Report Card time and we'll start here:
Is it possible that Tom Brady is underrated?
I know that question might want to make the anti-Brady crowd vomit up every piece of food they have ever digested, but I only ask because of this: Brady is putting together of one of the two dozen or so best seasons by a quarterback in NFL history and no one is talking about it. Crickets and tumbleweed kind of quiet. The afternoon programming at NESN has generated more buzz.
Tom Brady is on pace to throw for 5,227 yards (which would break Dan Marino's 27-year NFL record) and 40 touchdowns. His 105.9 passer rating would rank 17th all-time, and he's peaking now. His last four games? A total of 11 touchdowns, zero picks, and passer ratings of 118.4, 109.2, 134.6, 114.9. An absolute master at his craft, at worst one of the three or four best at his position in history playing at the height of his considerable powers and guess what?
Chad Ochocinco -- one more catch this season than Brady has TD passes over the last four weeks -- is a bigger story around here. The defense is a bigger story around here. Booing Adam Vinatieri is a bigger story around here.
I get, though, I really do. We take Brady for granted, it's easier to bitch about what's wrong with a team than to sit around and talk about a swell passer rating. That's not me playing the "Shame on You People" card, either. It happens all the time. Brady has spoiled us, and we expect this kind of season, even at 34. As great as he's been this season, it's only shaping up to be the third-best of his career. Probably it wasn't a big deal when Larry Bird averaged 29.9 points in 1988, or when Bobby Orr led the league in assists and points in 1975. The immortals (and Brady is right there with those guys) can numb sometimes. It takes a blown ACL or Achilles surgery or an early retirement to wake us up.
Also Brady isn't even leading the league in passing yards or touchdowns. It's hard to figure out what these numbers mean now; it's not a lot different than home runs a decade ago (with hopefully one major difference). Maybe 25 guys will throw more than 5,000 yards over the next 27 years, it's sure trending that way.
But there are a great many franchises out there that have never had a quarterback play within 50 miles of what Brady has done this season. And that is also true for the pre-Brady New England Patriots.
Does that mean you'll suddenly care more than usual if Brady throws for 342 yards and three TDs next week? Nope. You'll do what everyone else (hand raised) will be doing: Waiting to see if this is the week Ochocinco breaks out. And all the tales of Tom Ramsey, Hugh Millen, Scott Secules and Tommy Hodson isn't going to change that.
And that's how we got to underrated.
To the report card we go …
QUARTERBACK -- A
Here's all you need to know: The Patriots -- after a little funk to start out -- scored a TD on four straight drives in the second and third quarter. On those four drives Brady was 23-of-26 for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
RUNNING BACKS -- C-
Tempted to bail out and and give this group an incomplete. When the game was really a game, the Patriots showed zero commitment to running. I have to believe -- against the NFL's 31st ranked rushing defense -- that if they had shown minimal interest in a little ground n' pound there would've been some success. But instead we got TD drives of five passes, zero rushes to close out the first half and seven passes, zero rushes to start the second half. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (six carries, 14 yards, one TD) and Danny Woodhead (four rushes, 12 yards) weren't needed and didn't do much when they got a swing. Kevin Faulk had a 13-yard catch on the final drive of the first half -- using the referee as a screen -- and Stevan Ridley (eight carries, 33 yards) didn't have a carry until the score was Patriots 24, Colts 3 with 8:14 left in the third quarter.
RECEIVERS -- A
Listen, I understand this isn't Jerry Rice we're talking about, but Wes Welker has played this position -- for this team -- about as well as it can be played, right? He leads the NFL with 93 catches (24 more than any other wide receiver) and 1,253 yards. Again, we can debate if anything matters for a guy like Welker against the Colts -- what are we going to learn? -- but stats are stats: He was targeted 11 times and caught 11 passes. I'm not Will Hunting or even Gerald Lambeau, but I'm pretty sure that's close to 100 percent. Rob Gronkowski, of course, had the two TD catches, beating Antoine Bethea (and maybe he doesn't make a play if he's in position, but he wasn't even close on either TD) for both scores. Gronkowski had the third TD via the rush (lateral), with a superb block from Welker on the play. Aaron Hernandez (seven catches, 43 yards) had a key third-down catch on the first TD drive, as did Deion Branch (three catches, 37 yards) and Chad Ochocinco. Ochocinco now has 12 catches on the season, one more than Welker had on Sunday and four fewer than his number of tweets on Monday (my favorite? "The majority of traffic in Foxboro is during our games, I don't think a casino will warrant the same issues don't u think?")
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A-
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis: Zero solo tackles, zero sacks, one quarterback hit. Matt Light and Nate Solder were outstanding in limiting the two players who could have potentially made this an interesting game (you never know … a sack or two and perhaps Brady changes a little, we've seen it this year at times, plus maybe the Colts get a turnover or two out of it). Nick McDonald stepped in at center (fourth-string, making his NFL debut) and looked an awful lot like a 10-year veteran. Very impressive stuff. The running game was quiet, and the line has to take some blame for that (though Brian Waters had a nice block on the Green-Ellis TD rush), but this was close to a clean effort from this group. Plenty of time was given to Brady to carve up the Colts during that four-touchdown stretch.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Vince Wilfork (10 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and two quarterback hits) was the lone dominant defensive player on the field Sunday. Ryan Diem has been a solid starter for the Colts for a decade, but he had no chance against Wilfork, who beat the guard for a first-quarter sack of Dan Orlovsky and knocked him down while picking up a solo tackle behind the line of scrimmage on Donald Brown. Wilfork also stopped Joseph Addai for no gain on a first-and-goal rush from the New England 1 on the 19-play drive that ended with a field goal. This hasn't been the best season of Wilfork's career by any measure, but he was terrific on Sunday. Kyle Love stepped up and was a factor in limiting the Colts to just a 3.2 yard per carry average (a stop for loss on Addai, five tackles) and Andre Carter was also strong in limiting the rushing attack. It should be noted that both Carter and Mark Anderson have gone without a sack (or quarterback hit) the last two weeks.
LINEBACKERS -- B-
Jerod Mayo (seven tackles) had his first career interception, diving in front of a fourth-quarter pass intended for Austin Collie. Pretty impressive play from a guy in the middle of an up-and-down season. Mayo was strong when it mattered on Sunday, knocking down a goal-line pass intended for Jacob Tamme (in truth, a putrid throw from Orlovsky, I'm thinking Roethlisberger is going to make that play in January) and stopping Addai for a loss on a third-down carry at the end of the second quarter, allowing the Patriots to stop the clock and get the ball back with enough time to pit together a TD drive. Niko Koutouvides started over Gary Guyton, had seven tackles and was in on a number of rush attempts, though he struggled in coverage against Tamme (gave up a pair of catches, including a 20-yarder in the first quarter). Rob Ninkovich had a third-down sack on the aforementioned first-and-goal from the NE 1 drive, blowing past Jeff Linkenbach to help force what looked to be a sure touchdown into an Adam Vinatieri (hey, let's all boo one of the two or three most clutch performers in the history of the city!) 32-yard field goal.
DEFENSIVE BACKS -- D+
Garbage time or not, this is still a team on pace to break the NFL record for passing yards allowed in a season. Dan Orlovsky -- hasn't started a game since 2008 -- completed 81 percent of his passes and threw for 353 yards. I'm fine with Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, you can even sell me on some improvement from the linebackers, but everything we've seen from this group all season indicates that it will get exposed in the playoffs. The good from Sunday? Nate Jones (starting) forced a third-down incomplete pass by tipping a throw intended for Reggie Wayne, had another pass defensed and picked up a solo tackle for no gain on Addai in the first quarter. Yup, the Colts really suck. And yes, this isn't exactly a brutal standard. But Jones did nothing on Sunday to suggest that he can't play some kind of role in this secondary. And of course we all had Matthew Slater starting at safety. The verdict? Mixed, but leaning toward encouraging. He did have seven tackles and forced a fumble, but was nowhere to be found on Pierre Garcon's first TD catch. Not a disaster, but as a defender he's more Troy Brown than Julian Edelman. Sterling Moore was the cornerback absolutely torched by Garcon on that TD (no help from Slater) and right now doesn't seem ready to seriously contribute to an NFL team. If you want to give Devin McCourty a pass for his hideous performance on Sunday -- hadn't played in nearly a month with a shoulder injury -- that's OK, I suppose. But the reality is this: McCourty has been a better radio guest than cornerback this season (listen to D&C on Friday if the reference eludes you). He's been embarrassed by Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, Stevie Johnson and now Garcon, who beat McCourty on a 40-yarder (made no attempt to defend the pass) and a 12-yard TD catch on back-to-back fourth-quarter snaps. McCourty also took a lousy angle on Donald Brown's TD rush, allowing Brown to get to the outside and in the end zone.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B+
Zoltan Mesko averaged 46.8 yards on his four punts, with two downed inside the 20-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski's kickoffs were solid and he made his lone field-goal attempt (39 yards). Julian Edelman averaged 24.0 yards on his two kickoff returns (Joe Lefeged averaged 17.0 yards on his two retunrs for the Colts) and turned what should have been an immediate tackle into an 11-yard punt return. Also this: The Colts attempted three onside kicks -- a penalty on the Patriots led to a second chance after the first onside kick -- and the Patriots received all three cleanly (Koutouvides, Gronkowski, Branch).
COACHING -- C+
Look, Belichick preaches 60 minutes, does he not? Were we not told all week that the Patriots were going to take the Colts seriously? Did that football team look ready to play during the first 15 or final 15 minutes of that game? Nope. And that's on Belichick. I don't care if this was a glorified exhibition game or not -- and clearly it was -- this was a flat team at the start and at the finish. Worth noting: Belichick challenged (and won) the Kevin Faulk fumble in the first quarter. The Patriots are 6-of-8 on challenges this season, more than double the NFL average of success (36.6% heading into Sunday's games -- thanks to the folks at ESPN for that stat).