Report Card time and we'll look forward by looking back.
Sure, we'll hand out the grades from last Thursday's win by the Patriots over the Lions, but it's been four days since we got to watch Kid Rock and listen to The Rock and everything else from the 45-24 (much closer than that final, by the way) Thanksgiving game. It's time to get ready for the Jets. So we'll try and figure out if anything we saw in the Lions game might be factor in next Monday night's heavyweight battle.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK - A+
Just an absolute clinic. Hey, whatever happened to all the "Tom Brady has gone Hollywood" stuff we heard in the preseason? Guess it doesn't really matter where he lives or works out, huh? A perfect passer rating against the Lions, as Brady finished 21-of-27 for 341 yards and four TDs (11-14 for 231 yards and all four TDs in the second half). To me, he's the runaway leader in the MVP race and can pretty much put the trophy in the bank if the Pats beat the Jets next Monday.
Hard to imagine a quarterback can play better than Brady has over the last three weeks (nine TDs, zero picks and passer ratings of 117.4, 123.1 and 158.3 in the three wins). Against the Lions he again used play-action to set up big plays - see the first TD pass to Wes Welker, the 79-yard bomb to Deion Branch, even the first offensive play of the game for the Pats, a 27-yard completion to Alge Crumpler. And give Brady credit for this: When the Patriots O-line was being handled in the first half - Brady was knocked down six times - he didn't force anything, wasn't frustrated into throwing a ball into traffic or try and jam one into double coverage. Nope, he just dumped the ball short to Danny Woodhead and Welker and waited for the line to get things figured out.
Brady threw two interceptions against the Jets in the Week 2 loss. He has thrown exactly two interceptions since (and one was a Hail Mary at the end of regulation vs. the Ravens). You'll remember the Jets game as one where it seemed that Brady really tried to force things to Randy Moss (10 targets). It'll be interesting to see how much things will be different with Branch, an improved Welker, Logan Mankins and a new backfield.
RUNNING BACKS - A -
Think about this: When the Patriots last played the Jets, Woodhead was watching the game in a hotel room. He had just been signed by the Pats three days before and there was less than zero expectations. Anything would be a bonus. The idea that he might be able to step in and take over the Kevin Faulk role (remember, it was against the Jets that Faulk blew out his ACL) was a serious credulity tester. Well, it's been a couple of months now, whaddya think?
Faulk 2009: 15 games, 62 carries, 335 yards (5.4 per rush) two TDs, 37 catches, 301 yards (8.1 per), one TD.
Woodhead 2010: Nine games, 64 carries, 344 yards (5.4 per rush) three TDs, 24 catches, 230 yards (9.6 per), one TD.
I know that Faulk is a guy that means a lot more than just numbers (for one, though Woodhead has had his moments as a blocker, he isn't in Faulk's class) but Woodhead has done OK. Another strong game on Thanksgiving, averaging four yards a carry (including a nine-yard rush on a third-and-two direct snap on the first fourth-quarter TD drive, another more than decent Faulk impression) and catching a couple of first-half passes in the flat.
Kind of burying the running back lede here, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a couple of touchdown runs, finishing with 59 yards on 12 carries. He has nine rushing TDs in the last nine games, and he's tied for second in the NFL in running scores. His first TD of the game - a 15-yarder - was a power special, as he shook off Amari Spievey at the five yard-line and then ran over Alphonso Smith to get into the end zone.
The Patriots averaged 2.6 yards per rush against the Jets in Week 2 (Green-Ellis had 10 carries for 19 yards). Not acceptable, obviously, and while it's a hard ask to expect them to have a big game on the ground (Jets give up just 3.4 yards a carry) they will need to be able to get something going, if only to give them credibility to set up Brady's play-action.
RECEIVERS - A-
Branch has no catches in the first half, and was targeted just once, but he destroyed Smith for 113 yards and two TDs on three second-half catches. His first TD was a perfect route, catching the Brady pass in stride, turning Smith around a couple of times and then shrugging off a truly pathetic attempt at a tackle at around the five-yard line to cap off the 79-yard score. He added a 22-yard TD in the fourth quarter, again abusing Smith on a post. This guy couldn't help the Seahawks? What happened there? Branch's numbers since he joined the Pats, pro-rated to a 16-game season: 75 catches, 990 yards and eight TDs. Decent return for a fourth-round pick, right?
Welker (eight catches, 90 yards) caught the other two TD passes and absolutely looks like the pre-ACL Welker. He took his turn abusing Smith (who was really like the woman in "Airplane" that got slapped around by everyone on board - I kept waiting for Leslie Nielsen to beat Smith for a TD catch) in the third quarter, dragging the cornerback for three yards into the end zone.
In the four games prior to the Steelers, Welker had 19 catches for 138 yards (7.2 yards per catch) and zero TDs. Last three games? Twenty-one catches for 237 yards (11.3 per catch) and three TDs. Rex Ryan made it pretty clear before the last match that it was Welker - not Randy Moss - who worried the Jets most. This is a guy, after all, who had 15 catches in the win over New York at Foxboro last year. And for most of 2010 it seemed that player wasn't around, replaced by a Welker who was still OK but clearly trying to figure things out in a post-injury world. Well, the last three weeks has seen a return. He could be a huge factor come Monday night.
Rob Gronkowksi was targeted five times and made all five catches, for 65 yards, including a pair of 26-yard grabs. Crumpler had the aforementioned 27-yarder and Aaron Hernandez continued to have a decreased role in the offense, making only a single catch, though it was a key 18-yard grab on 3rd-and-one at midfield during the Pats first-half TD drive. Still not sure why he has been so minimized - could just be Welker and Branch retiring to form, could be more - but this was a guy who caught six passes for 101 yards vs. the Jets in Week 2 and has just three catches for 26 yards in the last three games.
OFFENSIVE LINE - B-
Looked like a "F" with about six minutes to go in the first half. The Patriots first drive of the second quarter summed up the effort of the O-Line for the first 25 minutes or so:
First and 10 at the NE 15: Sebastian Vollmer dominated by Ndamukong Suh - just pushed aside - for a three-yard loss.
Second and 13 at NE 18: Brady walloped by Kyle Vanden Bosch - who blew by Gronkowski - but managed to complete a pass to Woodhead for 15 yards. But the play was called back because of a cutback block penalty by Mankins on Corey Williams.
Second and 20 at NE 8: Matt Light beat by Vanden Bosch for another blind-side blast on Brady.
Third and 15 at NE 13: Pocket collapses as Cliff Avril got push on Vollmer which gives no time for Brady to make a play, he just dumps it off to Woodhead for eight yards.
But the O-Line found its rhythm on the TD drive at the end of the first half (Dan Koppen opened a hole for Green-Ellis on the TD run) and was nearly perfect in the final 30 minutes. Brady had all kinds of time to find receivers (Brady first looked at Sammy Morris in the slot before going deep to Branch on the 79-yard score, and on the five-yard TD to Welker, Brady had time to look over the middle and to his right before making the throw to the left side) and the run blocking was strong. Jason Taylor has had a rough year - just four sacks - but he forced a Brady fumble that put away the Week 2 win. Light has had (to be kind, maybe) an up-and-down year and we all know his trouble with Taylor. That's on any serious shortlist of must-watch matchups for Monday night. Well, that and Matt Millen vs. Steve Young and me vs. the bathroom in the press box at Gillette Stadium that I have managed to lock myself in twice this season.
DEFENSIVE LINE - C-
In Week 2 the Patriots got virtually no pressure on Mark Sanchez and allowed 136 yards rushing to the Jets and lost 28-14. In Week 12 the Patriots got virtually no pressure on Shaun Hill and allowed 129 yards rushing to the Lions and won 45-24. The point, I guess, is this: You can get away with that against the 21st ranked defense in the league but it isn't going to fly against the third ranked defense in the NFL. If the Jets run the ball as proficiently as they did the first time around (or as well as the Lions did on Thanksgiving) it's going to be awfully hard for the Patriots to win. I get that the Pats only had four d-lineman healthy vs. the Lions, but they need to play much better or it could be ugly next Monday night.
LINEBACKERS - C
Here's what I wrote after Week 2:
Can anyone cover a tight end? And did I miss the briefing when it was explained that Dustin Keller is the next Ben Coates? It didn't matter which LB was on Keller Sunday, he was able to find hole after hole in the Cover 2 defense. Brandon Spikes really had trouble with Keller, giving up a couple of big catches. He finished with five tackles, but someone had to tackle Keller (seven catches, 115 yards) after he hauled in another first-down grab.
Well, Gary Guyton did knock down a first-quarter pass intended for Brandon Pettigrew, but the tight end had a big game matched against the Pats linebackers, hauling in five balls for 67 yards. Just a huge potential red flag for the Jets game: The linebackers - whether it's Spikes or Guyton or whomever - have to do a better job on Keller.
SECONDARY - C+
Imagine, for a moment, if the Patriots had passed on Devin McCourty in the draft. Is it possible that we would looking at a Darius Butler/Kyle Arrington starting duo at the cornerback position? Two interceptions vs. the Lions for McCourty, the first of which Bill Belichick called out as perhaps the biggest play of the game. Hard to argue - at the time the Patriots were down 17-10 in the third quarter, had just punted and watched Maurice Morris kick off the Lions drive with a 17-yard run. It was getting a little sticky, to put it mildly. But McCourty made a terrific leaping catch on a pass intended for Calvin Johnson and returned it to the Lions 25-yard line, giving the Pats a short field (which they converted into a Welker TD). And McCourty's second INT was a gift (right in his hands as Hill badly overthrew Johnson) but he showed off his speed, returning the pick 50 yards to the Lions' seven. Three plays later, Green-Ellis scored to give the Pats a 45-24 lead and put the game away. As good as Mayo has been this season it's not unreasonable to suggest that McCourty has been the most valuable defensive player on this team.
Arrington gave up a touchdown pass when left on one-on-one coverage with Johnson (no help from Brandon Meriweather) and would have been responsible for two but was bailed out by an end-zone drop by Derrick Williams (Arrington never turned his head on the play - same thing we saw from him on the Reggie Wayne TD the week before). The Jets picked on Butler in Week 2, which led to his eventual benching. Will Arrington be able to do better when matched up with Braylon Edwards (who did most of the damage on Butler) or Santonio Holmes?
Pat Chung has had a superb season and made some plays on Thursday, but he is still a work in progress when defending the pass (Nate Burleson beat him for a pair of third-down conversions). And on the fourth-down TD run by Maurice Morris, Chung was blocked out by Burleson (close to a hold) and couldn't make a play.
SPECIAL TEAMS - B-
If Brandon Tate is going to keep dropping passes he has to do better than a 17.3 average on kickoff returns. Shayne Graham is what he is, the kickoffs just aren't going to be Gostkowskian. He did make his only field goal attempt (OK, it was a 19-yarder, but he's 4-for-4 since joining the Patriots). Zoltan Mesko averaged 51.4 yards on his three punts and continued what has been an impressive rookie season. Julian Edelman was not a factor in the offense (no targets from Brady after his end-zone drop vs. Indy) but did have a 28-yard punt return in the first quarter. And Arrington nearly blocked Dave Rayner's missed 46-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
COACHING - B
Have to admit I was more than a little shocked to see the Patriots not go for it on fourth and maybe a foot and a half at the goal line in the first quarter. Didn't matter - they scored 45 points - but it just seemed out of character. But Belichick or Bill O’Brien put together an offensive plan that clicked in the second half, recognizing that Smith was a weakness in the Lions defense. An 11:30 a.m. (local time) kickoff less than four days after an emotional win over the Colts and with the Jets looming could have been a trap. And at 24-24 at the start of the fourth quarter it sure looked shaky, but the Patriots played an almost perfect fourth quarter. Full credit to the coaching staff for having the players in position and ready to make plays when it mattered most.