Report Card time and after two weeks it seems this is true:
If you thought, before the season, that this Patriots offense was good enough to win a Super Bowl you have seen nothing to change your mind.
If you thought, before the season, that this Patriots defense wasn't good enough to win a Super Bowl you have seen nothing to change your mind.
What we saw on Sunday was what we saw many times in 2010 -- brilliant play from Tom Brady and the offense (504 total yards), and a defense that gave up a ton of yards (470), struggle to get off the field (worst in the NFL in third-down last year, the Chargers were 10-of-12 on Sunday) but make the key play when needed.
It's swell for the Patriots that Vince Wilfork had that interception and Mike Tolbert picked the right time to see if maybe he was more than a downhill runner, but can the Patriots rely on just being opportunistic again this season? All we have to do is go all the way back to January to see how that can end.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- A+
Sure, he threw for "only" 423 yards on Sunday, but Brady was at least as good against San Diego as he was on Monday night in Miami (higher passer rating and completion percentage against a defense clearly superior to that of the Dolphins).
Do we all agree that the three biggest defensive plays of the game were Mayo's fourth-down stop of Mike Tolbert at the goal-line, Wilfork's interception and Mayo's strip of Tolbert (with Rob Ninkovich recovering)? Well, in retrospect what helped make those plays so critical was what the Patriots offense was able to do after the fact. In those three drives Tom Brady was a combined 11-of-11 for 173 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Just ruthless. All part of another command performance from Brady, who leads the NFL in yards passing (940, most in history for any two-game stretch), yards per attempt, touchdown passes and passer rating (and, according to Phil Simms, the Patriots also "Lead the NFL in plays where ... they just make it happen." I couldn't find that stat anywhere online, so I just decided it fits best here).
RUNNING BACKS -- B-
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (still no career fumbles in 353 carries) was the featured back, with 17 of the 23 carries from the backs. Green-Ellis finished with 70 yards, including a 16-yard TD in the fourth quarter. Danny Woodhead rushed in a two-point conversion (making Eric Weddle miss with a cut to the right side) to give the Patriots a 28-14 lead but struggled otherwise, picking up just 12 yards on four carries and whiffed on a pair of blitz pickups, giving up a sack to Donald Butler. And hello to Steven Ridley, who had nine yards on a pair of third-quarter carries.
RECEIVERS -- A-
Looks like Rob Gronkowski is going to have to go solo for a month or so (Aaron Hernandez is on the shelf with an sprained MCL), halting a tight end duo that has been unstoppable over the first two games (24 catches, 337 yards and five TD's combined -- and yes, Gronkowski would be Daryl Hall and Hernandez would be John Oates). As Rivers did with his receivers, Brady was able to take advantage of size matchups with his tight ends, connecting with Hernandez (basically posting up Bob Sanders) for a TD to finish the opening drive. And Gronkowski overpowered Eric Weddle throughout the game, a mismatch highlighted on the 17-yard TD in the fourth quarter (Weddle looked remarkably like Tanner Boyle trying to start a fight in "The Bad News Bears."). Deion Branch appeared to have some miscommunication with Brady on a failed third-and-goal play in the second quarter but had an outstanding game, finishing with eight catches for 129 yards. Branch has 15 catches on the season, tied for third in the NFL with Wes Welker, who caught seven passes for 81 yards. Welker also did his part as a blocker, teaming with Brian Waters to allow Gronkowski to break off a 30-yard catch reception on the first drive of the second half. What we saw on Sunday can't be seriously viewed as Chad Ochocinco's breakout game in New England, but at least he was a minor factor, catching two passes for 45 yards (his 30-yard catch -- on the second play of the 99-yard drive -- was another example of Brady's terrific use of play-action).
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
The misses? Rob Gronkowski was beat on the edge by Shaun Philips for a sack and was flagged for a holding call (both in the first quarter). And for just a moment we all thought we could be watching Bernard Pollard Part Deux as Antonio Garay was able to get past Dan Connolly and slam into Brady's left knee (which you may have heard has been surgically repaired). Not the dominant collective effort we witnessed vs. the Dolphins, but one sack allowed in 42 pass attempts (with Woodhead to blame for the Butler sack) is perfectly acceptable against a San Diego group that was second in the NFL with 47 sacks in 2010 (including four sacks against Brady in the 23-20 New England win last October). It was Connolly with the key block for Woodhead's two-point conversion, and Matt Light (strong game in pass protection), Nate Solder (who also played some tight end, have to figure we'll see more of that over the next month) and Logan Mankins opened a path for the Green-Ellis fourth-quarter TD rush.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C+
Even without the INT Wilfork had a strong game, getting to Tolbert first before Mayo forced the fumble, hitting Rivers on the play before the Sergio Brown INT (an incomplete pass to Richard Goodman) and slowing down Rivers on a third-and-goal rush (the Mayo stop of Tolbert was the next play). Kyle Love stuffed Tolbert for a loss on the second-and-goal play on the same drive and later recovered the fumble caused by Mark Anderson's sack of Rivers that put the game away. After a promising opener in Miami, that was the Albert Haynesworth we saw in Washington on Sunday -- zero tackles and no factor in slowing down the rushing attack of the Chargers. Andre Carter was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty in the second quarter, which was absolutely the correct call if "roughing the passer" now means making any kind of contact with the quarterback.
LINEBACKERS -- C+
Mayo was the story, obviously, with the two key plays and team-high 11 tackles but was out of position on the Ryan Mathews TD rush. Other than Mayo, just not a lot of production from the rest of the linebackers. Dane Fletcher rushed Rivers out of the pocket and got a clean hit on the QB on the final drive of the first half and Rob Ninkovich recovered the Tolbert fumble, but that was about it for a group that has been OK at best through two weeks. Brandon Spikes was a non-factor in his 2011 debut.
SECONDARY -- C
Vincent Jackson (10 catches, 172 yards, two touchdowns) torched both Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington. McCourty won a couple of battles vs. Jackson on Sunday (though that's not good enough -- and it was McCourty covering Jackson on both touchdowns) but Arrington had no chance against Jackson in the slot. Maybe you have to live with that -- Arrington is a third cornerback at best. But McCourty is supposed to be a legitimate No. 1, a real All-Pro candidate, and has been outplayed by Brandon Marshall and Jackson in the first two weeks of the season (to be fair, McCourty was able to knock down Jacob Hester, which opened the hole for Mayo to get to Tolbert on the fourth-and-goal stop).
Sergio Brown had the INT and (along with Patrick Chung) was superb in coverage of Antonio Gates, who finished without a catch for the first time in his career. Josh Barrett passed up a chance to blast Malcom Floyd on a play that turned out to be a 23-yard catch and later missed a chance to tackle Mathews on the 10-yard TD rush.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B
Not much from Julian Edelman in the return game (19.5 average on two kickoff returns). Zoltan Mesko -- before leaving with a knee injury -- angled his first punt out-of-bounds at the San Diego five-yard line and his second was a 54-yarder. Unlike last week in Miami, Steven Gostkowski made his 47-yard field goal attempt. Matthew Slater tackled Bryan Walters for a two-yard loss on Mesko's 54-yard punt.
COACHING -- B
My guess? The Patriots would have gone for it on 4th-and-4 at midfield if Mesko had been able to kick. You're telling me Gostkowski couldn't have punted the ball 25-30 yards (I actually thought we were going to see Brady punt in that spot)? The decision to again go heavy with the no-huddle throughout the game was a success (the four-play, 61-yard TD drive -- taking just 1:40 -- after the Tolbert fumble was a perfect illustration of that), and the plan to eliminate Gates as a factor also worked (though at the expense of a monster performance from Jackson).