Report Card time, and I have no idea if Wes Welker is the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Who knows? Hard to define, too many variables. Could be Calvin Johnson or Roddy White. Larry Fitzgerald is always in the mix, of course. We all know the candidates. And if you polled the 32 general managers and told them they could pick one receiver to start a franchise, I'm sure Welker wouldn't finish in the top five, and I get why.
But for this Patriots team? You can have Fitzgerald or White or Johnson (and those guys are surely great), but I'm taking Welker every time.
Sunday's win over the Jets was a perfect example of the value of Welker. Five catches for 124 yards, sure (he's still on record-setting pace in both catches and yards), but the aforementioned trio can do that. But are those guys going to wipe out Bart Scott with a block, as Welker did on Tom Brady's TD pass to Deion Branch? And in the one tight moment of the game -- third-and-4 with 3:43 left in the game, the Patriots semi-clinging to a 27-21 lead -- it was another key Welker block (this time on Kyle Wilson) that helped spring BenJarvus Green-Ellis and continue what turned out to be a game-clinching drive. Throw in a 25-yard punt return and you've got an all-around performance that I just don't see from any other player at this position.
To the card we go ...
For the second straight week we saw an almost throwback effort from Tom Brady (24-for-33, 321 yards, one TD, one INT). It was as close as you'll see to the 2003-04 Brady -- force nothing (the INT, of course, wasn't his fault -- more on that later), take what the defense gives you and rely heavily on the running game. For the most part Brady stayed away from Darrelle Revis (Revis was on Welker in man coverage for 21 pass plays and allowed just a single catch for four yards, and that was on a pretty remarkable floater to the sideline at the end of the first half), picked his spots, made sure to control the tempo of the game (plenty of no-huddle) and took advantage of favorable matchups with Deion Branch, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowkski (Eric Smith and Brodney Pool were targeted by Brady on the third-quarter TD drive). Again, it wasn't the sharpest we've seen Brady this season -- he continues to have trouble with the deep ball over the middle, with three more overthrows on Sunday -- but he was plenty good (and mistake-free) enough against a defense loaded with guys in the secondary (very similar to the blueprint from the Jets' playoff win).
RUNNING BACKS: A
There has been more than a little concern around here (not without some level of justification) that this Patriots offense, over the last few years, has turned Finesse First and perhaps Finesse Only. Well, it turns out Throw, Throw and Throw might not be the new law firm in Foxboro. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a career game, rushing for a personal-best 136 yards on 27 carries. And what was best about this terrific performance was the finish, as Green-Ellis had 59 yards (with rushes of 15, 14, eight and seven yards) on the 13-play, 69-yard drive fourth-quarter field goal drive that put the game away at 30-21. Green-Ellis also rushed for a pair of TDs -- both 3-yard scores -- and dragged Sione Pouha (listed at 325 pounds) all three yards into the end zone for the first score (a drive that featured Green-Ellis rushing for 30 yards on six carries). And the threat of Green-Ellis was very much a factor in the 73-yard Welker catch to open the second half, as Eric Smith bought the play-action from Brady, opening the middle of the field for Welker.
Look, you knew Welker (five catches, 124 yards) wasn't going to be targeted as much as usual on Sunday. Revis is the best defensive player in football and as good a defensive back as I've ever seen (yup, that includes Deion Sanders.) Welker had one catch for four yards vs. Revis (having watched the play half a dozen times, I think Smith was at fault on the 73-yarder), but so what? He caught four other balls for 120 yards, including the biggest catch of the game. Welker's numbers border on the absurd at this point -- his 124 yards on Sunday was his second-lowest output of the season and his five catches was his lowest. Also this: Welker has 45 catches this season, easily the most in the NFL. Roddy White, Jeremy Maclin and Jimmy Graham are all tied for second with 32 catches. Hines Ward is 42nd in the league with 20 catches and is closer to second place than those three guys are to catching Welker.
Deion Branch (seven catches, 74 yards) won his battles with Antonio Cromartie, highlighted by a 17-yard third-and-8 catch in the first quarter and a 2-yard TD on a route that completely fooled Cromartie. Rob Gronkowski was quiet (one catch) last week and did nothing in the first half, but he and Aaron Hernandez (five catches, 56 yards) were key in the 11-play, 77-yard TD drive that put the Patriots up 24-14. Hernandez -- who hadn't played since Week 2 -- had a costly end zone drop on the final play of the first half, as Brady’s pass deflected off his hands and into the arms of Cromartie, turning what would should have been a 17-7 halftime lead into a 10-7 game.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Brian Waters had his best game of the season on Sunday, leading the way on a pair of Green-Ellis rushes on the close-out drive and laying a superb block on the first-quarter Green-Ellis TD run. Matt Light has been just OK this season (after a just OK 2010), but he also authored his finest 2011 effort vs. the Jets, sealing out Muhammad Wilkerson on Green-Ellis' second TD and flattening Jim Leonhard on the direct-snap third-down rush from Green-Ellis on the final drive. Four sacks of the quarterback is tough to dismiss, as Thomas Welch was beat by Jamaal Westerman (and was promptly benched -- Light was also beat by Westerman in for a first-half sack) and several blitzes from the secondary of the Jets were not picked up. But this group dominated the defensive line of the Jets in the second half, particularly on that final drive.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
Mark Anderson had a sack and a half and two other hits on Mark Sanchez. The Patriots had five hits on Sanchez in the game, as Albert Haynesworth (who faced steady double-teams and was again almost invisible) and Andre Carter (seven tackles -- his hit on Sanchez came on the first offensive play of the game) also got hits on the quarterback. Was this anything close to a dominant performance against a shaky offensive line? Nope. But the numbers -- 144 yards of offense through three quarters, 3-11 on third-downs, seven three-and-outs -- was in part thanks to semi-consistent pressure from the defensive line.
Still very much a work in progress, especially without Jerod Mayo. Gary Guyton was bailed out by a third-down drop by John Connor on the Jets' second drive and completely taken out by Matt Slauson on Shonn Greene's 3-yard TD rush in the second quarter. Rob Ninkovich had six tackles, half a sack and two hits on Sanchez, and Brandon Spikes had five solo tackles but continued to struggle in pass coverage (two blown plays on first Jets TD drive -- passes over the middle to Holmes and Greene) and was also lost on the Greene TD rush.
As was the case with Antonio Gates, James Ihedigbo (making his first start of the season) and Pat Chung slowed down an elite tight end on Sunday, holding Dustin Keller to just a single catch for seven yards. Ihedigbo was an upgrade over Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown -- he had a couple of key third-down tackles on Keller and Jeremy Kerley that stopped Jets drives -- but was partially at fault on the Holmes TD, failing to help Kyle Arrington in coverage. Arrington (who missed on a chance to take down Sanchez on wide-open third-down blitz but still created enough disruption (with Wilfork) to force hurried incomplete at midfield on third-and-6, Devin McCourty (several stops against the run) and Leigh Bodden were solid against Plaxico Burress and Holmes, as the two combined for seven catches and 102 yards. Pat Chung was burned by Kerley for a touchdown catch, and Antwaun Molden was a non-factor.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D+
Awful. Joe McKnight had an 88-yard kickoff return (Tracy White missed a tackle early, McCourty made a TD-saving tackle) and another 43-yarder. Welker unwisely tried to make a sliding catch on a punt return and fumbled (good hustle by Molden to recover the fumble and bail Welker out). And a pair of holding penalties on returns (Dane Fletcher on a kickoff, Jermaine Cunningham on a punt) put the Patriots in lousy field position to start drives.
Bill Belichick hit on both of his challenge attempts, the Branch fumble (which eventually led to Branch's TD catch) and a Burress catch that wasn't (pretty good coverage from Bodden on the play), which wiped out a 23-yard reception. Bill O'Brien had a outstanding game with two standout calls -- the opening play of the second half (73-yard Welker catch) and the third-down direct snap to Green-Ellis on the final drive.