away a pass intended for Pierre Garcon. McCourty did collect a pick in the third quarter, doing well to keep both feet inbounds on the sideline catch.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B
Zoltan Mesko (44.0 average) wasn't needed much -- just three punts -- but he put the Colts in tough field position that at least made Manning take some time off the clock on the fourth-quarter TD drives. Brandon Tate had a 32-yard kick return in the third quarter (averaged 23.0 yards on three returns) and the Patriots continued their impressive work on kick return coverage, highlighted by Woodhead's tackle on Brandon James on the kickoff following his TD rush. Shayne Graham made all four of his extra-points and chipped in with a 25-yard field goal (no apparent problems with the Matt Katula - Zoltan Mesko combination).
COACHING -- B+
Again, not thrilled with the play calling on either side of the ball in the fourth quarter. Too conservative on offense and the prevent has been a disaster in the last two weeks (six touchdowns, and Roethlisberger and Manning combined for nearly 400 yards passing in the last two fourth quarters). But the big picture, of course, is that the Patriots -- with no Ty Warren, no Leigh Bodden, no Nick Kaczur, no Mankins for seven games, basically no Randy Moss (who will now not catch passes from someone named Rusty Smith on Sunday, a far cry from not catching passes from Tom Brady and Brett Favre in 2010; well played, Randy) and nothing from any running back expected to be in the rotation when the season started -- are tied for the best record in the NFL. Just watch, they'll give it to some coach that turned an expected 6-10 team into 9-7, but Bill Belichick is the Coach of the Year in the NFL.