Report Card time and Sunday's loss to the Giants is on Tom Brady and Tom Brady alone.
Yup, I saw Eli Manning go down the field twice in the final four minutes of the game. Sure, I saw Sergio Brown and Tracy White and Kyle Arrington fail to stop Mario Manningham and Jake Ballard. And there were special teams screw-ups and lousy coaching decisions and, as always, there is Ochocinco to kick around.
But if Tom Brady plays like Tom Brady -- or even 75 cents on the Brady dollar -- for the first 50 minutes the Patriots win this game. No way around that.
Three turnovers -- two interceptions and a fumble -- led to 10 points for the Giants. And the one turnover that didn't turn into points for the Giants -- the second-quarter Mathias Kiwanuka interception, a forced pass attempt to Deion Brach that never had a chance -- killed a promising Patriots drive at the Giants 29.
There were throws that finished 10 yards in front of receivers -- a skipped ball to Rob Gronkowkski in the first quarter -- and deep balls that should've been intercepted (a third quarter end-zone look to Ochocinco was dropped by Corey Webster). There was a consistent pattern of throwing behind receivers -- Danny Woodhead on the third quarter drop, Wes Welker actually made a 21-yard sideline catch in the second quarter that he had to come back on, the third-down throw to Gronkowski on the play before the fourth-quarter TD -- and his second INT (Deon Grant) was thrown without even looking at the coverage (the pass was intended for Rob Gronkowski).
This wasn't the case of a quarterback running for his life, either. There was some pressure, but Brady was hit just three times on 49 pass attempts. And I'm not sure this was the Giants frustrating Brady with different looks. Brady just wasn't anywhere close to sharp.
When you view the Patriots from a Big Picture perspective, a Super Bowl or Bust outlook, Brady is probably the very last player you are concerned about. And correctly so, I think. This is still the reigning MVP, on pace for 5,400 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. And he did get them into the end zone on that final drive. But let's also be fair about this: Tom Brady is in the second year of a $78 million contract ($48.5 million guaranteed). He's paid like a franchise quarterback, treated like a franchise quarterback and acts like a franchise quarterback. And most of the time he plays like a franchise quarterback. But twice this season -- a quarter of the games for a 2011 Patriots team that looks an awful lot like pretenders right now -- Brady has been Reason No. 1 for a Patriots loss. Four interceptions leading to 24 points in the defeat at Buffalo and now this. And for a team with a seriously flawed defense that cannot happen. Tom Brady doesn't have to be brilliant every week for the Patriots to win, but he can't be the reason this team loses games.
To the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- D
One more to grow on ... Brady also missed an open Aaron Hernandez in the end zone on third-and-goal at the end of the first half. Not an easy throw (there was some pressure), but it's the kind of play Brady has to make.
Number that stands out: 20. Brady is on pace to throw 20 interceptions this season. His career high is 14.
RUNNING BACKS -- C+
Ready? The Giants entered the game ranked 27th against the run. On the very first offensive play from scrimmage BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 18 yards. Total number of rushes the rest of the game from Green-Ellis? Eleven. And it's not as if the Patriots gave his carries to someone else, either. Danny Woodhead had seven carries for 26 yards and Stevan Ridley had three carries for 10 yards. Remember the balanced attack that we saw against the Raiders (30 passes, 30 rushes) and Jets (33 passes, 35 rushes)? On Sunday it was 49 passes, 24 rushes. And Brady wasn't exactly vintage and the Patriots weren't down two touchdowns the entire game and forced to throw. Terrible play calling from Bill O'Brien.
Number that stands out: 13
That's the total rushes for Ridely in the four games since his 97-yard performance vs. the Raiders. Seems a serious misuse of talent.
RECEIVERS -- C
Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, last week vs. Pittsburgh: 13 catches, 133 yards
Everyone else vs. Pittsburgh: nine catches, 65 yards
Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski vs. the Giants: 17 catches, 237 yards
Everyone else vs. the Giants: 11 catches, 105 yards
Is that just that these two guys are that good or are we looking at a balance problem so glaring that if it were a movie subject in 1982 Dudley Moore would have to play it?
Where is Deion Branch? Just two catches on Sunday (one in the first quarter, one on the final drive) for 21 yards. Does he look anything close to a No. 2 receiver right now? Take away his seven catches for 74 yards against the Jets -- not exactly fair, I understand -- and he has 10 catches since Week 2. Aaron Hernandez had four catches for 35 yards and the TD, and it could have been two if Brady could have made the throw at the end of the first half. Julian Edelman is an absolute non-factor in the passing game (which is frankly an upgrade over his recent special teams work) and Chad Ochocinco continues to be a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. He's now at the point where you look for positives in a game where he was targeted five times and made zero catches. Hey, he had some separation! Maybe it was Brady's fault that time! He's trying really, really hard! He's gone from 90 catches to the kid who wears a collared shirt to Little League games in three short years. Bottom line: Ochocinco sure looks to have a consistent communication problem with Brady. No one else seems to have that problem. So if Ochocinco isn't going to make up for that by, you know, catching some passes there is no reason for him to be on the field.
Numbers that stand out: Nine and 136. That was Welker's catches and receiving yards on Sunday. It's also Ochocinco's catches and receiving yards this season.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B-
Even if Logan Mankins continues to perform at the level we've seen this season (meaning, by his standard, mediocre) he will make the Pro Bowl. Call it the Bruce Armstrong Rule -- all reputation. Mankins had another lousy game on Sunday, picking up another false start penalty (his third in two weeks), losing Michael Boley on the play that saw Boley force the fumble on Brady and whiffing on a block on a failed third-and-2 Woodhead rush. Mankins was the best offensive lineman in the NFL last season and I thought deserved the $51 million extension. But he's been just another guy through half of this season. The rest of the group played pretty well, far better than I thought before watching the game for a second time. Look, Brady threw the ball 49 times and was hit just three times and the Patriots averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Both Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer struggled with Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul pressured Brady at times (and picked up a coverage sack) but it was a perfectly acceptable outing against a top pass rush. And on the final drive -- particualry the final play, where Brady had all the time he needed to wait for Gronkowski to come out of his break in the end zone -- was flawless.
Number that stands out: Five. The Patriots had eight hits on Manning, the Giants three on Brady. If I told you before the game the spread on QB hits would be plus-5 for New England is there any way you'd have Giants 24, Patriots 20?
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C+
Invisible for the final two drives? Pretty much, yep, so C+ is the highest we'll go. But for three-plus quarters this was a group that was very effective, as productive as they've been all season. Vince Wilfork had a solo tackle for a loss and two hits on Manning. The monster hit by Spikes on Ballard was helped by Kyle Love pressure, forcing Manning to get rid of the ball quickly. On the Giants' third series of the game, Gerard Warren was all over Manning on third down, forcing an incompletion. Even Albert Haynesworth had a dominant series (hey, it's a start -- were you expecting a good game from the guy?), drawing a holding call on David Diehl and knocking down Manning during a three-play stretch. Of course, Hayensworth was pancaked on the Brandon Jacobs TD rush and was irrelevant for nearly the entire game, but at least he's clearly moved ahead (or is it behind?) Ochocinco in the biggest bust derby, with BiBi Jones holding steady in third.
Number that stands out: Three. The number of seconds (combined) it should have taken Penn State to fire Joe Paterno and Adam Scott to fire Steve Williams. One is a tale of a moron and the other one of a monster, of course, but that doesn't change what has to happen. And I don't care if Paterno didn't do anything wrong legally or if he's won 40,000 games -- he had an idea of what was happening and he did nothing to stop it. Nothing. This isn't looking the other way when some greaseball booster slips a running back $5,000. This is literally the worst story I have ever seen associated with sports. And Joe Pa condoned it. He's Bernard Law with a Nike contract.
LINEBACKERS -- C-
Sorry, forgot to mention Andre Carter in the D-Line comments. It was his pressure that bothered Manning and forced the QB to try the floater into the end zone that was picked off by Arrington. Carter was also in with Warren on the third-down Manning incompletion, a play that also saw pressure from Rob Ninkovich. Brandon Spikes had the highlight hit on Ballard, but also missed two tackles in the opening drive. He did come in with help for Arrington to force an incompletion to Victor Cruz on a third-and-goal in the third quarter. Anyone notice Jerod Mayo out there? He was credited with six tackles, none were solo. The Patriots need game-changers on defense, and a healthy Mayo is one of the few players that could actually deliver that level of performance. We've seen it exactly once from Mayo this season (San Diego). Spikes and Gary Guyton weren't on the field for the final drive due to an injuries, so Tracy White took over and gave up the 28-yard catch to Ballard (I have no confidence that Spikes or Guyton makes a difference, a tremendous throw and catch) and was beat by the tight end for the game-winning TD. The play-action by Manning fooled White just enough for Ballard to get a step on him, setting up an easy TD toss.
Number that stands out: One. Total number of games with double-digit tackles for Mayo this season. After eight games last season he had six games with at least 10 tackles. Yes, I understand he's been hurt, but half a season of below standard play from Haynesworth, Mayo and Devin McCourty -- three huge upside guys -- is a major reason why this defense leads the NFL in total yardage allowed.
SECONDARY -- C
Again, a tale of two games. The Giants had one touchdown -- thanks to a Brady fumble -- and one third-down conversion in the first 51 minutes of the game. And the secondary was a key reason for the solid three-plus quarters with Kyle Arrington (twice the player that McCourty has been this season) as the standout. Arrington had the aforementioned tipped pass on a third-and-goal from the New England 4, turing a TD into a FG. There's four points saved. And his end-zone INT (on a pass intended for Mario Manningham, who had beat -- wait for it -- McCourty) saved the Patriots at least another three points. But Arrington was also a factor when the fit hit the ol' shan, torched by Manningham on the first fourth-quarter TD drive, correctly flagged for a 35-yard pass interference and giving up the TD catch. Sergio Brown was "surprised" by his PI call on the game-winning TD drive, but he absolutely ran into Victor Cruz before the pass arrived. It's an easy call that has to be made in that situation.
Number that stands out: Zero. Devin McCourty has zero interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C-
Julian Edelman fumbled a punt -- ultimately he was bailed out by Arrington's INT -- and Stephen Gostkowksi missed a 27-yard field goal. Usually that'd be reason to flunk this group, but Zoltan Mesko (45 yard average on five punts, none of which were returned) had a strong game and the Patriots did recover an Aaron Ross fumble off a punt (Ninkovich made the recovery, but it was the hustle of Matthew Slater -- diving to take Ross out of the play -- that allowed an easy recovery. Gostkowksi also made some amends with converted field goals of 32 and 45 yards.
Number that stands out: Four. Woodhead, McCourty, Edelman and Slater all returned kickoffs in the game, with McCourty's 24-yard fourth-quarter return the longest of the game for the Patriots.
COACHING -- D+
Same argument we've been having the last week or so: How much can we blame coaching for mistakes made by Tracy White and Sergio Brown? End of the day the ultimate blame has to start and end with Belichick the GM, but that doesn't forgive stuff like dopey penalties (12 men on the field, a delay of game following a TV timeout) and the complete abandonment of the running game.
Number that stands out: 415, or the number of weeks it's been since Belichick was coaching a team with a three-game losing streak. Think we'll see that streak end Sunday night?