Report Card time and this was an eye-opener.
Matt Flynn throwing three touchdowns? Charles Woodson pulling a Brandon Tate? Dan Connolly pulling a different kind of Brandon Tate? The best team in the NFL getting doubled up in time of possession? Alge Crumpler with two kick returns? Brandon Meriweather botching a play in the secondary? Wait, you expected that one?
So the copy and paste row of A's get a week off as we take a look at what went right and wrong in the 31-27 win. To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B-
There have been games this season where Brady has played better than his numbers would suggest (Baltimore and San Diego come to mind pretty quickly), but Sunday was just the opposite. If you hadn't watched a single snap of the game and just looked at the box score, you'd see that Brady finished with two TD passes, no INT's and a passer rating of 110.2. Fits right into what we've seen over the last six weeks.
But the truth is that Brady was just OK on Sunday night. His consecutive pass without an INT streak -- now at 292 and just 16 behind Bernie Kosar for the all-time NFL record -- should have been toast on the Pats' first drive of the game when he hit Charles Woodson in the hands on second-and-17. It was as bad a pass as you'll ever see from Brady -- he underthrew Gronkowski by a good five yards. A.J. Hawk later tipped a pass that also could have been picked. That's six balls over the past two weeks that easily could have been intercepted. Brady attempted just 24 passes -- tied for his lowest of the season -- and threw for only 163 yards. Put it another way: In just three more pass attempts vs. the Lions he threw for 178 more yards.
So it wasn't another Picasso on Sunday night. But when the Patriots needed Brady to be Brady he came through. Down 27-21 with 13:49 left in the game, Brady led the Pats on back-to-back scoring drives, completing five-of-six passes for 72 yards and the game-winning TD to Aaron Hernandez. This one isn't going to go into the vault in Canton, but Brady proved once again that if he has to he can win ugly.
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
Still not sure why we didn't see more of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. The two finished with 97 yards on 15 carries (6.5 yards a pop). Toss in a 16-yard reverse from Aaron Hernandez and the Patriots averaged over seven yards a carry on Sunday. So I have no idea why we saw this sequence of play-calling with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter and the Pats up 31-27:
First-and-10 at NE 11: Woodhead to the NE 15 for four yards
Second-and-6 at NE 15: Incomplete pass to Welker
Third-and-6 at NE 15: Incomplete pass to Tate
Why? Don't you at least run the ball on second down and make the Packers use another timeout (they called one after the Woodhead run)? That drive took a whopping 30 seconds off the clock. If the Pats run the ball three times and pick up a first the game is essentially over. And Brandon Tate on third down? I'd be OK with the play calling if Woodhead/Green-Ellis were averaging two yards a carry in the game, but that just wasn't the case. Just a really strange series that got bailed out thanks to the Dane Fletcher and Tully Banta-Cain sacks on the final drive.
But the running backs were really productive despite not getting a heavy volume of work on Sunday. Green-Ellis had a 33-yard TD rush in the first quarter, getting terrific blocks from Logan Mankins (who came across to the right side of the line) and Deion Branch (on Tramon Williams) to find the end zone for the 12th time this season. He's got a live shot at breaking the franchise single-season record for rushing scores (14, held by this writer's all-time favorite Patriots player, Curtis Martin).
Danny Woodhead was a force on the Pats' go-ahead TD drive in the fourth quarter, rushing three times for 25 yards and catching a pass for 12 yards. Again, understanding that Brady is Brady, why didn't the Pats run Woodhead three times on that final drive? There was absolutely no proof that the Packers could stop him.
RECEIVERS -- B
Eight different Patriots had at least one catch, but just one player caught as many as four. That player was Aaron Hernandez, who caught a pair of touchdown passes and hauled in a key third-down grab on the opening drive. Rob Gronkowski had just one catch, but it was a 25-yard catch on third-and-5 on the first TD drive. (That led to a Gronkowkski to the Pro Bowl shout out from Cousin Oliver Collinsworth. I wondered if it was possible for Gronkowski to make the Pro Bowl, so did me some digging. Probably not. Antonio Gates is a lock and Ben Watson has 58 catches. But you know how it goes, Gates'll drop out and then I guess Gronkowski has as good a case as anyone.)
Wes Welker had just three catches for 42 yards, but did have a season-high 35-yard reception on the fourth-quarter FG drive. It's tough to put up big numbers when you are on the field for just over 19 minutes. Deion Branch had a big third-and-17 catch on the first TD drive (the play immediately following the Woodson drop) and the aforementioned block on the Green-Ellis TD rush (I've tried my best to avoid playing this card much, but does Randy Moss ever make that block?). Alge Crumpler led the way on the Hernandez reverse with a superb block, but committed a holding penalty to stall the very same drive.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B
Not the immaculate work we've seen over the last month, as the Packers were able to get to Brady on a number of occasions. B.J. Raji picked up a couple of sacks, tossing Mankins out of the way in the first quarter and playing the role of King Kong Bundy to Woodhead's Little Tokyo in the third quarter (though he did not request a five count of Brady after the sack). The Patriots allowed three sacks in the game and it seemed that Brady was hurried with a level of frequency not seen since the Cleveland game. But the run blocking was outstanding, with Mankins leading the way on the Green-Ellis TD and several Woodhead runs on the go-ahead TD drive. Also, credit must be handed out to the line for not allowing Clay Matthews (two tackles) to make any kind of impact.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
Vince Wilfork had a couple of key penalties on a pair of Green Bay TD drives but had a strong game, collecting six tackles and recovering the fumble on the last play of the game. He also got a couple of pressures on Flynn. It was a very active performance from Wilfork, who played the kind of game (penalties aside) you expected to see when he signed the deal in the offseason.
Two weeks, four impact plays from Eric Moore. Moore sacked Flynn at the New England 13-yard line on the Packers' opening drive, a play that was instrumental in holding Green Bay to just a field goal. And it was Moore who got the rush on Flynn to force a hurried throw on the Kyle Arrington INT touchdown return.
LINEBACKERS - C+
Lots of missed tackles from this group. Gary Guyton had a couple, including a clear whiff on a John Kuhn screen on the final play of the third quarter (and how well did Kuhn play?). Rob Ninkovich took a tumble and Jerod Mayo missed a shot on Kuhn on his TD reception. That was a constant theme throughout a game that saw the Packers clean up on third down (11-of-19, but six of the first nine) and put together five drives of at least 10 plays.
Mayo asked after the game how many tackles the Patriots missed. The quick answer: Plenty. And a lot of them came from the linebackers.
But there were some big plays from these guys, as Dane Fletcher had both a pressure and sack on the final drive of the game. Fletcher also got pressure on Flynn on a red-zone third-down on the opening drive, which led to an incompletion and field goal. Tully Banta-Cain had some trouble setting the edge early against the run (the Packers ran for 143 yards in the game) and was guilty of what appeared to be a killer face-to-the-mask penalty to wipe out what seemed to be a game-icing pick by Brandon Meriweather on Green Bay's final drive. But Banta-Cain delivered when it mattered most, sacking Flynn on the game's final play.
SECONDARY -- C
A better question for Mayo: How many tackles were missed by both teams in this game? Kyle Arrington slipped four would-be tacklers on his 36-yard INT touchdown return. It's hard to believe that no Green Bay guy could bring Arrington down; even some of the Patriots on the field had assumed a tackle was made and just stopped playing, which never happens with this team in that situation. (Eric Moore was one of the offenders). But it was an up-and-down night for Arrington, who took a terrible angle on Kuhn on that TD catch and had no shot of stopping Greg Jennings in one-one-one coverage when the Packers' No. 1 wideout made his TD catch in the second quarter.
Devin McCourty had his first career sack and finished with 10 tackles (though as we know a cornerback with 10 tackles isn't always a good thing). In the fourth-quarter goal-line stop, it was McCourty who came in and made a solo tackle on Kuhn at the one-yard line. It was one of those half-dozen or so plays in any close game that has to go a team's way to get a win. If Kuhn finds the end zone in that spot, the Packers go up 31-21 and it is officially Level 5 tension time. This guy has to be a Pro Bowler, no question.
(And the unnecessary roughness call on McCourty was the right one. Bad luck -- McCourty wasn't going head hunting -- but it was helmet to helmet. That's life in 2010 in the NFL. But the officials can't use the scoreboard to make a call. And why, exactly, is that being shown on the scoreboard in that situation?)
Of course, McCourty was in coverage on the 66-yard James Jones TD catch at the start of the second quarter. But Brandon Meriweather decided to pay tribute to Damian Jackson and blindly run into McCourty, taking both guys out of the play and allowing Jones to score easily. I think Jones would have made the catch without the collision -- he had a step on McCourty -- but he wasn't going to score. Not sure how much longer Belichick is going to let Meriweather stay on the field. He continues to hurt this team week after week. I understand that there are injuries, but I'm not sure any safety on the street isn't an upgrade.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C+
Forget the wackiness of the Dan Connolly 71-yard kickoff return for a moment. As a football play in that game it was a must-have for the Patriots, who were down 17-7 at the time and looking awfully flat. I've watched the play a dozen or so times and I'm still not sure how exactly it happened -- a couple of Packers ran into each other right next to Connolly to give him some room on that left side. Sammy Morris actually jogged from behind to catch up to Connolly and gave Crosby a block that almost gave Connolly the hole to get in the end zone.
Julian Edelman continues to really struggle, dropping a Brady pass as well as a punt. Credit Darius Butler with the save on the dropped punt by Edelman, who took a big step back after what looked to be a promising effort last week in Chicago.
I'm not sure why the Packers were so conservative on Sunday (kicking the FG on fourth-and-1 from the goal line, punting on fourth-and-7 at the NE 40 down four points with five minutes left -- I'm pretty sure Belichick doesn't follow that script) after starting the game with such a daring call. The onside kick caught the Patriots completely off guard, as James Sanders and Rob Ninkovich failed to recognize what was happening.
Shayne Graham made a key 38-yard field goal (still perfect on FG attempts with the Pats) and Zoltan Mesko averaged 40.4 yards per punt on five kicks (with one inside the 20).
COACHING - C+
Tough to blast this staff with the season they have put together, but they simply didn't seem ready to play at the start of this game. This wasn't quite the level of the Cleveland game, but the Packers were the team dictating how the game was played for much of the contest. The staff did a good job making adjustments -- taking Kuhn out of the game in the fourth quarter as an example -- but I'm still not thrilled with the play-calling down the stretch. No idea if the Patriots overlooked the Packers or had a "letdown" game and I'm not sure if it even matters. They'll win one of these final two games (at least) and after that there isn't much chance of a letdown game in January or February.