Report card time, and if Wes Welker goes back to the bench when Julian Edelman returns, we've really got a story.
Welker -- not Tom Brady, not Peyton Manning, not Von Miller, not Stevan Ridley, not Champ Bailey, not Rob Gronkowski, not Demaryius Thomas -- was the best player on the field Sunday, catching 13 passes (on 15 targets) for 104 yards and a touchdown. He humiliated Chris Harris -- a very good cover guy -- in their one-on-one matchup from the start, hauling in four passes and the TD on New England's second drive and never slowing down. Whenever Tom Brady needed to make a play, he went to Welker, including the 9-yard connection on third-and-3 that iced the game right before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.
Wes Welker is still the second-most important player in this offense. He's going to catch over 100 passes this season, and he'll lead the NFL in that category again (after all the drama he's tied for second in the league with 38 catches, on pace for 122). I'll never understand why Edelman played more than Welker for those two weeks -- could have been injury, could have be an attempt to push Edelman, could have be something else, though I'll never buy the idea that it was punishment for not signing a contract -- and the truth is we'll never know. These guys don't even talk after they leave. But it was obviously a mistake, and it's fair to wonder if the Patriots beat the Cardinals with Welker in his usual prominent role. I don't know if there was any hidden anger in Welker's comment about sticking it in Bill Belichick's face, but that's exactly what has happened. Welker has won this battle, and for this season there is no way the Patriots are going back to what we saw the first two weeks with Welker and Edelman.
The last three weeks Welker has a total of 30 catches for 375 yards. I'm not sure if a slot receiver is worth $9.5 million -- or $11 million, if Welker is franchised again -- but if one is, you are watching him. For the last three weeks Welker has played the position as well as he has ever played it, and Sunday was his best performance of the season.
He'll be gone after this season, and I suppose I understand why it'll be done, but he will be impossible to replace. Put it another way: Julian Edelman will never be Wes Welker. And I suspect Belichick knows this better than anyone.
To the card we go ..
QUARTERBACK -- A-
This is an example of where stats don't tell the story. Brady (23-for-31, 223 yards, a TD and zero interceptions) didn't throw for 450 yards and five touchdowns but was absolutely surgical against a Broncos defense for the third time in about 10 months, operating a stunningly fast no-huddle offense (whatever it's worth, not much I know but still -- Sunday was the first time I wasn't able to take notes in-between plays with this offense. You put your head down for 10 seconds, looked up and there was Brady dropping back or Ridley rushing) with no glaring mistakes. Sure, there was a lousy overthrow to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski in the second quarter (over the middle -- would have been a 25, 30-yard play) and a late near-pick in the end zone (forcing to Welker) but this was another sharp performance from Brady, who was 17-for-20 for 165 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Again, there wasn't any single throw from Brady that stands out, but the decision making was outstanding. The Broncos put Champ Bailey on Brandon Lloyd, so Brady punted (for the most part -- maybe his best throw of the game was a fastball to a diving Lloyd at the goal-line) and focused on Welker against Harris. And the TD pass, on its own, wasn't much -- an easy toss to a wide-open Welker in the flat -- but it was all set up by play action to Brandon Bolden and a pump-fake to the right side that had Harris completely fooled.
If you want something to be semi-concerned about, it's this: Brady, on two occasions in the same third quarter drive, acted as if he were under heavy pressure from the Broncos when no such pressure existed. There was a play where Brady ducked, as if preparing to be sacked, and no one was there. Eventually Von Miller came around from the outside -- beating Sebastien Vollmer -- to take Brady down, but it was again something that we never saw from Brady in his 20s, or before blowing out his knee. Could just be life as a 35-year-old quarterback, could be more, could be nothing. Something to watch, though, particularly with a trip to Seattle next Sunday against the NFC's best defense through five weeks (and a group that sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in a half during the Monday night win over the Packers that is better known as The Night The Lockout Died).
RUNNING BACKS -- A-
Another dominant effort -- seven rushing touchdowns and 498 yards on the ground over the last two weeks -- and the only knock is the fumble by Ridley, which came with 5:19 left in the fourth quarter and absolutely gave the Broncos a chance at 31-21. I think Bill Belichick gave up on Ridley too soon last season -- two late-season fumbles (one in the regular-season finale vs. the Bills and one in the playoff win over the Broncos) and he was done -- and I think if he limited Ridley's carries after the fumble Sunday it would be a staggering overreaction. This is the best running back on the team, of course, and probably the best since Corey Dillon in 2004. Is the fumbling an issue? Yup, needs to stop (though it was his first of the season). But Ridley has to be on the field. We saw it again on Sunday -- (28 carries, 151 yards, TD) this is a potential elite back. Ridley is on pace for 1,568 yards and is the clear difference between the 2011 and 2012 Patriots from an offensive perspective.
Brandon Bolden rushed for 54 tough yards on 14 carries and Danny Woodhead (47 yards on seven carries) converting two key third downs -- a 25-yard catch on third-and-14 from the New England 11-yard line on a drive that ended with a field goal -- and perhaps the biggest play from the offense in the win -- a 19-yard rush on third-and-17 from the New England 43-yard line on the third-quarter drive that ended with the Brady TD sneak that gave the Patriots a 24-7 lead. I've been critical of Woodhead, or the size of his role in this offense, but he was superb in his role Sunday. Even Shane Vereen contributed, rushing for a one-yard TD and drawing an 11-yard pass interference call on Joe Mays in the red zone in a drive that concluded with an eight-yard Ridley TD.
RECEIVERS -- B+
Welker was clearly the story, with Rob Gronkowski catching just four passes (on five targets -- the one failed attempt was the aforementioned sailer from Brady) for 35 yards and picking up his team-high fourth penalty with an offensive pass interference. There was a report from Mike Reiss -- the superb beat writer at ESPNBoston.com -- that indicated Gronkowski has been playing through significant pain with his hip injury. I have no reason to doubt the report, but I've also seen nothing over the last couple of weeks that would suggest Gronkowski has been limited. He played all 94 offensive snaps on Sunday -- and thanks to Mr. Reiss for that stat -- and had his second straight week of really solid work as a blocker. It could just be a case of a guy with a high threshold for pain, but I see no real difference in Gronkowski's game right now.
Lloyd was only targeted five times, catching three for 34 yards against Bailey. Deion Branch had a couple of helpful blocks, including one on the Woodhead 19-yard rush on 3rd-and-17 and on Bolden's 24-yarder. Branch also chipped in with a 25-yard reception on a third-and-12 at the New England 18 to continue a third-quarter drive. Daniel Fells whiffed on a Von Miller sack and had a drop that would have been an easy first down.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Full credit to these guys for not collectively gassing out during this game, which seemed to be an endless stream of no-huddle and hurry-up. For the second week in a row the run blocking was nearly perfect -- look no further than the 24-yarder from Bolden in the second quarter. Logan Mankins buried Elvis Dumervil into the ground and Gronkowski sealed Miller out of the play. Gronkowski -- and Fells -- opened a hole for Ridley on his 19-yard run and Fells and Nate Solder were key in Ridley's TD rush (Vereen ran behind Solder on his TD rush). Just a clinic from this group.
The pass protection was OK, but just. In the first half it was closer to Buffalo, where Brady was barely touched, but the second half was a different story. Brady was hit five times and sacked on four occasions Sunday. Ryan Wendell has a rough outing, the worst by any member of this offensive line this season. He was flagged for a hold on Miller that wiped out a first down in the third quarter, was beat by Derek Wolfe for a sack and was too late on a blitzing Wesley Woodyard on the disastrous 4th-and-5 call in the fourth quarter, leading to a Brady fumble (and at looked an awful lot like Bernard Pollard II at first glance). Dumervil was matched up with Solder for much of Sunday and it was a push -- which is a win for the Patriots -- though Dumervil did best Solder to share a sack with Woodyard.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B
Look, I don't play the "if" game very often. I'm a graduate of the Cal Hockley School, where we all learned that "A real man makes his own luck." We also learned that Picasso won't amount to a thing and Rose would rather be Jack's whore than Cal's wife, but this really isn't the place to investigate that wonderfully awful film (or Billy Zane's equally wonderful and awful toupee). Point is, if I'm going to break out the if card it could be applied here: If Rob Ninkovich doesn't force the two fumbles on Sunday the Patriots could on a plane to Seattle with a 2-3 record.
Ninkovich sacked Manning five minutes left in the third quarter and the Patriots holding a 24-7 lead, beating Orlando Franklin on the edge to get a hit on the quarterback (Chandler Jones also hit Manning on the play, beating Ryan Clady). Vince Wilfork recovered the fumble at the Denver 14-yard line and the Patriots scored a TD three plays later. The second forced fumble was late in the fourth quarter after the Broncos rally cut the lead to 31-21. Manning brought the Broncos down to the New England 14-yard line when Ninkovich stripped Willis McGahee (who had a nightmare game, with the wide-open fourth down drop) of the ball on second down. Jermaine Cunningham recovered that fumble and the Patriots were able to run out the clock.
Jones had the another hit on Manning and knocked down a second-quarter pass and Wilfork was quiet, as Dan Koppen had his moments against Wilfork and Ron Brace. McGahee entered the game with a 4.7 yards per carry average and had just 51 yards on 16 carries Sunday (3.6 YPC), which was a result of solid work from the line and linebackers.
LINEBACKERS -- B-
Jerod Mayo (13 tackles, five solo) was plenty active, getting a hit on Manning with a blitz on the first drive and sacking the quarterback with another blitz (running over Lance Ball). Mayo also had a solo tackle for a loss on McGahee but struggled against the pass, biting on Manning play-action and losing Joel Dreeseen on his TD catch and failing to solve Jacob Tamme (who had six catches for 50 yards). Brandon Spikes stuffed McGahee on a 3rd-and-4 to stop the opening drive (with help from Ninkovich) and had a tackle for loss on the back, beating Manny Ramirez (the other one) in the gap. Tracy White was perfectly serviceable with Donta Hightower out, no mistakes that jumped out. Not sure I'd agree with Phil Simms -- who said there was no drop off from Hightower to White, there is a reason Hightower plays and White doesn't -- but I can't even get worked up over Simms, who wasn't awful on Sunday (and that's progress, though he was really just better at hiding the fact that all he does is state the obvious).
SECONDARY -- C-
Josh Boyer is the cornerbacks coach for the New England Patriots. I'm sure Josh Boyer knows more than I do about coaching cornerbacks. I trust Josh Boyer, at some point, has told Devin McCourty that turning around isn't the worst idea. But it's not quite getting through, huh? McCourty faced Eric Decker -- and had his hands all over him -- on the 19-yard pass interference that landed the Broncos at the New England 1 and set up the first Denver TD. McCourty (and others) were dominated by Demaryius Thomas (nine catches, 188 yards) and -- guess what? -- never turned around on the 28-yard Thomas catch on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. McCourty also gave up a TD to Decker in the third quarter (two yards) but I can't go crazy on that one -- an exceptional throw and catch was needed.
Tavon Wilson was aggressive -- 10 tackles -- and bailed himself out by forcing a fumble from Thomas after being torched in the first quarter. That was a no-doubt TD that was wiped out by pure hustle. Wilson was late to help Kyle Arrington -- who, lost in the McCourty stuff, is having a tough season himself -- on Brandon Stokley's touchdown. Another week, another subpar effort from Pat Chung, who was beat (with Moore) on a 30-yard Thomas catch and finished with just three tackles. Alfonzo Dennard made his NFL debut -- replacing Moore in the second quarter -- and broke up a third-down pass for Stokley. He also had a break-up on a pass for Decker in the fourth quarter.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B-
Nothing noteworthy in coverage on either side, and both Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko were solid. Nate Ebner picked up a 10-yard penalty for holding on a Mesko punt, continuing his very shaky season (he had been benched for a couple of weeks after being badly beaten by Quentin Groves on the edge for a blocked punt in the loss to the Cardinals).
COACHING -- B+
The numbers are ridiculous, really -- over 200 yards rushing each of the last two weeks, 35 first downs on Sunday, most points in the league -- so it's tough to knock Josh McDaniels right now. This offense is potentially -- potentially is different than unquestionably -- the best of the Brady era from a postseason perspective. If this is what Ridley is and Aaron Hernandez comes back as Aaron Hernandez there is no weakness, an impossible group to plan for. The game plan was terrific but the fourth-and-5 call was a terrible decision -- that was a first guess -- there is no reason not to punt in that spot, none. It put Brady in an awful position and gave the Broncos a much-needed jolt. But that's life with Bill Belichick, there will be a couple of those head-scratchers during the season. Defensively it was the same argument we've been having since 2010 -- what does yards allowed really mean when turnovers are created when most needed?