Report Card Time and it kind of says a lot about what we've seen over the last decade or so with this franchise that they can put up 45 points in 25 minutes and no one is really screaming about the fact that they put up 45 points in 25 minutes.
It was a remarkable, basically unprecedented (those two words shouldn't be next to each other, I realize) burst of offense. A perfect balance of running and passing, with one of the three or four greatest quarterbacks in history pretty near his peak.
And it was met with, if not indifference, a polite nod. That's how it goes when the focus is Big Picture, Super Bowl or Bust and all that. Understood. And if the final score is Denver 31, New England 17 next Sunday I won't be thinking much about 52-28 and neither will you.
But you'll watch Patriots games -- NFL games -- for the rest of your life and won't see six straight touchdowns, won't see two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers, won't see 45 points in a little more than a quarter and a half. It happened once and it'll never happen again.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- A
Sure, there were a couple of shaky throws -- a force to Brandon Lloyd (who was pretty much handled by rookie Stephon Gilmore throughout) and a goal-line lob to Rob Gronkowski that could've easily been picked by Gilmore -- and a three-drive stretch in the first half that saw him complete just one of seven passes, but Brady was in absolute command for the most part on Sunday. He finished with 340 yards passing with three touchdowns (no picks), completing 22-of-36 attempts. The offensive line gave him plenty of time to make plays, and he picked the Bills apart. You saw a pair of perfect deep balls to Rob Gronkowksi (one was caught, one was dropped after a Gilmore hit), you saw Brady finding Welker in the slot all afternoon, you saw Brady make plays out of the pocket (the TD rush, the touchdown pass to Danny Woodhead), you saw Brady use play-action to his advantage (the TD pass to Gronkowski), you saw Brady operate a largely no-huddle, frequently shotgun offense during the six consecutive TD drives in the second half. The Brady of the first three quarters of the Baltimore game was the Brady in Buffalo on Sunday. We are now a quarter into the 2012 season and Brady is on pace to throw for 4,908 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions. Has anyone seen anything that indicates a concession to age, some loss of skill? He looks exactly the same as the last couple of years, right?
RUNNING BACKS -- A+
When you run for 247 yards on 40 carries (6.2 YPC) with just one carry gaining more than 20 yards it means a buffet of six, eight, 10 yard rushes, which is exactly what happened with Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley on Sunday.
Bolden was the story, rushing for 137 yards, 124 coming in the second half. He had a pair of longish runs -- 27 and 20 yards -- and was the key figure in the first TD drive of the third quarter, picking up 40 yards on two carries and catching a pass for 11 yards. He chipped in with 26 yards on three carries on the next TD drive and then set up Ridley's second TD russh with a 14-yard run to the Buffalo 2-yard line behind Nate Solder. At that point the game was effectively over at 42-28, but Bolden produced his most impressive run on the next drive, cutting hard to his right and carrying Gilmore for five yards into the end zone for the TD. He's being compared to BenJarvus Green-Ellis already (what a stunner) but I'd ask you to at least wait until he has, I don't know, two good games before we start with that. Green-Ellis isn't Jim Brown, but he did score 24 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
I thought Bill Belichick whiffed in electing to attempt a field goal on 4th-and-1 at the Buffalo 24-yard line with just under six minutes left in the second quarter, and Stevan Ridley (22 carries, 106 yards, two TDs) was the main reason why he should've gone for it. On that drive -- starting at the New England 19 -- Ridley picked up nine, seven, six, eight and one yard on his five carries. There was concern that with the loss of Green-Ellis the Patriots didn't have a goal-line back, but Ridley has looked perfectly comfortable in that spot, scoring from two and six yards on Sunday.
RECEIVERS -- B
Gronkowski had a terrific blocking game (more on that later) and caught five passes for 104 yards and a TD, but did have two drops and was stripped by Jarius Byrd in the second quarter after a 20-yard catch. The Bills recovered the fumble at the New England 24-yard line and Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with Scott Chandler for a TD on the very next play to make it a 7-7 game. Gronkowski was targeted 11 times and had just five catches, though his fourth-quarter TD catch gave the Patriots a 28-21 lead. Thanks to the rushing attack, Brady's play-action with Ridley opened the middle of the field (linebacker Bryan Scott didn't stay with Gronkowski and safety George Wilson was way too slow in reacting over the middle) for Gronkowski.
Wes Welker also fumbled (also forced by Byrd, also deep in New England territory, though he was bailed out by the Spikes forced fumble on C.J. Spiller) but caught nine passes for 129 yards (11 targets). He had three catches for 40 yards on the game-tying TD drive in the third quarter and his diving catch for 17 yards on 3rd-and-9 kept alive the drive that ended with the Lloyd TD. After all the controversy Welker is tied for eighth in the league with 25 catches, on pace for exactly 100. If you get a chance, watch the first-quarter Ridley TD rush and take a look at the exchange between Welker and Mario Williams. Welker actually puts a pretty nice block on Williams, who looks like he'd rather be anywhere on the planet than at Ralph Wilson Stadium playing an NFL game. Quite a contrast.
Brandon Lloyd struggled to get separation from Gilmore -- eventually Brady just gave up and focused on Welker and Gronkowski with Bolden and Ridley putting up huge yardage -- but did make a (garbage time, but still) terrific diving catch in the right corner of the end zone in the fourth quarter. That catch was made with Aaron Williams -- not Gilmore -- in coverage. Lloyd also had a drop in the second quarter, a 3rd-and-11 pass from Brady that was on his hands. Should have been made and would have been enough for a first down. Stephen Gostkowski missed a 49-yard field goal on the next play.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- A
Tom Brady attempted 36 passes, was hit three times and sacked once. The Patriots rushed for 240 yards at 6.2 yards per attempt. Just a sensational performance, done without Logan Mankins (and Brian Waters, who I suspect we won't be hearing about much this week -- if Brady's sacked six times vs. the Broncos that might change) and against a defensive line many if not most look at as one of the top 10 or so in the NFL.
Sebastian Vollmer dominated Mario Williams, just abused him in what was mostly a one-on-one matchup. Brady had a 41-yard completion to Gronkowkski in the first quarter that perfectly illustrated the work of the O-Line for the game -- he had time to first look at Welker before stepping up and throwing to Gronkowski. He had about five seconds to make the play, and faced no pressure. Williams was on the ground at the time of the throw, having been tossed by Vollmer.
Dan Connolly chipped in on Williams and was key on several Bolden runs up the middle. Ridley ran behind Connolly -- in at fullback -- on his second TD rush, with Donald Thomas also opening a hole on the right side (Thomas contributed a nice block on Ridley's first TD). Daniel Fells was impressive, helping spring Bolden's 27-yard rush by taking George Wilson out of the play. And Gronkowski was a force, opening a hole for Bolden's 20-yard rush and running Williams off the field on a Bolden 12-yarder.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B
Hey, was Vince Wilfork's wife at the game? Not sure, CBS should let us know. See, this is where Boston (well, all, really) fans are inconsistent. If this was Eli Manning's wife, you'd be screaming about a pro-New York bias and how much everyone hates the Patriots. Same with Phil Simms, who clearly loves Belichick (and has a kid on the staff). I never hear anyone around here complain that the No. 1 crew for CBS is clearly in the bag for the Patriots and how it injuries the integrity of the broadcast. Anyway, Wifork had a crucial fumble recovery at the end of the first half (the Bills were at the New England 4-yard line, about to go up 21-7), a monster hit (in coverage) on Donald Jones in the fourth quarter, had two tackles for losses and tipped a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass that led to Jerod Mayo's INT. This was all done, it should be noted, while facing some combination of a double or triple team from Andy Levitre, Eric Wood and Chad Rinehart.
Chandler Jones ended Buffalo's opening drive with a tackle for a three-yard loss on Fred Jackson, pushing Scott Chandler aside to make the stop. He also picked up a sack in the second quarter, though most of the credit for the play should go to Jermaine Cunningham, who broke through to get pressure on Fitzpatrick. Cunningham also drew a holding penalty on tackle Erik Pears and beat Pears on the following play to get another hit on Fitzpatrick. Rob Ninkovich had his best game of the season after a disastrous effort vs. the Ravens, consistently holding the edge against Spiller and Jackson and forcing a fumble with a third-quarter sack of Fitzpatrick (the Bills recovered, Ninkovich beat Pears for the sack).
LINEBACKERS -- B
Troy Brown said after the game Sunday that Brandon Spikes is the best linebacker against the run in the NFL. When Spikes is at his best -- Sunday would certainly qualify, as would Week 1 vs. the Titans and the AFC title game last year -- I think he's got a helluva case. But how often is he at his best? There are too many games where Spikes is invisible -- last week as an example -- and that has to stop if Spikes is really going to be on the shortlist of best in the league at anything. But Spikes was an obvious difference maker against the run on Sunday, forcing a pair of fumbles, including the game's biggest play -- a wicked hit on C.J. Spiller at the goal-line, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Wilfork. If the Bills go in to score a TD they are up 21-7 and who knows? Maybe the Patriots still go out and score 45 in the second half -- and they did fall behind 21-7 -- or maybe they don't. But that was clearly seven points scrubbed out only because of Spikes, who would later force a Fred Jackson fumble with another blast in the fourth quarter, a turnover that the Patriots would convert into a touchdown. Spikes has plenty of work left against the pass -- he was beat by Scott Chandler for a touchdown (with zero safety help) on Sunday, though he did have a tipped pass in coverage -- but when he's focused there aren't many better against the run. Expect Spikes to be fined for his high hit on Chandler (head shot) during McCourty's INT return.
Jerod Mayo had a diving INT but struggled at times in coverage against Chandler and gave up a 34-yard catch to Fred Jackson on Buffalo's second TD drive, a tough catch with pretty solid coverage from Mayo. Dont’a Hightower ran over Spiller to get to Fitzpatrick for a sack and also had a tackle on Spiller for a loss before leaving with a hamstring injury.
SECONDARY -- C
Devin McCourtry was beat early by Steve Johnson on a third down but the wideout -- who had his moments against McCourty last season -- did almost nothing, finishing with two catches for 23 yards on 10 targets. One of those targets was intercepted by McCourty, who jumped in front of Johnson to record the fourth-quarter pick. McCourty had his first INT of the 2012 season in the second quarter, as it appeared Fitzpatrick underthrew T.J. Graham (who had a couple of steps on McCourty) on the right sideline. But if we're going to blast McCourty for failing to make plays, as we did last week, he gets credit for being in the right place at the right time.
Kyle Arrington was flat-out beat over the middle by Donald Jones on his 68-yard TD catch, but Jones should have never been able to get to the end zone after the reception. Patrick Chung missed a tackle on Jones and Steve Gregory took a horrendous angle on the wideout that gave him no chance of making a tackle. This was part of a brutal game for Chung, who gave up a TD catch to Chandler (never turning his head on the play -- though Chandler still needed to make an exceptional catch) and was late to help Spikes on Chandler's second touchdown. Tavon Wilson replaced Gregory and limited Chandler while collecting an INT and fumble recovery. At this point of the season Wilson looks like the best safety on the football team. Wonder if that'll translate to more snaps against Peyton Manning on Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C
Very nice work from Zoltan Mesko, who had all three of his punts land inside the 20-yard line and away from Leodis McKelvin, who didn't have a punt return. Coverage and returns were OK -- Welker had a 14-yard punt return, Matt Slater downed a punt at the Buffalo six-yard line -- but Stephen Gostkowski was the story, as he missed a pair of field goals (49, 42 yards) in a game for the first time since the season opener in 2010. Gostkowski missed five field goals last season, he's already missed three this year. It's not a reason to start auditioning kickers during the week in Foxboro -- there's no one on the street as good as Gostkowski, even this Gostkowkski -- but it's a subplot to keep an eye on. Put it another way: If the Patriots were down two points and Gostkowski was readying to attempt a 46-yard game-winning field goal in the playoffs are you thinking he'll make it?
COACHING -- A-
You want adjustments? Well, 45 points and six straight touchdowns is as good as you'll ever see. Nothing fancy from Josh McDaniels, he recognized the running game was working and didn't deviate, as the Patriots will sometimes do. Defensivly, it's the same argument we've been having since 2010 -- does yardage allowed mean anything? Ryan Fitzpatrick -- amazing that the Bills have allocated this much money Fitzpatrick and Williams -- had four touchdown passes and 350 yards, but four interceptions. Again, the defense was a group that improved as the game progressed, allowing seven points over the last 24 minutes. I wasn't thrilled with Belichick kicking the field goal on 4th-and-1 at the Buffalo 24 -- though Ridley was the easy call -- but that's picking nits.