Report Card time and the rule here has always been this: If the Patriots beat a team with at least a share of the best record in the NFL by six touchdowns it's love letter time.
Just a magnificent performance in all three phases of the game by the Pats, who I think stand as the clear Super Bowl favorites for the first time since Bernard Pollard found his way into the New England backfield. The Jets and Rex Ryan have been muted (for now) and somehow - with all the injuries and Randy Moss drama and first and second year guys playing significant roles - the Patriots are probably a 3-1 finish away from having home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Is there anyone who would have guessed that when the Patriots walked off the field after the Week 2 loss to the Jets?
But that's where we are today, and Monday night is obviously a huge reason why. So sit back and enjoy a buffet of ass-kissing so severe that it would offend Jon Gruden and Stuart Scott.
To the card we go …
QUARTERBACK - A+
Better than perfect. As good as Tom Brady was in Detroit on Thanksgiving - putting up a 158.3 passer rating - he was better against the Jets on Monday night. Four more touchdown passes (now 17 since his last interception and 228 throws since his last pick) on the night, completing 21-of-29 passes in less than ideal conditions (how many lousy throws did we see Sanchez make into that wind?) against a defense that (we thought, at least) was one of the three or four best in the league. It's really not supposed to be this easy.
To me the drive that best demonstrated the level of football that Brady is playing at right now came after the atrocious pick by Sanchez (Brandon Spikes) in the third quarter. Now the Patriots at this point are up 24-3 and at their own seven-yard line with 9:15 left in the third quarter - but they still start out of the shotgun with five wideouts.
First play: A bullet to Danny Woodhead (matched one-on-one with Bart Scott) for 14 yards.
Second play: BenJarvus Green-Ellis for one yard.
Third play (2nd-and-nine at NE 22): Brady pressured by Mike DeVito, gets out of the way and finds Welker over the middle for six yards.
Fourth play (3rd-and-three at NE 28): Still in shotgun - and with plenty of time - Brady first looks at Welker before throwing to Rob Gronkowski for 12 yards. The only mini-drama of the dive, as it turns out (only one third-down play on each of the 90-plus yard drives in the second half).
Fifth play: (1st-and-10 at NE 40): Green-Ellis for a yard.
Sixth play: (2nd-and-nine at NE 41): Play-action with Woodhead to set up a wide-open Aaron Hernandez, who blows past Dwight Lowery to pick up 35 yards. Interesting to see Brady get right into the face of Hernandez after the catch, usually a reaction saved for a touchdown. Pretty clear that Brady has had some frustration with Hernandez at times this season and you have to wonder if this a breakthrough of some kind, because that was (even for Brady, who gets fired up) an unusual reaction.
Seventh play: (1st-and-10 at NYJ 24): Reverse to Tate for six yards.
Eighth play: (2nd-and-four and NYJ 18): Brady recognizes that the Jets are going to blitz, changes the call at the line and finds Welker one-on-one with Drew Coleman. Touchdown, 31-3, thanks for playing.
You know, watch that drive again if you have a chance. Did Brady make a great throw at any point? Not really. He just took what the Jets gave him. It was more a study of a guy in absolute command. Total confidence in his abilities, his O-line and his skill players. A clinic in quarterback play from the soon-to-be MVP.
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
The Jets have allowed just 87.5 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the NFL and destroyed the Patriots backs in Week 2 (just 2.4 yards per carry). But the undrafted duo was more than up to the task on Monday night, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis put together another I'm Not Maroney game, rushing for 72 yards on 18 carries with a couple of TDs (now 11 for the season - second in the NFL). And Danny Woodhead wasn't really a factor in the rushing game (just two carries) but had his most productive game as a receiver, catching four passes for 104 yards. Rex Ryan said last week that he regrets getting rid of Woodhead, and I still can't believe that there wasn't a spot for him on that roster (Joe McKnight has a whopping seven carries this season and has already started working out at cornerback, so that's going well).
RECEIVERS -- A
You think Randy Moss watched the game? He's got to be having a serious Gob Bluth crisis at this point . But hey, maybe he called Cris Carter and was comforted by the fact that Deion Branch is "just a guy." Remember how Moss was owned by Antonio Cromartie in Week 2, a game that in many ways showed us all that Moss might not be Moss anymore? Well, Branch destroyed Cromartie in the first quarter, catching three passes for 64 yards, including the biggest play of the game, a 25-yard TD grab on fourth-and-three (a play that followed a 19-yard catch by Branch on 3rd-and-22) to give the Patriots a 17-0 lead.
The Patriots are 7-1 with Branch, who has caught 36 passes for 497 yards and four touchdowns. Moss? One win in seven games (with two teams) since the trade, with 18 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns (none since October 24 - Moss last caught a TD pass before the World Series started).
Seven targets for Wes Welker, seven catches for Wes Welker, who finished with 80 yards and that 18-yard third-quarter TD. Brady's last four weeks (passer ratings of 117.4, 123.1, 158.3 and 148.8) has also been the best four weeks of the season for Welker, who has 28 catches and four touchdowns in that span.
Still not sure if Brandon Tate was inbounds when he made his four-yard TD grab (worth a challenge at least, but Rex had already wasted one on a fourth-down spot in the first quarter) but it was a much-needed show of skill from Tate, who has battled the drops the last month or so.
The tight ends were again productive (and - along with Brady - were the winners of the "Jon Gruden Tongue Bath Award"), as Hernandez caught three passes for 51 yards and a garbage-time TD and Rob Gronkowski caught that third-down pass on the first third-quarter TD drive.
OFFENSIVE LINE - A-
Matt Light was beat twice in the first half, allowing a sack to UMASS alum James Ihedigbo. But this is picking nits at its worst, really, because this group was dominant on Monday, giving Brady time to carve the Jets defense and opening holes for Green-Ellis and Woodhead.
If I'm the agent for Logan Mankins I'm pointing to this game when trying to get a new deal in the offseason. Mankins was a force on Monday, handling Calvin Pace on a number of plays, including a pancake block to open a massive hole on the left side on Woodhead's 50-yard shovel pass catch. He also lead the way on Green-Ellis' second TD run. Almost a totally clean second half from the entire O-Line, particularly on the pair of 90-plus yard drives, where Brady had three or four seconds in the pocket to find an open receiver.
DEFENSIVE LINE - B
Buried in the 45-3 final was the fact that for the second straight week the line really struggled to stop the run, as the Jets rushed for 152 yards on 31 carries. To be fair this isn't solely a product of the D-Line (Rob Ninkovich failed to protect the edge on a 13-yard Shonn Greene first-half run, for example) but this is something to keep an eye on as the Patriots head into the postseason (and into Chicago this weekend, where the Bears have run the ball well the last two weeks). But overall a strong effort from the group, who got some pressure on Sanchez and forced several incomplete passes (there was really very little pressure on the three picks, just horrible decisions by Sanchez). An active game for Vince Wilfork, who moved around on the line and picked up a couple of solo tackles and knocked down Sanchez in the first quarter, and the MNF crew was correct in praising the effort of Gerard Warren, who had his best game in weeks.
LINEBACKERS - A-
First, the Brandon Spikes interception, which has to be THE key defensive play of the game (if the Jets score a TD there it's a 24-10 game, which is at least quasi-interesting). Spikes just never bought the play-action from Sanchez and knew exactly where the pass was going and made a nice leaping grab (reminiscent of Tedy Bruschi, I thought, which was of course appropriate).
Jermaine Cunningham was close on three sacks and just wasn't able to finish the play off, which has kind of been a theme for the rookie. But Belichick has long preached that the pressure is as important as the sack, and there is no question that Cunningham is getting to the opposing quarterback. It just seems that a two-sack game is looming with this guy.
Jerod Mayo had 12 more tackles and has a chance at 200 for the season (though I'm a little suspicious and starting to think that the Pats are doing some stat-stuffing for Mayo) and Tully Banta-Cain had a sack (final play of the first half) and another tackle for a loss. And the crew overall did a solid job slowing down Dustin Keller, who finished with just three catches for 27 yards.
SECONDARY - A-
Devin McCourty isn't going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year (Ndamukong Suh is a lock) but is the Pro Bowl completely out of the question? His sixth interception of the year (and fourth of the last three weeks) was the kind of pick you see from a shut-down cornerback, as McCourty had Braylon Edwards completely blanketed before taking the pass away from the receiver. I'm not sure that McCourty isn't already a No. 1 corner, instead of the "future No. 1 corner" label that seems attached to his name right now. What am I missing?
(Oh, and what a half-assed effort by Edwards on that ball. Once a quitter, always a quitter. I'll say this about Santonio Holmes: The guy did not give up in that game on Monday night. OK, I could live without the celebrations after a 12-yard catch when your team is down 30 points, but Holmes played every snap. More than I can say for Edwards or Cromartie or Bart Scott. What Holmes basically did was hit .320 for the losing team in a four-game sweep in the World Series.)
Another pick for James Sanders (and how much has the fortune of the Colts and Pats changed since his INT of Manning in the fourth quarter of THAT game?) as well as seven tackles and a pass defensed. Darius Butler got some snaps in the nickel package and acquitted himself nicely and Kyle Arrington knocked down two passes intended for Holmes and another for Edwards.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- A-
Zoltan Mesko had a 52-yard punt in the second quarter, a play that was ended by a tackle on Holmes by Mesko on a 31-yard return that was called back for an illegal block by Brad Smith. And it was more of the same from Shayne Graham - weak kickoffs but another field-goal made (a not-so-easy 41 yard kick into the wind - Graham is five-for-five on field goals).
I can almost understand if the Jets didn't think that Woodhead could help the team at running back - LT and Greene are established - but you're telling me that he couldn't help them on special teams? I'm frankly a little down on my "Hard Knocks" MVP Mike Westhoff for not recognizing this and fighting harder for Woodhead. Another special teams tackle for Woodhead (who was glaring at the Jets sideline after each play he made) and Sammy Morris also checked in with a tackle on a kickoff following the Patriots first score.
COACHING -- A
I'm not hearing a whole lot right now about how Belichick doesn't have anyone in the Patriots organization that might challenge him if they think he's wrong about something. What happened to all those stories, you know, the ones that compared Belichick to Nixon at the end, surrounded by yes men? And where did all the "Bring back Charlie and Romeo" emails go? I just checked my inbox. Nothin'. Strange.