Report Card time and we'll start with a question:
Does anyone think this defense is going to stop Tim Tebow?
That's not asked in praise (pun kind of intended) of Tebow, necessarily. He's been significantly better than I thought he would be, but there are very serious flaws in his game. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots would have exposed Tebow, confused Tebow, an 11-of-27 for 116 yards and three-INT kind of performance that might have even led Tebow to possibly wonder (only for a moment) if God had somehow decided to do something other than watch that football game.
But, as we've read a million times over the last two years, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel have left and taken Bill Belichick's genius with them. Remember the days when we all believed that Belichick could actually get into the mind of an opposing quarterback, particularly a young, inexperienced one? You're not going to hear much about that this week.
Here's the truth: Tim Tebow -- while still firmly in the Who Really Knows? stage -- is already a more proven NFL commodity than this Patriots defense. Not even close. There is no proof, none, that the group we've seen shredded week after week -- on pace to give up nearly 5,000 passing yards, most in history -- is suddenly going to figure it out and put a complete game together on Sunday. The opposing quarterback is largely irrelevant when Sterling Moore, James Ihedigbo, Matthew Slater and the rest of the fellas take the field. Tebow may not win on Sunday, but there's a very good chance he'll have his best game of the season. There is no statistical reason to think otherwise.
To the 'card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- C+
Yup, Brady finished with 363 yards and three touchdowns. And you'd have to classify two of the TD passes in the Great Play Category (the floater over the head of Ryan Kerrigan and the scramble away from Kerrigan and throw to Wes Welker). He was brilliant in the third quarter, completing 9-of-11 passes for 148 yards and the two touchdowns. If this were Rex Grossman or Brian Hoyer you'd be looking at a much higher grade. But Brady -- by his standard -- was spotty on Sunday. There were multiple communication breakdowns with receivers (I have no proof that this is the case, but it seems this has happened more this season than in the past), eye-opening inaccuracy (highlighted by a quick pass that must've sailed 10 yards too high for Danny Woodhead) and sloppy red-zone work. He missed a wide-open Gronkowski in the end zone in the first half and threw behind an open Welker on the play before the interception (more on that later). And, sure, Welker probably should've made the catch. But Brady had plenty of time, no one was near Welker, the throw was about three yards and it was still behind him. All that stuff, I suspect, had a lot more to do with the Brady/O'Brien showdown than Tiquan Underwood.
RUNNING BACKS -- C
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (five carries, 19 yards) wasn't part of the script. Just 16 carries for the backs on Sunday, with Woodhead taking half of them for 41 yards. Woodhead had three carries for 23 yards on a second-quarter drive that ended with a 23-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but that was really it in terms of any impact from the running game. Look, it worked -- hard to argue, really, with 27 points and 430 yards -- but 37-pass, 16-rush isn't the kind of split that usually leads to optimal performance for this offense.
RECEIVERS -- B
I wrote this on Sunday and it still looks about right Tuesday: Rob Gronkowski isn't the NFL MVP -- that's Aaron Rodgers and it'll be unanimous -- but there aren't five better candidates. The case? He's having the best season by any tight end in NFL history while playing for a team that has no third receiver (and an up-and-down second receiver) and a suspect defense but is still headed for 12 or 13 wins. Gronkowski had the two touchdowns (and a 49-yard catch-and carry of Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes) and a career-best 160 yards receiving against the Redskins, dominating matchups with Ryan Kerrigan and London Fletcher. Unless you have an elite cornerback with legitimate size I don't know how you plan against the guy right now. Aaron Hernandez was targeted seven times and finished with five catches for 84 yards (most yards receiving since Week 1). Lost in the sea of Gronkiness is that Hernandez is in the middle of a very productive stretch, with 18 catches over the last three weeks. Wes Welker had the touchdown and six other catches (86 yards). He's at 100 receptions for the season and has a very real shot -- depending, I guess, on what the Week 17 strategy is if seeding is locked up -- at breaking his own club record of 123 catches, which is also the second-highest total in NFL history. What should be most alarming about the interception wasn't the Brady/O'Brien theatrics but the idea that the Patriots think Chad Ochocinco isn't as good as Tiquan Underwood.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C+
Brady attempted 37 passes and was sacked once (and that -- a combined sack from Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen -- was more a result of a missed block by Woodhead than a failure by the line). Brian Orakpo had a hit on Brady but was largely a non-factor. It wasn't a clean effort from this group -- Brady was hit six times, with London Fletcher untouched three times on blitzes (there sure seemed to be some communication issues in the middle, which may have been a reason Nick McDonald was yanked for Ryan Wendell) -- but Brady was given time to make throws against a defense that hadn't allowed a 300-yard passer all season. Again, there just wasn't much of an attempt to run the ball, but the backs did pick up 71 yards on 16 carries (4.4 YPC). Logan Mankins and Nate Solder each had a pair of blocks to spring Woodhead in that second-quarter drive.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- C-
Well, Vince Wilfork has more interceptions than Devin McCourty and more touchdowns than Chad Ochocinco and Danny Woodhead combined. It was Wilfork who made a very heady play to recover Rex Grossman's first-quarter fumble, but it was should-be-Pro Bowler Andre Carter with the sack (blowing past Willie Smith) and forced fumble to set up the score. Carter had three hits on Grossman, including one that earned a Not-Technically-Bogus-But-What-The-Hell-Has-This-Come-To? roughing the passer call, which wiped out a Devin McCourty interception and led to a Redskins field goal. Mark Anderson has had a solid season but had his worst game Sunday. He was completely exposed in the running game, failing to contain the edge against Roy Helu on several plays, including a 15-yard first-quarter rush and a 12-yard gainer on the play following the (absolutely, indisputably blown) unnecessary roughness call against Wilfork in the third quarter. The Patriots never made Grossman feel uncomfortable (at least not consistently) and the Redskins rushed for 170 yards. Sure, Carter and Wilfork made some plays, but this wasn't anything close to a productive effort from this group.
LINEBACKERS -- C-
Give the linebackers this: It was Tracy White (with the hit on Santana Moss) and Jerod Mayo (with the interception) combining on the biggest play of the game. If you are still clinging to the All They Do Is Win or Bend But Don't Break garbage, you breathe for another week. It was the run-stopping where the failures truly arrived for the linebackers. The Redskins picked up massive chunks of yardage -- with Helu and Evan Royster (six carries, 44 yards on Sunday -- now has seven carries, 47 yards in his career) running heavily to the left side, with Dane Fletcher and Rob Ninkovich unable to make any impact. They were just invisible.
SECONDARY -- D
Rodney Harrison isn't wrong when he calls this the "worst secondary of the last decade" -- he's just lowballing it is all. They are on pace to give up the most passing yards in history. And you can almost live with it when guys like James Ihedigbo -- fooled on the reverse TD pass from Brandon Banks to Moss and beaten by David Anderson on a third-quarter TD -- play this way.
It's not Ihedigbo's fault. When he's healthy, he shouldn't be anything more than a depth guy, and he's playing hurt. It's Belichick the GM with whiff after whiff. But when a first-round pick puts together a sophomore season like the one we are seeing from Devin McCourty? That's an emerging disaster. You can always pick up scrap-heapers, the Sterling Moore types. But McCourty was supposed to be a foundation and has instead taken an immense step back this year.
He was beaten deep by Donte Stallworth on a 51-yard pass in the first quarter (never saw the ball, never turned around, which is becoming a trademark) and was again beaten by Stallworth on a third-down in the red zone on the same drive. McCourty later was flagged -- the rare right call by an officiating crew that had a hideous afternoon -- for pass interference on a third-and-18 slant to Jabar Gaffney at the Washington 15, allowing the Redskins to continue a drive that would end in a Gaffney TD. Gaffney beat McCourty for the touchdown. Yes, McCourty is playing hurt and yes, he did break up two passes in the fourth quarter, but he still remains Concern and Mystery No. 1 for this defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B+
Matthew Slater was able to keep a Zoltan Mesko first-quarter punt from going into the end zone, a deflection that was downed by Sergio Brown at the Redskins 4. How key was that? Three plays later Carter sacked Grossman and Wilfork recovered for the TD. Means a lot in a 34-27 game. Stephen Gostkowksi made both his field-goal attempts -- just 24 and 23 yards -- and Mesko later added a 61-yard punt.
COACHING -- C+
We'll know more after the season, probably, but I can't believe there is much more to this Brady/O'Brien story. Seems pretty cut and dry: Brady was pissed at Underwood for running a weak route (true, though Brady's pass was awful) and went after him for it. O'Brien, correctly, stood up for the guy that needed to be backed in that spot. Was the level of anger displayed by O'Brien surprising? Sure. But I'd file it under Stuff That Happens. Now it did offer a glimpse into what life with Brady must be like for these young wideouts. But O'Brien did the right thing in going after Brady. He knew a) there was a risk of losing Underwood if things got really ugly and b) Brady can take it. No problem with O'Brien there whatsoever, and I think Brady's OK with it. Of course, if Brady really doesn't agree, we'll find out when he's the quarterback of the Patriots in 2012 and O'Brien is the quality control coach in Jacksonville.