Report card time and it's back to normal.
By normal I mean a team playing at a level that hasn't been seen in the NFL for at least three years. After the Green Bay debacle -- and by "debacle" I mean scoring 31 points in a win over a playoff-bound team -- the Patriots returned to the role of best football team on the planet Sunday, destroying the Bills 34-3 to cement the AFC East title and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. Just a clinic in coaching, quarterbacking, running the ball and offensive line play. Oh, and the defense forced six turnovers and held its opponent to less than 10 points for the third time in four games.
So the love letter has to return. Sorry. It kind of bores me, too. But what else can you do? Put on the bath, a little soft music (may I suggest the works of Mr. Lionel Richie?) and get lost in the sea of A's.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B+
The numbers look pedestrian (15-of-27, 140 yards) but Tom Brady did throw three TDs and didn't come close to an INT in fairly tough conditions. Toss in the fact that Wes Welker had three drops and it's as good an effort as you can expect from Brady in that spot. His passer rating -- 107.0 -- was his lowest since Week 9. The guy has thrown 24 touchdown passes since his last interception, with seven of those 10 games played in lousy weather. One dome during the streak. Unreal. Probably his worst throw of the game Sunday came on the Pats' first offensive play from scrimmage, as he came up a good five yards short of a wide-open Rob Gronkowski over the middle. If he hits the tight end in stride it could have easily been six points (no one was near Gronkowski). The announcers speculated that wind might've played a factor, but both Brady and Belichick said after the game that wind wasn't really an issue. Plus Brady looked plenty angry with himself right after the play. Call it a bad throw, it happens. But Brady absolutely did what needed to be done yesterday -- let the running game dominate and stay mistake-free. A very 2003-04 kind of effort from the runaway MVP.
RUNNING BACKS -- A
It was clear from the start that the Patriots were going to try and run the ball against a Buffalo defense that ranked 32nd against the rush and allowed 200 yards to the Patriots in Week 3. First drive of the game: Woodhead one carry, eight yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, three carries 20 yards. After holding the Bills to a three-and-out, the Patriots put together a four-play scoring drive, all runs. Green-Ellis for five yards, Green-Ellis for six yards, Woodhead for eight yards and then the 29-yard TD burst from Woodhead. And that's the way it pretty much went all game, or at least in the first half (which was all that mattered in this game). Woodhead and Green-Ellis combined for 138 yards in the first half on 20 carries. They had lots and lots of help from a dominant offensive line (more on that later) but give these two backs plenty of credit. They run north-south and DO NOT FUMBLE. They are the perfect backs for this team.
Green-Ellis had 104 yards on 19 carries and is now 78 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He also became the first Patriots back since Corey Dillon in 2005 to attempt more than 200 rushes in a season. So if he's not the classic No. 1 back for a team, he's pretty close. Woodhead finished with 93 yards on 13 carries and also caught three passes for 32 yards.
RECEIVERS -- B-
Three catches but three more drops for Wes Welker on Sunday, which gives him a total of 13 drops on the year. (He's top-five in the NFL in drops this season. Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots were shocked with each drop, but I'm thinking those two clowns didn't watch 45 seconds of game tape the entire week. They just go by a guy's reputation and that seems to work for them.) Welker had back-to-back drops in the red zone at the end of the first half that stalled a promising drive (the Pats were forced to settle for a field goal). It was also a quiet day for Deion Branch, who also had a drop and finished with just a pair of catches.
But the tight ends were the story. No Aaron Hernandez, no problem. Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes on Sunday, all to tight ends. Rob Gronkowski caught a pair of TDs (he now has nine on the season -- matching Ben Coates for most TDs in a season by a New England tight end) and Alge Crumpler caught the other. It's hard to figure out what Gronkowkski is, or what he's going to be. What's his ceiling? Could he be Todd Heap or Jason Witten? I wonder how many players in the NFL could A) make the 23-yard back shoulder catch Gronkowski hauled in on a third-and-6 on the Pats' second TD drive and B) come across to the line to set the lead block on Woodhead's TD rush. Gronkowski is having a terrific rookie season and -- to me, at least -- looks to be a clearly superior all-around player when measured against Hernandez.
Alge Crumpler deserved that TD catch. He was all over the field as a blocker on Sunday (and has been all season), leading the way on a pair of Green-Ellis runs in the first quarter and pancaking a Buffalo defender on a Brandon Tate reverse.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A
The best offensive line in football. I don't see how a case can be made for any other team right now. They have gone from very good to great since the return of Logan Mankins, and they flat-out destroyed the Bills on Sunday. They created just huge holes on running play after running play and they did not allow a sack until the game was 31-3. Mankins was in the middle of most of the action (the Pats running game is heavy on the left side), chipping in on the Woodhead TD and clearing out room for Woodhead and Green-Ellis on a number of their big runs on Sunday. I don't care if he missed half the season, this is an All-Pro guard. It is no coincidence that this historic tear by the Pats offense started when Mankins returned.
Matt Light did allow the sack on Tom Brady (Chris Kelsey), but he was in on a number of key plays, including the Woodhead TD rush. The entire O-Line deserves credit for giving Brady plenty of time to look for Crumpler on the TD pass, and kudos to the group (particularly Ryan Wendell and Dan Koppen) for shutting down defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B-
Still not sure why Chan Gailey gave up on the run so quickly, other than the fact that he's Chan Gailey and that's what guys like him do. The Bills ran the ball for 61 yards on the opening drive, most of it right up the middle of the Pats D-Line, which was occupied by Kyle Love and Landon Cohen. Fred Jackson picked up 27 yards on the first play from scrimmage for the Bills, right between Love and Eric Moore (who did recover a fumble later on in the game, making it five impact plays in his brief Patriots career). The Bills ran the ball all the way to the Pats' 13-yard line, where they then decide to throw the ball on two of the next three plays. Field goal. After a Zoltan Mesko punt, the Bills then go three-and-out on three straight passing plays. Next series (with the Pats now up 7-3), the Bills throw on three of four plays, with Fitzpatrick fumbling on the final play of the drive. The Patriots score a TD on that drive, and suddenly the game has gone from 3-0 Buffalo to 14-3 New England without Fred Jackson -- who had 50 yards on the opening drive -- getting a single carry.
Just an atrocious job by Gailey in that situation. The guy should be the assistant quality control coach for the Saugus High JV team. He should never be allowed to be in the same room as a playbook again, forget having the keys to the car.
It would have been interesting to see if the Pats could have adjusted if the Bills kept pumping the ball to Jackson, but it never happened. And this is against a Pats D-Line that was pretty banged up. (Raise your hand if you didn't know who Landon Cohen was until Sunday. No, not you, Mr. Harlan. We already knew that.) My best guess is that the Chiefs won't abandon running the ball with Jamaal Charles, or the Steelers with Mendenhall or the Ravens with old pal Ray Rice. Something to keep an eye on.
LINEBACKERS -- A-
How about the work of three linebackers in forcing that first turnover? Rob Ninkovich (who got several pressures on the quarterback) forced pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick, getting him out of the pocket. Gary Guyton came in and delivered a hit on Fitzpatrick to cause the fumble and Jerod Mayo recovered the ball. (Think Chan should have thrown the challenge flag there? Looked like Fitzpatrick's arm might have been going forward. I think it's at least worth a shot in that situation.) That was part of a monster game for Mayo, who finished with five tackles, one quarterback hit, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He laid some serious hits in pass coverage on Sunday, drilling Stevie Johnson and David Nelson. Dane Fletcher also had a productive game, recovering a fumble and picking up his first career interception with a garbage-time end zone pick of Fitzpatrick. It was a really solid effort from a group that was missing Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham.
SECONDARY -- B
That's right, we're leading with Darius Butler. Why not? He's actually played pretty well since the Indianapolis game (slowed down Reggie Wayne in the second half) and had his best game of the season Sunday, knocking down three passes. Give him points for taking his benching like a man -- he's worked hard and improved.
Might be time for Butler to take his old job back -- Kyle Arrington really struggled on Sunday, giving up a pair of 40-yard receptions, and continues to lock in on his man and pay no attention to the ball in coverage. Arrington actually was benched for Butler in the second half. Not sure what that means for next week's Irrelevant Bowl but I wonder if it'll Butler over Arrington when the Patriots host Team X (my guess -- the Jets) in their playoff opener.
Other than Arrington it was a strong game for the secondary. Both Jarrad Page and Patrick Chung had interceptions, and Devin McCourty continued to put together his Pro Bowl case. This group is a major reason why the Patriots have a staggering plus-27 in the turnover department.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B+
The kick return team did a good job making C.J. Spiller (who had a TD return in Week 3) a non-factor, holding him to a 16.8 average on five returns (with a long of 22 yards). Zoltan Mesko averaged 41.2 yards per punt on his five kicks, with three inside the 20-yard line (in contrast, Brian Moorman averaged 34.0 yards on his two punts). Shayne Graham made both his field goals and all four extra points, no small feat in that weather. Sergio Brown recovered a Spiller fumble on a punt and both Sammy Morris and Tracy White had a pair of special-teams tackles. All in all, a good week for a unit that had to be in shock without Gale Sayers Connolly in the lineup.
COACHING -- A
Belichick stuck to his game plan as Gailey bailed on his. That's your coaching story from this one. The 2010 Patriots are really a pleasure to watch. They just never turn the ball over (nine this year and zero in the last seven weeks). They have the best quarterback in the world surrounded with a bunch of young guys and veteran role players. And Belichick has them playing as well as any Patriots team ever has heading into a postseason. It won't turn out this way, but Belichick should be the unanimous choice for Coach of the Year. Again, beating a 4-11 Bills team is not a headline by itself, but to take care of business in the fashion the Patriots did on Sunday is to me another in a series of signs that this is a team with a desire to finish things quickly and keep its foot on the throat. Plenty of credit for that has to go to Belichick.