Report Card Time as we take a look at Sunday's win over the Bills and the regular season in total. Not to sound like the guy who always has to talk about the not so good 'ol days, but if you had told me in 1990 (1-15) or 1992 (2-14) that there would be a time when media and (some, not all) fans would be picking apart a 13-3 Patriots team I don't think I would have recognized what language you were speaking.
Doesn't mean this criticism of the defense isn't perfectly legitimate, it's just strange when you step away from it sometimes. We're spoiled, of course, both the fans and media. And we're not supposed to think about that now, that's not how it works. But I suspect this team, warts and all, will look pretty good when Belichick and Brady are gone and the Patriots return to the football middle.
To the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK - B
The numbers were there for Tom Brady (23-of-35, 338 yards, three TDs) but he wasn't as sharp as we've seen over the last couple of months (the two worst halves of football Brady played during the winning streak was the first half against the Dolphins and the first 30 minutes on Sunday). He looked a touch jittery in the pocket at times against a semi-consistent pass rush, and we saw first half stretch that saw Brady complete just one of eight passes, which included his 12th interception of the year, a pass behind Wes Welker that was picked off by Nick Barnett (Welker was also blasted on the play, one of three times Brady put his wideout is a dangerous spot with shaky throws). But Brady was, if not quite vintage, very good in leading the Patriots to another comeback win, using his tight ends to pick apart the Buffalo defense. And his use of play-action (I think a hugely underrated part of his success, no one is better at it) was key in the 53-yard screen to Green-Ellis and the TD pass to Hernandez.
Regular-Season Grade: A-
As we always preface here, Brady has set a really rough standard. Any other quarterback in history probably gets the straight "A" for a 5,235-yard, 39-TD season. It's one of the two-dozen finest seasons ever authored by a QB. But it's only Brady's third-best season, and he was directly responsible for two losses - at Buffalo (four picks turned into 21 points) and vs. the Giants (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). But in almost every other season in NFL history Brady wins MVP, and he clearly had a terrific year.
RUNNING BACKS - B+
Look, you and I know how it goes with the Patriots and running backs, which means that you and I understand that we really don't know how it goes. Stevan Ridley (15 carries, 81 yards) looks like the best back on this team right now, and it doesn't seem real close. He hits the hole with a burst (that was a lot easier to write pre-Michael Scott) that BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't showing and is more physical than Danny Woodhead. Ridley was the leadish back for the Patriots on Sunday, and was at his best on a 21-yard rush in the first quarter. Maybe I'm wrong and Ridley has three carries and Green-Ellis has 18 in two weeks, but it's hard to imagine that some kind of changing of the guard isn't underway with the backs. Green-Ellis had 22 yards on seven carries, but two were TDs and he had the 53-yard catch (career high). Danny Woodhead was virtually a non-factor (just one carry, though he did run in a two-point conversion) and Kevin Faulk was inactive. It's at least fair to wonder if Faulk has played his last NFL game.
Regular-Season Grade: C+
This team isn't going to have a 1,600-yard rusher. Just not the way they are built (also doesn't help that there isn't anyone on the roster as good as Corey Dillon circa 2004). So that's not how we look at it. But Green-Ellis was injured at times and not the back he was in 2010 (4.4 yards per carry vs. 3.7 in 2011) and Woodhead also took a step back. The bright spot was unquestionably Ridley, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and had all five of the Patriots rushes of 20 or more yards.
RECEIVERS - A-
I'm stealing this from Chris Price (not the first or last time, but probably the first and last time I'll actually credit him) here, but this stat tells it all about the production of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season: The two combined for 169 receptions in 2011, the most by a pair of tight end in the same season in NFL history. Jason Witten (94) and Martellus Bennett (33) combined for 127 in 2010 with Dallas for the second most. Hernandez (seven catches, 138 yards, a TD) spent plenty of time making members of the Buffalo secondary whiff on tackle attempts in the open field, including a pair of Aaron Williams failures on two Hernandez catches. His 44-yard catch in the third quarter was highlight stuff, as Drayton Florence and Andra Davis weren't even close in their tackle offers. Hernandez has been as productive as Gronkowski over the last month, and the second-year leap from both tight ends is THE difference between the 2010 and 2011 Patriots from an offensive perspective. Gronkowski (eight catches, 108 yards, two touchdowns) had a couple of drops but also had a couple of touchdowns, as once again we saw linebackers not quick enough to stay with him and cornerbacks unable to get in front of him. It's swell that he has now has the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season, I suppose, but watching Brian Hoyer throw to Gronkowski in a 49-21 game with 1:30 left eliminates any doubt that the Patriots are just like every other team when it comes to individual records. Wes Welker was quiet - and hit hard on a number of occasions - and Deion Branch played a few snaps early and was done for the afternoon. Chad Ochocinco just missed a diving catch in the third quarter. Should he have made the catch? Nope. Could he have made the catch? Yup, and that's the kind of season it's been.
Regular-Season Grade: A-
The most productive tight end duo and a wideout catching 120 passes? Tough to do better. Only the struggles of Ochocinco keep this from being a straight "A" for this group.
OFFENSIVE LINE - C+
There was pressure on Brady throughout the game, as he was sacked three times and hit on three other plays. Arthur Moats beat Matt Light twice, picking up a sack and a QB hit, and Kellen Heard had a pair of sacks as he really had his way with Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly. He should not have been named to the Pro Bowl - total reputation pick - but this team absolutely needs a healthy Logan Mankins in two weeks. The run blocking was solid overall, with Brian Waters as a standout. Waters was also key in springing Green-Ellis on the 53-yard reception.
Regular-Season Grade: B
Tons of injuries, but they managed to block for a 5,000-yard passer and lead the way for a 4.1 yards per carry average for the backs. Waters was easily the group MVP and deserves an All-Pro spot.
DEFENSIVE LINE - C+
Mark Anderson had been quiet for about a month or so before his two-sack game against the Broncos, and he was a force again on Sunday with seven tackles, a sack (the ol' swim move on Chris Hairston) and a tackle for a loss on C.J. Spiller. Kyle Love had a sack and pressure on Fitzpatrick and also had a solo tackle for loss on Spiller. The Bills were able to establish a consistent running attack, with Spiller (13 carries, 60 yards) picking up yardage up the middle as Vince Wilfork was unable to make an impact.
Regular-Season Grade: C+
Andre Carter was the group standout (his four-sack effort against the Jets was the top performance by any Patriots defensive player this season) and Anderson also reached the double-digit sack total. Wilfork didn't have a Wilfork season (though he also earned a Bruce Armstrong Reputation Only Pro Bowl nod) and the Albert Haynesworth experiment was a complete and utter disaster. All you need to know about Hayensworth is this: The Patriots went 8-0 after they released him and the Buccaneers went 0-8 after they picked him up. A risk worth taking, but at the end of the day a flat-out losing player who simply does not care about football. One of the great wasted talents of his generation, along with the cast of "Super Troopers," Amy Winehouse and Carlos Zambrano.
LINEBACKERS - C-
I understand that Dane Fletcher's strength is as a run-stopper, but he was hideous in pass coverage on Sunday, missing a tackle on Ruvell Martin in the slot in the first quarter, beat by Naaman Roosevelt for 21 yards on the same drive and then failing to get a hand on Spiller on his 15-yard TD reception. Jerod Mayo had seven tackles (four solo) and a pass defensed on a third-down stop, and Brandon Spikes returned and was on the field for most of the final three quarters. Spikes (if he's the good Spikes, we've seen both sides) and Patrick Chung should be significant additions to this defense heading into the playoffs.
Regular-Season Grade: C-
Who had a good season? Mayo? Not by his standard, and he was hurt. Gary Guyton was awful (and almost never plays now, just a part-time special teamer) and Rob Ninkovich was up-and-down. The rest of 'em - Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White, Fletcher - are scrap-heapers who played a lot like scrap-heapers.
SECONDARY - C-
Much better as the game went on, of course, but the first half was plenty troublesome. Antwaun Molden was flagged (correctly) for a pass interference on Derek Hagan the opening drive, setting up the first TD, and was beat by Hagan for first-down catches twice in the first half. Stevie Johnson's dopey and incomprehensibly immature celebration (good job by Chan Gailey to bench him, how many coaches with his win/loss record would do that?) came after he dusted Kyle Arrington for a TD, and Arrington was also beat by Hagan for a 29-yard catch in the second quarter. Devin McCourty took the majority of snaps at safety - that's a demotion, folks - and struggled early, failing to help Molden on the PI play and fell down and missed a tackle on Tashard Choice's four-yard TD run. He did collect an interception on a Spiller drop in the second half and looked more comfortable at the safety position as the game progressed, but it's startling to see how far he's dropped as a cornerback. Patrick Chung returned and made an impact, collecting a hit on Fitzpatrick on a third-down blitz and popping Johnson (that sounded OK before I wrote it) on a third-and-6 to force a fourth down(which turned out to be the successful fake punt). Encouraging stuff. Sterling Moore was obviously the story, picking off a pair of passes and returning the second for a touchdown that washed out the sliver of doubt regarding the outcome. Moore's first INT was, I thought, the better of the two, as he jumped in front of Martin and made a pretty tough catch. Without question this was the critical play of the game, the Patriots were trailing 21-20 at that point and the Moore pick led to a Patriots TD and two-point conversion.
Regular-Season Grade: D
Second-most passing yards allowed in history? Eight yards allowed per pass attempt? The clear weakness of this team, and that's why the puzzling drop in performance from McCourty is such a killer. They needed him to be great - not just a No. 1 corner, but a Pro Bowl-type, at least the McCourty we saw in the second half of 2010 - and he gave a soup-to-nuts stinker. Biggest disappointment of the 2011 Patriots, and it isn't close. Ochocinco and Haynesworth were flyers, but McCourty was a must. Julian Edelman - played very well on Sunday - is playing at a higher level than McCourty at this point.
SPECIAL TEAMS - B-
The Patriots were completely unprepared for the fake punt in the first quarter. If you think about it, there's no reason why they should be been so clueless in that spot. What does Buffalo have to lose? Isn't that exactly when a team with nothing to play for should be doing stuff like that? Other than that serious gaffe, a quality performance by a group that came through in 2011. Zoltan Mesko averaged 48.5 yards on his two punts, with one downed inside the 20-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski had a superb game with five touchbacks and great success (yakshemash) on both his field attempts, including a 47-yarder that trimmed the lead to 21-17 early in the third quarter. The coverage was solid - Sergio Brown had a solo tackle on Leodis McKelvin following a 51-yard Mesko punt - and Woodhead averaged 21.0 yards on three kick returns.
Regular-Season Grade: B+
Very acceptable seasons from both Mesko and Gostkowski, and - save for Joe McKnight in the first Jets game (an 88-yard kickoff return thanks to a Tracy White whiff and another 43-yarder) - the coverage groups didn't yield that huge play. The return groups were middle of the pack.
COACHING - B-
We've written this for the last month - Belichick deserves a hit for the slow start and praise for the adjustments. Wasn't crazy about Bill O'Brien's play calling at first-and-goal at the Buffalo 2 following the Green-Ellis and Hernandez catches (two pass plays and a Green-Ellis rush led to a FG) but tough to argue with 480 yards of offense and 42 points (Moore had the other TD).
Regular-Season Grade: A-
Again, we aren't grading Belichick the GM here. To win 13 games (and 27 the last two seasons) with this personnel on defense is a remarkable achievement. I'm sure Jim Harbaugh will win Coach of the Year and he's a deserving choice, but Belichick is worthy of consideration, though the Belichick Fatigue around the league guarantees he has no shot at the award.