Report Card time and we'll start with two questions:
What do you think goes through Wes Welker's head when he sees DeSean Jackson flat-out quit on a football field? And do you think there's a chance in the world the prospect of taking a hit from Tracy White -- not exactly Dick Butkus circa 1966 -- would ever inspire fear in Welker?
Maybe he'll turn it all around, maybe Sunday's benching will be the wake-up call (and maybe Vince Young will win seven Super Bowls) but it's hard to ignore the obvious: For all his talent -- and he's got plenty of that -- DeSean Jackson simply Doesn't Get It.
And Wes Welker and Deion Branch do.
Those guys make mistakes, drop passes (Branch has been MIA at times this season) but you'll never see them quit on routes, skip team meetings, bitch at quarterbacks. They just keep their heads down and play football. Deion Branch is deep in the back nine. We get that (and DeSean Jackson will be 25 next week). But in a game with Welker, Jackson, Rob Gronkowksi, Aaron Hernandez and Brent Celek, Branch was the best receiver on the field Sunday, catching six passes for 125 yards. Branch's 63-yard catch and run in the second quarter very starkly illustrated two things: His speed is gone but he has made the full transition to Wily Veteran.
And all Welker did on Sunday is catch eight passes for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He leads the NFL with 82 catches and 1,143 yards receiving and is set to make the kind of money Jackson and Drew Rosenhaus have deluded themselves into thinking they deserve.
Deion Branch is 32 years old, three years removed from ACL surgery and nowhere near the player he was in his prime years with the Patriots. Wes Welker is 31 years old and just about 23 months removed from blowing out his ACL. Neither has Jackson's speed and both fall short when given the "upside" test next to the Philadelphia wideout.
But if you watched Sunday's game there is no way -- for this team, for this season -- you'd trade either for Jackson. Not a chance.
To the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- A
It wasn't quite vintage Tom Brady -- he missed on a couple of throws early and actually should have been picked off on a third-down throw to Wes Welker on the opening drive -- but it was just a half notch below, as Brady completed 24-of-34 passes for 361 yards, three TDs and zero picks (134.6 passer rating). Two thoughts: Brady was throwing the ball hard on Sunday. There was some serious velocity on a pair of fourth-quarter throws over the middle to Rob Gronkowski (the second for a TD), for example. I have no idea if his elbow is hurting (and neither do you and neither does anyone covering the Patriots) but he sure looked healthy Sunday. And Brady was at his best on the opening drive of the third quarter, completing all five passes for 60 yards and a TD to Welker. What you saw from Brady was a quarterback in complete control of the game -- patient when he needed to be, not affected by an occasional pass rush, using play-action to set up key plays (see the first TD pass to Welker) and keeping the Eagles in constant retreat with the no-huddle. There have been spots this season where Brady hasn't been a franchise QB. On Sunday, Brady was Reason No. 1 for the win.
RUNNING BACKS -- C
BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran better than his numbers (14 carries, 44 yards) would tell you. He looked really strong in the first quarter (10 carries, 42 yards) and scored a pair of TDs in the game (hadn't had a TD since Week 5, a stretch that saw him fail several times in goal-line spots). So that's two straight games that we've seen Green-Ellis appear healthy if not overwhelmingly productive. He wasn't a factor in the last three quarters, but at least he wasn't giving you the tentative carries we had seen over the last month or so. Danny Woodhead (five carries, 20 yards) had a 10-yard rush in the second quarter (nice block from Sebastian Vollmer to spring Woodhead) and Shane Vereen had one highlight, beating Brian Rolle to the edge on a second-and-9 rush to pick up a first down on the final TD drive.
RECEIVERS -- A-
The tight ends (combined 10 catches, 121 yards and a TD) were again difference makers, with Aaron Hernandez making a superb catch and run -- making three Eagles miss -- on an 18-yard reception on the third-quarter TD drive. It seems that Hernandez has had a relatively quiet year (next to Gronkowski, who has lapped him as a player in their second seasons) but he's still on pace for 68 catches and 700 yards (and that's missing two games). Gronkowski (four catches, 59 yards) beat Nate Allen (who was hideous in this game, just pathetic, but the man can dance after giving up 14-yard catches) over the middle on his fourth-quarter TD catch and had a couple of key blocks early for Green-Ellis. Tiquan Underwood paid tribute to the mid-90's Saturday Night Live (for my nickel, the peak years of the show, twice as funny as the overrated, bloated early years) by breaking out the old Mr. No-Depth Perception skit in the second quarter, failing to LIFT HIS ARMS on a Brady pass that would have been an easy TD if caught. Can Taylor Price really be this bad?
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B
The official stats have the Eagles with two quarterback hits on Brady, leading one to wonder if the official statistician was watching the game with one eye on "Cobra" -- the landmark of American cinema that got the back-to-back treatment on Spike TV. ("Cobretti, no hard feelings. You, uh, kind of overdid it around here. I personally would have looked for a more subtle solution, but that's not your style. No hard feelings.") Brady was hit -- by my count -- five times on the first two drives. Logan Mankins (what a joke it'll be when he's named to the Pro Bowl and Brian Waters isn't) was beaten twice by Cullen Jenkins on the opening series, Trent Cole got past Matt Light and knocked Brady down and Mike Patterson sacked Brady after breaking out the swim move on Vollmer. But -- as has been the case in recent weeks -- the line settled in and gave Brady plenty of protection for the final three quarters of the game. It helps when you establish the run -- and again, a near 50/50 split of passes and rushes (34 passes, 36 rushes) equaled an efficient performance -- but the line gave Brady time on several occasions to find his second and third options on both second-quarter TD drives and the third-quarter score. As for the running game, Mankins (and the aforementioned Gronkowski) helped spring Green-Ellis on a pair of rushes and both Vollmer and Nate Solder (plenty of work again as a third tight end) opened a hole for Green-Ellis on his second TD rush.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B
Just one sack for this group -- Kyle Love in garbage time -- and very little pressure on Vince Young, but here's the numbers you'd sign for five minutes before kickoff: LeSean McCoy, 31 yards (three more than Tom Brady) on 10 carries. The top rushing attack in the NFL was nowhere. McCoy was able to get to the outside exactly once -- picking up 22 yards on a second-down carry -- and that was it. Andre Carter was a non-factor, and Mark Anderson was also very quiet (though he could have been credited with half a sack on the Love play) but the line has to be recognized for the work against McCoy, the third-down failures of the Eagles (4-of-13) and the fourth-and-goal stop in the third quarter.
LINEBACKERS -- B-
Rob Ninkovich had a sack (though it should have been a penalty -- an obvious facemask on Young) and a solo tackle on McCoy for a loss of four yards. Gary Guyton actually played but did zero to impress, failing to make a play on McCoy's first-quarter TD rush. He has had an absolutely abysmal season -- couldn't you see him killing this team in a playoff game? Jerod Mayo had three tackles (one for a loss) but still doesn't resemble the Jerod Mayo of last season. Tracy White did not turn his head when giving up a 23-yard catch over the middle to Brent Celek -- sort of remarkable (or maybe not) when you realize it was almost an exact replica of the catch made by Jake Ballard against White on the final drive of the loss to the Giants. I'm OK with the idea that this defense has played better over the last couple of weeks -- you can make progress against Tyler Palko and Vince Young -- but the linebacking group is still a major concern.
SECONDARY -- B-
Vince Young's 400 yards passing -- as a number -- really means nothing. This game was over with six and a half minutes left in the third quarter, and Young tanked up in El Garbage Time. I'll give the folks who believe this is an improving defense that crumb. But let's be fair -- if DeSean Jackson doesn't fail to haul in two catchable balls we might be talking about a different game. Look, you either think this is a spotty but ultimately opportunistic defense or you think they are a group that can beat the weaklings but will crumble when they face an elite QB in January. There seems to be no middle ground. And this secondary was shaky to start on Sunday -- Kyle Arrington was beaten by Riley Cooper on the opening drive for 58 yards and Antwaun Molden (with no safety help) was burned by Jackson for 44 yards -- but also made plays when it had to make plays. Molden got away with a little push on Jackson on his INT -- though it was not worth a PI call -- and took advantage of a poorly thrown ball by Young. And Arrington made up for his lousy play on the drive (gave up three catches to Jackson) with great coverage on Celek on the fourth-and-1 stop at the New England 2. James Ihedigbo came from the other side of the field on the previous play, stopping McCoy for no gain on third down. Sterling Moore had a touchdown-saving tackle on McCoy's only long run, but was beaten and bailed out by Jackson's end-zone drop. Julian Edelman still has moments where he looks lost on defense (but not nearly as often as, say, two weeks ago), but I'm not sure any player on that defense can match his aggression. He made an open-field tackle of Young and also hit the quarterback on a blitz. Edelman has been a slight disappointment -- remember, this is a seventh-round pick and converted quarterback we're talking about -- as a receiver but has been a much-needed addition to this secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B
Yup, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 35-yard field-goal, but he did later make a 45-yarder and was again strong on kickoffs. Zoltan Mesko was outstanding, averaging 48.3 yards on three punts, placing two inside the 20-yard line. The coverage and return units were solid, highlighted by an Edelman 14-yard punt return that saw him break three tackles.
COACHING -- A-
Adjustments, adjustments, adjustments. We've seen Belichick and the coaching staff make 'em over the last three weeks. Slow starts, sure, and the staff deserves to take a hit for that (the Patriots looked totally unprepared for Young to come out throwing on the first two drives). But Belichick and his crew have won the in-game battle against Rex Ryan, Todd Haley and Andy Reid the last three weeks. Another superior game-plan from Bill O'Brien.