Report Card time and I'm still not sure what happened.
I was in the press box for Jets 28, Patriots 21 (sitting right next to Suzy Kolber, who it should be noted did not seem suitably impressed when I broke out what I thought was a more than passable Joe Namath impression) and I've since watched the game twice.
And I'm still not sure what happened.
Did Mark Sanchez really dramatically outplay Tom Brady, on the road, in the cold, in the playoffs?
Did Rex Ryan really back it all up and more?
Did Brady really let Antonio Cromartie get away with it?
Did Pat Chung -- Pat Chung? -- really call for a fake punt in a playoff game?
Lots of questions -- and I have zero answers. None. Go somewhere else for that, and good luck. But you'll get some grades here, at least, as we assign some blame for what I figure is the sixth-worst loss in franchise history (the three Super Bowl losses, the AFC title game loss to the Colts and the playoff loss to the Raiders in 1976).
So to the report card we go …
QUARTERBACK -- D
"When he started looking for the rush when there was no rush. When he thought after a certain amount of time, he was fidgeting. I give Ben Roethlisberger a lot of credit, he's man enough to stay in the pocket, look in the barrel of the gun and take the hit. Most quarterbacks don't like getting hit. When they get hit, they turn into a totally different person."
-- Bart Scott, asked when he knew the Jets had gotten into Tom Brady's head.
That's about right, I think. Brady was just never comfortable on Sunday. Credit the Jets for that -- how many times did we see an indecisive Brady in the pocket, taking forever to make a play before finally throwing behind or over an intended receiver (or one who never knew a pass was coming)? Brady made more bad throws on Sunday than he had the previous two months combined. The interception was just one of them -- some pressure from Calvin Pace was just enough for Brady to overthrow BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
We look at Brady in a bottom line kind of way, right? The great stats are swell, but it's ultimately about the wins and losses with him. (Put it another way: How many TD passes did Brady throw in 2003? How about 2004? And why, exactly, doesn't it matter?) And right now he's at kind of a crossroads. That might be a slight exaggeration -- his place in history is secure, of course -- but this is now three straight playoff losses, and in those games Brady has a passer rating of 74.2. That's the same number as Gus Frerotte's career passer rating. So in his last three playoff games Tom Brady has been Gus Frerotte. Who knows if he wins a Super Bowl again -- it's now been six years -- but the image of Brady as Joe Montana 2.0 is in serious decline and won't return until he has postseason performances like the ones in the Super Bowl years. He had a great season in 2010 and will win the MVP (deserved), but it's hard to shake the idea that this is now a lost season for Brady.
RUNNING BACKS -- B-
The numbers look OK overall (28 carries for 113 yards, good for a 4.0 clip) but the backs just didn't play a big role in this game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was strangely underused, with just nine carries (he had at least 18 carries in seven of the last eight games) but 43 yards. Where was he? I get that the Jets have a top-three rushing defense, but Green-Ellis did have 72 yards on 18 carries in the Monday night win. Danny Woodhead was the lead back in this one, carrying the ball 14 times (just 46 yards) and catching six passes. Some of this was out of necessity -- Woodhead is going to be on the field more when the Pats are down and passing -- but I was surprised to see Woodhead get the bulk of the work in this one. Woodhead didn't seem to be slowed by the concussion he suffered in the regular season finale two weeks ago, but he did fumble for the second straight game (after not fumbling the entire season -- Logan Mankins recovered the fumble). Sammy Morris missed a block on Bart Scott to lead to a rare third-and-1 failure for Green-Ellis in the third quarter, but he did convert a two-point conversion on a direct snap (when will the other teams figure that one out?)
RECEIVERS -- C
One thing we know for sure after Sunday: Nobody, and I mean nobody, makes thinly veiled jokes about the opposing coach's foot fetish and gets away with it on Bill Belichick's watch. Wes Welker (seven catches, 57 yards) missed the first series and then was a virtual non-factor in the game, catching one pass for seven yards in the first three quarters. Brady had an incredibly difficult time getting the ball to his wideouts against a much more physical Jets secondary, as Deion Branch (five catches, 59 yards) didn't have a catch until the third quarter. Branch's first catch of the game was -- at the time -- a crucial one, as he made Eric Smith miss after the catch to convert a third-and-9 in Jets territory to keep a drive going that led to the Pats' first touchdown. Branch did catch a TD pass late (just 24 seconds left) but had a key drop on fourth-and-13 at the Jets' 34-yard line down 21-11 with five minutes left. It wasn't an easy play, but one a guy like Branch has to make in that spot.
The David Harris INT of Brady would have gone for a TD were it not for Crumpler, who managed to run the linebacker down and make a tackle at the New England 12-yard line. It turned out to be a points-saver, as the defense stepped up and Nick Folk missed a 30-yard field goal. It was part of an up-and-down day for Crumpler, who caught a 28-yard pass in the first quarter and a two-yard TD in the third quarter but dropped a pass in the end zone in the first quarter and was beaten by Calvin Pace on a third-quarter sack and forced fumble of Brady. Rob Gronkowski had a career-best 37-yard catch to open the first TD drive for the Patriots, but Aaron Hernandez was limited to just a single catch. Injuries were a factor, sure, but the second half of the season saw Hernandez slam into the wall like Kathleen Turner in 1998, catching just 12 passes in his final seven games (he caught 34 in his first eight games).
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C-
The Jets had five sacks, but a couple were Brady's fault or the result of superior coverage from the Jets, who really disrupted the rhythm of Brady and his guys. But Shaun Ellis was an absolute monster in this one, picking up a pair of sacks and a couple of other hits on Brady. In the sea of trash talk and dopiness that can be the Jets locker room, you've got to feel good for Ellis, a pretty quiet guy who has been around forever (since the Al Groh era) and just does his job. He handled Dan Connolly on a couple of plays and made his way through Connolly and Dan Koppen to pick up his second sack. Jason Taylor was able to get pressure on Brady, winning his battle with Matt Light, and Pace had the forced fumble by going to the outside against Crumpler, who has had a terrific season as a blocking tight end. The Jets didn't recover the fumble, but it was a drive burner for the Pats, turning a second-and-10 into a third-and-22 with just under nine minutes left in the third quarter.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C-
Start with the good: Vince Wilfork was really active on Sunday, making a big second-down tackle for a loss on LaDainian Tomlinson on the series following the Harris INT, which led to the missed 30-yard field goal by Nick Folk. He also beat Nick Mangold to force pressure on Sanchez on an incomplete pass to Santonio Holmes in the second quarter and had another tackle for a loss on Shonn Greene. You know, the defense wasn't really the problem on Sunday. They weren't great but the Jets had a short field throughout the game. I'm willing to throw out the Greene TD at the end and say the Pats defense allowed 21 points, and that's counting the TD scored after the failed fake punt attempt. To me -- with this offense and Brady playing at the level he has the last half of the season -- that should be enough. The defense did enough to win. I will allow, though, that this does stand out when you look at the stat sheet:
Jets: Five sacks, seven tackles for a loss, seven quarterback hits
Patriots: Zero sacks, four tackles for a loss, zero quarterback hits
That has to change. There has been progress made in the pass-rushing department -- I'm not giving up on Jermaine Cunningham -- but the Pats have to use one of these picks in the top 33 to land a legit guy who gets to the quarterback. It's a must-have for 2011.
LINEBACKERS -- C+
It's 1 and 1A, but the two biggest plays of the game were the fake punt (we'll get to it later) and the 58-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Cotchery catch came just two plays after the Morris two-point conversion, and for the first time in the game you got the feeling that the Patriots were about to take control. Uncle Mo was coming over to the other side of the table, if you will (and I won't, actually). The Patriots were down 14-11 and had the Jets at a second-and-6 at their own 29. But Sanchez hit Cotchery over the middle for 58 yards, and two plays later Santonio Holmes scored and it was a 10-point spread again. Long story short, there was a breakdown in coverage from the linebackers on the play. Jerod Mayo (who was very quiet on Sunday) and Brandon Spikes watched Cotchery slip through the middle and make the catch. It sure looked like each thought the other was responsible for covering Cotchery (also: Cotchery was allowed to come off the line of scrimmage without a bump from Tully Banta-Cain). Give the linebackers this: They held Dustin Keller to just three catches for 15 yards. Rob Ninkovich was the only Patriots player to get any consistent pressure on Sanchez, forcing a couple of third-down incompletions before leaving with a knee injury. Gary Guyton got the majority of snaps over the returning Spikes and played well, picking up a tackle for a loss on Shonn Greene and adding three other solo stops.
SECONDARY -- C-
Great year, lousy day for Devin McCourty. He gave up a 15-yard TD to Braylon Edwards (who was great in the game, as good as any wideout has been against the Patriots this year), and was dragged for the final five or so into the end zone by Edwards on the play (Brandon Meriweather was also unable to bring Edwards down). And McCourty missed a tackle on Cotchery on the huge third-quarter catch -- if he makes the play, it's about a 10-yard gain instead of the game-changing 58-yarder. Hey, it happens -- it just wasn't the best time for his worst game of the season. The same could be said for Brady, Mayo and a few others. But McCourty, for me, is the story of the 2010 season for the Patriots. This looks like an annual All-Pro cornerback, a steal at the 27th pick.
Darius Butler gave up the Tyree redux catch to Braylon Edwards in the corner, and it was Kyle Arrington who was in coverage on the Holmes TD grab. It wasn't terrible work by either, just really good plays by Sanchez and his receivers. Pat Chung and Meriweather (who I'm convinced will not be back next year) did nothing to stand out, and James Sanders was (correctly -- he hooked his right shoulder) flagged for a pass interference on Holmes.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- D
I'm not sure what shocked me more on Sunday: The fact that the Patriots attempted a fake punt at their own 38-yard line with a minute left in the first half in a 7-3 game or later learning that it appears Pat Chung -- a second-year safety -- has the swing to make that call in that spot. Huh. Well, it was a killer, handing the Jets a short field and leading to the Edwards TD. Again, you punt there and it's going to be 7-3 at the half. And the Pats would get the ball to start the second half. It just wasn't even close to being worth the risk. Good news for Chung, though. Based on his call Sunday I'm hearing he's now a finalist for the Raiders' coaching job.
COACHING -- D
Guess we can stop figuring out if this is Belichick's best coaching job. I'm sure it's not easy to make adjustments after you beat a team by six touchdowns. But the Patriots looked like they were going backwards all game long, on their heels from snap one. And only one guy can take the hit for that -- the same guy who gets the praise when it looks like his team is playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers. Just how it goes.