Bye Week Report Card time and we'll start with a question:
Is this team going 14-2 again?
Assuming we don't see Bernard Pollard Redux, I'm thinking the answer is yes. Take a look at the schedule and find me two games where this team will be an underdog the rest of the way. I have them losing to the Jets on Monday night in three weeks and that's it. And if they somehow manage to win the next three games (no easy task -- at Pittsburgh, home Giants at Jets) 15-1 looms as a very real possibility. Take a look at the final seven games:
Home vs. Chiefs (3-3)
At Eagles (2-4)
Home vs. Indy (0-7, and I think New Orleans just scored again)
At Redskins (3-3 with John Beck or Rex Grossman)
At Broncos (2-4)
Home Dolphins (0-6 and absolutely could be heading to 0-16)
Home Buffalo (4-2)
See what I mean? But as dopey as this is going to read, the Patriots could be 15-1 heading into the playoffs and nowhere close to a great team. We saw it last year -- 14-2 and heavily flawed. They can put up 30-plus every week the rest of the way in and it wouldn't surprise me. But I haven't seen enough from this defense to show me that this team is going to have a different fate, which is to lose its last game. Sure, they might win a playoff game, even two. Swell. But 15-1 or 14-2 means Super Bowl or Bust, and right now this defense would have no shot against the Packers. None.
Still, this is the best team in the AFC, if only because all the other serious candidates have fallen off. We've seen the Jets and Chargers. The Ravens were handled on the road by Tennessee and put up 146 yards of offense in a loss to the 2-5 Jaguars on Monday night. That leaves the Steelers, who never beat the Patriots (and continue to have problems protecting Ben Roethlisberger). A win on Sunday -- and I understand it's still semi-early -- goes a long way in the race for the one seed. And I think they'll get that win and cruise to the one seed.
But a great team? To be determined.
To the bye-week report card (in which we grade the performance of each position to this point in the 2011 season) we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B+
This is a brutal standard. Grades are based on the expectations for a player heading into the season, and Brady -- already one of the five or six best at his position in history before last season -- had one of the all-time great years by a QB in 2010. So, yeah, if Brian Hoyer was the starting QB and had same stats as Brady, you’d be looking at different grades, obviously. Brady has been Brady enough to this point -- third in the NFL in TD passes, completion percentage, passing yards (2,163) and second with a 104.8 passer rating -- but eight interceptions (yup, twice as many as last year in 255 fewer pass attempts -- he's on pace for a career-high 21) in six games is nowhere near acceptable for Brady. And half of those INT's came in the loss to Buffalo, as the Bills converted the four picks into 24 points. You can sort out the blame pie any way you'd like for the Buffalo loss, but Brady's four picks were an enormous factor. But short of Aaron Rodgers -- very clearly the best QB in the league this season -- there isn't another QB that has played as well as Brady.
RUNNING BACKS -- B
Last season seven backs in the NFL had at least 300 carries (and Maurice Jones-Drew had 299 attempts). BenJarvus Green-Ellis was 15th in the NFL with 229 attempts. Green-Ellis is never going to be a 300-attempt back. Not on this team, anyway. Not the way the Patriots do business these days. But Green-Ellis is on pace for 254 carries this season (that would be most by a Pats back since Corey Dillon's 345 in 2004) and has put away any lingering doubt as to whether or not he's a legitimate No. 1 back. He's averaging 4.3 cards per carry (391 yards -- on pace for 1,042 yards) and has five touchdowns (on pace for 13 TDs, same as last year. No back in the league has as many TD rushes as Green-Ellis since the start of the 2010 season). OK, he's not Adrian Peterson. But Green-Ellis is the perfect back for this team. Never fumbles (literally never -- he has as many career NFL fumbles as I do), seemingly zero ego (he's had games with seven and nine carries this season and we never hear anything close to a complaint about his role in the offense) and plenty productive. He had a career game vs. the Jets, rushing for a personal-best 136 yards on 27 carries. And what was best about this 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. The Patriots lined up and basically told the Jets that it was going to be all Green-Ellis, and the Jets could do nothing about it. Forget the Brady drive against the Cowboys, Green-Ellis imposing his will on the Jets was the signature drive of the season to date.
Don't know if it's injury-related or not, but Danny Woodhead (30 carries, 122 yards, zero TD's) has not been the back we saw last season. Stevan Ridley has been significantly more productive than Woodhead with less work (180 yards on 28 carries, including the 97-yard effort in the win over Oakland) and it's at least fair to wonder if Ridley will take even more carries away from Woodhead as the season progresses (and it'll be interesting to see where Kevin Faulk fits in the mix).
RECEIVERS -- B+
Wes Welker leads the NFL with 51 catches and is second with 785 receiving yards (though his 130.8 yards per game lead the league) and six TD receptions. Just Off The Charts Stuff, and it all started with a brilliant Week 1 performance vs. the Dolphins, highlighted by the 99-yard TD catch. He also had the best game of his career -- and the best ever by a Patriots receiver -- in the loss to the Bills, catching 16 passes for 217 yards and two TD's. And Welker was at his best on the game-tying TD drive in the fourth quarter of that Buffalo game, catching a pair of fourth-down passes -- one an incredible leaping catch, the other the six-yard TD grab. Any question he's been the 2011 MVP of this team so far?
Deion Branch has had a strange season, superb at times (eight catches, 129 yards vs. the Chargers, seven catches for 74 yards and completely dominating his battle with Antonio Cromartie in the win over the Jets) but also invisible for long stretches (no catches and not even targeted once vs. the Bills, just a single reception for four yards against the Raiders). There's nothing left to write about what we have (or I guess haven't seen) from Chad Ochocinco except maybe this: Would it surprise you at all if he were a healthy scratch against Pittsburgh this weekend? If all we can judge him on is what we have seen from him in a Patriots' uniform, I don't know how anyone would think this is an NFL receiver.
TIGHT ENDS -- A-
First: I just hope this whole ordeal doesn't affect the way we all feel abut BiBi Jones the actress -- her work in Naughty Nanny 3 still stands as a tribute to nuance and flexibility. Her chemistry with Jack Lawrence in the key hot-tub scene is the porn equivalent of Tracy and Hepburn.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (on pace to combine for 139 catches, 1,840 yards and 21 TD receptions this season -- Ben Watson caught 20 TD passes in 71 games with the Patriots) have played at Best Case Scenario level this season, just a nightmare for opposing teams (see the final drive vs the Cowboys for just the latest example). Again, if you are starting a franchise tomorrow and can pick any two tight ends in the league, aren't you going with these two guys?
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Brian Waters has been the best lineman on this team this season -- the guy has played at an All-Pro level. Plenty of standout moments from Waters, including a pair of crucial plays on the game-winning drive vs Dallas (getting downfield to help Gronkowski on his 20-yard screen catch and a blitz pickup on Orlando Scandrick, turning what would have been an easy sack into a key Danny Woodhead catch). Waters was also dominant on that Green-Ellis drive vs. the Jets, leading a couple of rushes on the close-out series. Matt Light is in the middle of his second straight so-so season, continuing to struggle at times to protect Brady (DeMarcus Ware beat him several times last week, Jamaal Westerman picked up a sack against Light). Logan Mankins hasn't played close to his 2010 form (and was terrible against the Cowboys -- beaten by Marcus Spears for a sack and allowed two other hits on Brady), but 75 cents on the usual Mankins dollar is still perfectly representable. Have to think he'll only improve. Dan Connolly stepped in at center for Dan Koppen in the first half of Week 1 and there has been no drop-off in performance at the position. Nate Solder has been almost exactly what you'd expect a first-round rookie to be -- some high spots (very impressive against Cameron Wake in Week 1, opened a massive hole for Ridley -- with help from Gronkowski, himself having an outstanding season as a blocker -- on his TD rush vs. Oakland), some failures (couldn't handle Anthony Spencer last week).
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C+
If Waters has been the best off-season acquisition this season, Andre Carter has been 1A. He won his battle with Jake Long in the Week 1 win over Miami (a sack and two hits on Chad Henne) and was a force against the Cowboys, delivering a two-sack game (first by any Patriots player this season) and multiple pressures on Tony Romo. Vince Wilfork has the two INT's, of course (almost three), and provided the disruption that allowed Brandon Spikes to make the tackle on the third-and-goal shovel pass to Tashard Choice. He's had a solid six weeks, but (similar to Mankins) slightly disappointing. Mark Anderson leads the team with 3.5 sacks, including a sack and a half in the win over the Jets. But Shaun Ellis has been a non-factor and the questions we had about Albert Haynesworth the day he was acquired (which all seem to come back to this: Does the guy care at all?) still exist. A complete flop through six weeks. This group has made some progress -- played very well last week -- but the stench of the efforts vs. Buffalo (one hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick, zero sacks and a 6.2 yards per carry average against), San Diego and Miami still lingers when you try and look at this defense (and this line) from a Are They Win Good Enough To Win a Super Bowl? perspective.
LINEBACKERS -- C
Jerod Mayo will probably be back for Pittsburgh, and save for a terrific performance vs. the Chargers (11 tackles, a fourth-and-goal stop of Mike Tolbert and a forced fumble of Tolbert) it's been an average at best season to date for a player of Mayo's caliber. Mayo has been mediocre in pass coverage -- lost several battles with Reggie Bush in Week 1, for example -- and missed a pair of tackles on Darren McFadden and was flat-out run over by Michael Bush on a TD rush before going down with an injury in the Oakland game. Gary Guyton has had a hideous season, just a parade of ineptitude. A couple of low-lights? He was beat by Anthony Fasano on the right sideline for a 22-yard catch to set up a first and goal at the two-yard line and was completely fooled by the Chad Henne TD draw in Week 1. Last week? Guyton fell down on a 33-yard Dez Bryant reception and couldn't cover Jason Witten in the second half. And plenty of missed tackles and blown coverage in between. Rob Ninkovich has submitted mostly solid efforts in the first six weeks, getting some pressure on the edge. Brandon Spikes remains a work in progress (you can bank on both a badly missed tackle and staggering overreaction to an average play at least once a game), but had the best effort of his young career vs. the Cowboys, pressuring Romo to force an INT and tackling Choice on the aforementioned shovel pass.
SECONDARY -- C-
The Year Two Leap from Hernandez and Gronkowski hasn't come close to happening for Devin McCourty. Brandon Marshall (seven catches, 139 yards and a TD), Vincent Jackson (two TDs), Stevie Johnson (an 11-yard TD catch -- and the Bills went after McCourty throughout the game) all had their way with McCourty. He's been better the last three weeks -- though tackling is still an issue -- and the Patriots need him to be close to his 2010 form if this defense is going to be anything resembling one that can win games against QB's like Drew Brees and Rodgers. The safeties were a concern heading into the season and that hasn't changed. Pat Chung has played well enough, but James Ihedigbo (who has played better over the last two weeks, to be fair), Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown haven't been up to the task.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B
Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half in Miami and hasn't missed since (10-of-11 overall with nothing even close to a pressure kick). Zoltan Mesko is 14th in the NFL with a 39.7 net average, but eight of his 18 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. No problems in the kicking game, and the return coverage has been -- with the exception of Joe McKnight's 198 yards (including an 88-yarder) for the Jets -- acceptable if not worthy of plaudits. Chris Price wrote on Monday that this has been a dependable group overall, and that's about right, I think. Nobody has been otherworldly, nobody has been a disaster (though penalties the last two weeks from Dane Fletcher isn't going to recall Larry Izzo). Julian Edelman hasn't been a game-change or a liability as a kick returner.
COACHING -- B
Same argument we've been having for the last couple of years -- should we blame Bill Belichick the coach or Bill Belichick the GM (or whatever title he has) for the defensive ineptitude? Again, Belichick is supposed to be, what, one of the three or four top defensive minds in NFL history? And the 2011 Patriots are 32nd in total yards allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed, 32nd in net yards per attempt and 28th in first downs allowed. The Patriots gave up 488, 470, 448 and 504 yards of offense in the first four weeks. These are things we will not hear when Belichick has his weekend in Canton. But 5-1 is 5-1, and one could easily argue that it's very much to Belichick's credit as a coach that he can go a combined 19-3 over the last two regular seasons with a defense that has been as leaky as the Red Sox front office after a managerial firing. What strikes you most over the first six weeks is the flaws of the opposing coaches. We've seen the unprepared (who can forget the sight of multiple Dolphins cramping up and sucking serious wind in the second quarter), undisciplined (what you saw from Richard Seymour in the Raiders game -- two 15-yard personal foul penalties in a TD drive -- did not happen when Belichick was his coach) and the gutless (Jason Garrett's ode to the weak-willed). Belichick isn't perfect, but he still remains the standard for NFL coaches. But to keep that title he needs to start winning games in January and February again.