This is basically going to be a replacement-free piece of real estate this week.
I've got nothing left for you on these guys. Wrote about it Sunday night and zero has changed, even with the stench of Monday night's debacle in Seattle. The incompetent, overmatched referees are going to be THE national story in sports until an agreement is reached (unless the NHL ends its lockout, I suppose, or TMZ tells us that Tim Tebow lost his virginity). These guys aren't going to get better, this stuff will keep happening. It's not a coincidence that these displays of staggering futility occur on national TV -- they happen all the time.
And a second viewing of Patriots-Ravens didn't help the cause for the replacement refs. All the calls that looked pathetic were, in fact, pathetic. Total amateur hour that nearly ruined a terrific football game.
But we'll try and focus on the Patriots here this week. We will follow the words and not actions of Bill Belichick and just ignore the 50,000-pound gorilla in the room, a gorilla that really, really likes to throw flags and hasn't quite grasped the illegal contact rules.
Go the report card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B+
So much of this is based on winning and losing, right? If Brady puts up the exact same numbers -- 28-of-41, 335 yards, one TD and zero picks (101.2 rating) -- in a 30-10 win he probably gets an A. No mistakes, made all the throws he had to, all the usual stuff. But when those same numbers occur in a game where a team blows a nine-point lead with just over four minutes left the quarterback, particularly when he's one of the four or five best in the history of the league, has to take a hit. Might be an unfair standard, but it's reality. Brady was terrific through three quarters -- he was at his best in the TD drive to close out the first half, completing 7-of-10 passes (to five different receivers) for 75 yards, leaving just two seconds on the second-quarter clock when he connected with Julian Edelman on the seven-yard score. It was Brady's sharpest performance this season, he had his best chemistry to date with Brandon Lloyd (highlighted by a superb back shoulder catch and throw between the two in the first quarter -- a play they had unsuccessfully attempted twice this season -- that cornerback Cary Williams never saw), Edelman and Welker. But when it mattered most, on those two last drives, Brady and the offense ran 14 plays and gained a total of 46 yards. He was in absolute command for three quarters, handling the blitz perfectly, making all the correct reads. But in the last 15 minutes it was gone. Part of that is on the offensive line, part of it is on Josh McDaniels, part of it is on the officials, but Brady has to take his share.
RUNNING BACKS -- C-
The three backs -- Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden -- had a total of 30 carries for 75 yards. That would be 2.5 yards a pop. This is still a representable Baltimore defense, of course, but it isn't the 2000 group. In other words, unacceptable. Woodhead (15 carries, 34 yards, taking a lead role in a heavy shotgun/no huddle offense) did have a TD rush but again was largely ineffective. Would the world end if Ridley (13 carries, 37 yards) got a couple more snaps in the no-huddle, or if McDaniels stopped forcing Woodhead into the mix in huge spots (one head-scratcher for me was the second-and-goal rush at the Baltimore 8-yard line in the fourth quarter.)? Bolden ran right behind Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins for a two-yard TD in the first quarter. It seems obvious that Ridley is the best running back on this team, no? So why over the last 120 minutes of football does he have only eight more rushing attempts than Woodhead?
RECEIVERS -- B+
Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd combined for 17 catches and 250 yards (on 22 total targets). Welker had the 59-yard catch in the first quarter to set up a field goal (it appears the Ravens had a flat-out communication failure, no one covered Welker at all after the snap, Bernard Pollard eventually made the tackle after Welker slid behind the Ravens defense) and looked exactly like the Welker who was an All-Pro last year. You can't tell me you saw any difference, or any evidence that Edelman is a better option at receiver (though Welker did have another drop, his third in three games). Give Belichick credit for finally putting his hatred for Welker aside and giving the Patriots a better chance to win a football game, something he has resisted so many times in the past. Turns out he might be paying Welker $9.5 million for reasons other than revenge. Who would've guessed?
Lloyd won the battle with Williams, making three tough sideline catches, including the aforementioned first-quarter reception. This was clearly Lloyd's best game of the three, and there was real progress between the receiver and the quarterback. Julian Edelman had a TD catch (dusting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe in one-on-one coverage) but also dropped a ball in the end zone on a third-down throw in the second quarter. At first glance it appeared that an Ed Reed hit had caused the drop, but Edelman had already dropped the ball before Reed arrived. The throw was a touch high -- and maybe Reed would've knocked it away -- but it was a drop.
Raise your hand if it strikes you strange that Deion Branch was targeted as many times as Rob Gronkowski. That would be three each, and both finished with a pair of catches (and Branch was walloped twice -- once by Ed Reed, once by Jimmy Smith. The Reed hit was correctly flagged but didn't look dirty, just bad timing). Gronkowski did have the greatest statistical season ever compiled by a tight end last year, didn't he? Is there a reason why he's the fourth or fifth option in this offense right now? In seven of the last eight quarters he's been targeted a total of five times. How can that happen? And where is he in the red zone? Why is Woodhead getting touches in the red zone but Rob Gronkowski isn't? That's the one indefensible act of Josh McDaniels, Part Deux.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- C+
Up and down performance for Dan Connolly, who had a key block on Ray Lewis (who has finally hit the wall) on Bolden's TD rush but struggled against Ellerbe, allowing the linebacker to get a second-quarter hit on Brady. Connolly was also beat by Haloti Ngata, who spun off of Connolly and sacked Brady (with Ellerbe, who came through the middle untouched) on a second-down play right before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. That was a crucial sack, turning a 2nd-and-9 at the Baltimore 44 into a 3rd-and-16 at the New England 49.
For the most part, the offensive line -- with an increased role for Sebastian Vollmer -- gave Brady plenty of time to make plays. The final series of the first half was a standout, capped with a pancake from Mankins on Pernell McPhee on the Edelman TD catch. Not a perfect effort -- Brady was hit six times, sacked twice, the running game couldn't get going -- but an acceptable outing against a solid defense, one that was also blitzing frequently in the second half.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- D
Joe Flacco attempted 39 passes on Sunday night. He was sacked zero times. He was hit zero times. That's all you need to know, really about the performance of this group. Oh, and Ray Rice had 101 yards on 20 carries (the Ravens rushed for 121 yards). The Ravens put up 593 yards of offense (382 passing) and were able to do so thanks to an offensive line that controlled Vince Wilfork. Matt Birk and rookie tackle Kelechi Osemele were key in stopping Wilfork, with Marshal Yanda chipping in (Wilfork saw plenty of double teams.) Wilfork and Kyle Love (also quiet) were on the bench during a lengthy Baltimore drive in the final minutes of the first half, with Ron Brace and Marcus Fortson struggling mightily to get any pressure on Flacco. And Michael Oher -- primarily on his own, though there was occasional help -- handled Chandler Jones. The rookie was able to pressure Flacco twice (sure looked like Oher might've got away with a couple of holds) and was in the backfield on the fourth down stop of Bernard Pierce in the fourth quarter.
LINEBACKERS -- C-
Dont'a Hightower looked like a rookie in his matchups with Ray Rice, missing a pair of tackles against the back and was clueless in pass coverage. He was also woefully out of position on Rice's TD rush. Jerod Mayo got in the backfield on the fourth-down stop and forced Pierce to change direction and run into Patrick Chung. Impact play, but that was about it from Mayo, who had as quiet a nine-tackle game as you'll see. If Brandon Spikes is going to call out the replacement officials as he did on Twitter after the game, if he's going to be the voice of the voiceless, he needs steadier credentials than his no-show on Sunday. Spikes and Rob Ninkovich were invisible against the rush and Spikes was flagged for defensive holding in the fourth quarter, wiping out a split sack by Jones and Love. It would have been a 12-yard loss, setting up a 3rd-and-goal from the New England 21 yard line. Instead it was first-and-goal from the New England five-yard line, and Flacco connected with Torrey Smith for a TD on the next play, cutting the lead to 30-28 with just over four minutes left.
SECONDARY -- F
Awful awful awful. What happened to Devin McCourty, anyway? We've been asking this question for over a year -- he was torched by Brandon Marshall in Week 1 in Miami last season and has been mediocre since -- so maybe we should stop asking and accept that this McCourty is reality and the guy we saw in 2010 was a fluke. McCourty actually had his moments on Sunday -- he had a couple of stops on Anquan Boldin and one-on-one with Jacoby Jones -- but overall it was another disastrous outing. He was beat by Torrey Smith for a TD in the corner of the end zone, teamed with Steve Gregory to whiff on Daniel Pitta on his TD catch (Gregory tried to dive and make a play, at least, McCourty looked like he was at a walkthrough, just gave no effort), dropped an easy pick in the fourth quarter (next play -- Boldin beats Kyle Arrington for 24 yards, though the drive did end on the fourth-down stop) and the pair of final drive failures, as Jones beat McCourty for a 24-yarder on the first play and the (so obvious even Those Guys couldn't screw it up) 27-yard pass interference call that took the Ravens to the New England 7-yard line and set up the game-winning Justin Tucker field goal (I think he made it, but I've watched it a couple of dozen times and still could convinced otherwise). Just a brutal evening for McCourty. Arrington also struggled badly against Smith, giving up the first TD and several other catches. Steve Gregory had a nice pick and return off Flacco, jumping a Dennis Pitta route and returning 36 yards to the Ravens six-yard line, setting up the Bolden score. Give Patrick Chung points for the fourth-down stop of Brandon Pierce (wouldn't you have at least had Ray Rice on the field if you were Cam Cameron?) but that was it from Chung in terms of impact plays.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C
Stephen Gostkowski bounced back from last week's miss, hitting on all three field-goal attempts, including a 49-yarder. Zoltan Mesko averaged 43.0 yards on his four punts, with two inside the 20-yard line. No standouts in coverage, as Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman were non-factors in returns while Deonte Thompson had a 36-yard kickoff return for the Ravens that was helped greatly by a Kyle Arrington whiffed tackle.
COACHING -- C
Josh McDaniels needs to get the ball to Rob Gronkowski. There is no defense for the lack of Gronkowski in this offense in seven of the last eight quarters. And Ray Horton must've been pinch-hitting for Dean Pees on the direct snap to Woodhead hand off to Edelman that lost 13 yards and buried a promising Patriots drive (it turned a 2nd-and-6 at the Baltimore 49 -- the Patriots had gained nine, eight, 15 and four yards on the first four plays of the drive -- into a 3rd-and-19 at the New England 38). Too cute by at least half. The defense -- Matt Patricia and Belichick -- made no adjustments as Flacco went up and down the field over the last three quarters and Rice put up 100 yards.