Report Card time and Patriots 37, Jets 16 doesn't change, in my view, the ultimate destination of the 2011 New England Patriots. This team simply doesn't have the defensive talent to win three (or four) playoff games. Sorry.
But that doesn't take away what was a tremendous win on the road Sunday night. You saw Bill Belichick on the sideline at the end of the game. Hugs, smiles, fist pumps. He was a one-man Pete Carroll cover band. I don't think I remember him being as happy in a regular season game since the win over the Chargers in the week following SpyGate. And you know what will do that? A blowout win over Rex Ryan and the Jets on the biggest stage in the NFL, with a defense so banged up that NBC didn't have video of two the starters introducing themselves (has that ever happened?) and a team that inspired doubt all over the league for the entire week leading into the game in New Jersey. Belichick loves the Us Against The World Card, and he got to play it on Sunday. A hugely satisfying win for the HC of the NEP and understandably so.
So the red pen gets a break and the ol' written lap dance returns this week as we go the report card ...
QUARTERBACK -- A-
For the first quarter-plus on Sunday night Tom Brady looked an awful lot like the Tom Brady who I felt was largely responsible for the loss to the Giants a week ago. Poorly thrown balls -- missed Deion Branch badly on a 3rd-down pass on the opening drive, skipped a ball a couple of yards short to Gronkowski on the next drive, a throw behind Branch that should have been picked by Kyle Wilson -- and general unease under minimal pressure from the Jets gave us a Twitterverse consensus: Brady is playing hurt. "When" replaced "if" when it came to offseason elbow surgery (he ices it after practice!) And listen, that may wind up being the case. We have no clue if that's going to happen, but what we do know to be true is this: It's almost impossible to play the position better than Brady played it over the final 30 minutes against the Jets. And he was at his best during the 13-play, 84-yard fourth-quarter drive that ended with Deion Branch doing his Fireman Ed dance in the end zone. Remember, this was a 23-16 game with 14:55 left in the fourth quarter after the Plaxico Burress TD. Very much in doubt. But Brady just did whatever he wanted to the Jets on the drive, completing all seven passes for 61 yards. He went no-huddle for much of the drive (used it frequently in the final drive of first half and most of second), taking advantage of a gassed and confused Jets defense to connect with Aaron Hernandez (wide open) and Deion Branch (ditto) for eight and 13 yards to move the ball to the New York 39. At this point, astoundingly, the front four of the Jets resembled the 480-pounders trying to run up a hill in Week 1 of "The Biggest Loser." These guys are paid millions of dollars, right? Four plays later Brady made what I thought was the play of the game, hitting Welker in stride on 3rd-and-4 with Calvin Pace literally at his feet (Danny Woodhead whiffed on a pickup) to pick up the first down at the Jets 9 (and Cris Collinsworth was right -- it's been a long time since Brady made that many plays with opposing players in the backfield). Two plays later it was Branch for the TD and a master class in NFL Quarterbacking was completed.
RUNNING BACKS -- C-
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (eight carries, eight yards) figured to be heavy in the mix, but he was a non-factor. Again, reckless speculation time, but you have to wonder how serious this toe injury is. Green-Ellis in no way resembles the back that dominated the Jets earlier in the season, just very tentative at this point. Kevin Faulk finished with just eight yards on five carries and Stevan Ridley continues to be a mystery. Danny Woodhead (who looked to be buried in the RB rotation two weeks ago) was by far the most productive back on Sunday, picking up 38 yards on seven carries. He was key in that fourth-quarter TD drive, rushing for 18 yards on three carries. Woodhead's blocking continues to an issue, however, as he was bulldozed by Jamaal Westerman on the second-quarter safety and missed Pace on the aforementioned third-down conversion to Welker.
RECEIVERS -- B
Rob Gronkowski (eight catches, 113 yards, two touchdowns) is on pace for 92 catches, 1260 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. I understand we've got a long way to go, but if he managed to keep this pace it would be as good a season as any tight end has ever had in the NFL. I'm serious. Shannon Sharpe never caught more than 87 passes in a season, his career best for touchdowns was 10. Tony Gonzalez had 102 catches for 1,258 yards in 2004, but with just seven touchdowns. Antonio Gates doesn't have a season to better it, nor did Kellen Winslow or Ben Coates or Ozzie Newsome. Yup, the game has changed, of course, and 60 catches in 1982 means more than it does today, but Gronkowski is playing the position at a historic level. He was a nightmare matchup again for the Jets, with Eric Smith unable to come close to slowing him down (Gronkowski's first TD came with Smith on coverage). Donald Strickland was beat on the other Gronkowski TD, as he was simply physically unable to matchup with the tight end. The Jets even put Darrelle Revis on Gronkowski for a couple of fourth-quarter snaps, but the damage was done.
Gronkowski has lapped Aaron Hernandez as a football player (that argument is on the shelf), but Hernandez did contribute with four catches for 41 yards. Deion Branch and Wes Welker weren't dominant, but the two combined for 11 catches for 104 yards and the Branch TD. Chad Ochocinco had the two first-quarter catches for 65 yards (including the 53-yard catch that could have been a TD with a better Brady throw) but stepped out of bounds on his first catch, limiting what could have been a significant yard-gainer. But given where the Patriots are with Ochocinco, it's fair to call Sunday's performance encouraging.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Brady attempted 39 passes and the Jets registered one quarterback hit (Jamaal Westerman on the safety, which was a missed block by Sebastian Vollmer). The Patriots will sign for that ratio every time, obviously. And when Brady needed time to make a play -- all three TD passes stand nicely as examples -- the O-Line provided him with plenty of protection. Not sure how much of the blame for the struggles of Green-Ellis/Faulk/Ridley on the ground should go to the line -- Green-Ellis and Ridley just seem to have no burst right now -- but Logan Mankins (his best game in weeks) and Brian Waters opened holes for Woodhead on the three fourth-quarter rushes.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- A
Andre Carter was a wrecking crew for the Patriots and really almost carries this grade alone, picking up 4.5 sacks (a franchise record) and four other hits on Mark Sanchez. Carter embarrassed rookie Matthew Mulligan (who had a really rough night) on third down to end the Jets’ second drive and was untouched (the Jets O-Line seemed distracted by a Jerod Mayo blitz) on his second sack, a second-quarter pulldown of Sanchez. He overwhelmed D’Brickashaw Ferguson (no small feat) on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter (garbage time, sure, but we count 'em all) to collect his final two sacks. Carter now has nine sacks on the season, fourth in the NFL. If you want to label both Albert Hayensworth and Ochocinco as busts -- and I would agree with you at this point -- it's fair to at least acknowledge that two other pickups (Waters and Carter) have played at a Pro Bowl level. Mark Anderson followed up one of Carter's sacks with a tackle of Sanchez just past the line of scrimmage and later split a sack with Carter after using a spin move to free himself from Wayne Hunter (I thought Anderson deserved solo credit for the sack, seemed Carter came in late).
LINEBACKERS -- B+
How about Rob Ninkovich? A pair of interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick for a 12-yard TD that gave the Patriots a 37-16 lead and put the game away. Ninkovich jumped in front of LaDainian Tomlinson on the Mark Sanchez pass (with help from Tracy White, who flattened Dustin Keller, which allowed Ninkovich to jump the route, Sanchez never saw him) and converted the pick-six. Credit should also go to Mark Anderson, who pressured Sanchez on the play. Ninkovich also had a solo tackle for a loss on Shonn Greene, tossing Mulligan out of the way on the edge to bring the back down. Jeff Tarpinian (can he speak? Did he pass on a Sunday Night Football intro for political reasons?) had never played a single defensive snap as an NFL player before kickoff. The verdict? Nothing spectacular, but nothing even approaching a disaster. The truth is that he played better than Gary Guyton has all season. Jerod Mayo had five solo tackles -- including one for a loss on Greene -- tipped the pass that was eventually intercepted by Ninkovich.
SECONDARY -- A-
Look, it helps when the defense gets nine hits on a quarterback who already seemed to be suffering a semi-crisis in confidence (How I missed that blank stare from Sanchez, it made me long for the glimpses of idiocy we would see from him on "Hard Knocks") but given the personnel the Patriots had in the secondary on Sunday this was a superior effort by any standard. Sterling Moore? Julian Edelman? Philip Adams? Let's be fair here. And there were mistakes -- Plaxico Burress easily beat Antwaun Molden for a touchdown, Devin McCourty gave up three receptions on the opening drive and would leave the game after being blasted by Moore in the second quarter -- but the positives dramatically outweighed the negatives. Kyle Arrington nearly had his sixth pick of the season in the third quarter and had a pass defensed on Burress on the Jets' opening drive of the third quarter. This has been one of the two or three worst defensive backfields in the NFL this season (and that's being conservative), playing without its best safety and -- for a majority of the game -- without its best cornerback (having a lousy season, but still). And Mark Sanchez finished with a 64.3 passer rating and none of the skill players -- Burress, Holmes, Dustin Keller -- had a 100-yard game.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- A-
Niko Koutouvides recovered a third-quarter Joe McKnight fumble, with help from Rob Ninkovich (ripped the ball away from Strickland after it appeared he first recovered after the McKnight drop) and Matthew Slater (took McKnight out of the play with hit after fumble). That play highlighted a solid overall night of work from the coverage teams, limiting McKnight (who was a force in the first matchup) in six kickoff returns and holding the Jets to a 4.0 yards per punt return average. Zoltan Mesko was superb, averaging 46.8 yards on four punts, with two inside the 20-yard line. And Stephen Gostkowski connected on all three field-goal attempts, including a 50-yarder in the first quarter.
COACHING -- A
The decision to go heavy no-huddle on offense throughout the second half was a terrific one by Bill O'Brien, and having your players in the physical condition to do so -- unlike Rex's fellas -- is a credit to Belichick and his staff. This was -- for one night, a least -- a complete coaching mismatch.