Report Card Time and a very quick Q&A before we get started.
Is the sky falling?
Nope. But let's be fair: We've praised the Patriots for years and years for the ability to win close games. So you can't turn around and act like it's not a big deal when they lose three games by four points. If it meant something when it was good, it means something when it is not. And also there's this: The loss to Seattle on Sunday, a game the Patriots kicked away, could easily mean the difference between having to potentially play two or three AFC playoff games, between having to host or go on the road against Baltimore or Houston.
Has Bill Belichick lost it?
That's always the default storyline after a loss, right? I don't know, it seems to me that the Patriots went 27-5 over the last two regular seasons and were leading in the fourth quarter of last year's Super Bowl. Did Mario Manningham catch that pass because Belichick suddenly has lost it? The reality is this: Bill Belichick isn't dumber than he was in 2001, 2003 or 2004. But he has put together the worst secondary in the NFL, it's not even an argument, and you have seen the results. Belichick the GM has failed Belichick the coach with Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, plain and simple. Remember the idea that Belichick could "enter" the mind of an opposing quarterback? Not hearing much of that anymore. Why? When you have Ty Law and Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest and Asante Samuel it's a lot easier to confuse a rookie quarterback (or Peyton Manning).
Over the last three years we've seen Chad Henne, Mark Sanchez (on the road, in the playoffs), Matt Flynn, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Colt McCoy, Rex Grossman and now Russell Wilson go up and down the field against a Belichick defense. Eight, nine years ago those kinds of guys never would have done that to the Patriots. Impossible. Look, plenty of coaches have had plenty of talent on defense and haven't won three Super Bowls and five conference titles. Belichick is a great, great football coach, one of the three or four best in history. He went to the Super Bowl with essentially the same secondary we saw in Seattle, which is a remarkable accomplishment. So he hasn't lost it, the game hasn't passed him by. But those questions will continue to be asked as long as this secondary continues to fail. And this secondary is going to continue to fail, we've got enough of a sample size to know that.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- D+
Reason for grade: Brady's numbers looked OK -- 36-for-58, 395 yards, two touchdowns -- but his goal-line pick in the fourth quarter and red zone intentional grounding at the end of the first half (the flag came with two seconds left, the required 10-second runoff ended the half) cost the Patriots at the very least six points in a 24-23 game. If Brady plays the usual Brady game, the Patriots win, regardless of the many failures of this historically bad secondary.
Peak: Back-to-back passes on the first touchdown drive, a terrific throw and catch to Brandon Lloyd on the sideline followed by a 46-yard TD pass to Wes Welker.
Valley: The end of the first half was a disaster, a two-play stretch of ineptitude you'd expect from just about any quarterback in history before Brady. On second down at the Seattle 3-yard line with 12 seconds left, Brady tried to force a ball to Rob Gronkowski, andthe ball was behind Gronkowski and should have been intercepted by Earl Thomas (Brady was fortunate Thomas didn't intercept a pass earlier in the game at the goal line, it was in his hands and there was no chance a Patriots player was going to stop him from a 100-yard TD return). On the next play, with six seconds left, Brady felt pressure from Chris Clemons and did what he very rarely did when he was younger and healthier -- panicked. The happy feet made an appearance as Brady threw -- off his back foot -- to absolutely no one, not a Patriots player anywhere close to the ball. Intentional grounding, end of half.
Number that stands out: 6 -- That's how many underthrown passes Brady had on Sunday, most this season (thanks to Erik Scalavino for the stat). Bad weather didn't help, sure, but this game wasn't played in a hurricane. Just a sloppy performace from Brady, occasionaly brilliant but mixed in with game-changing miscues.
RUNNING BACKS -- C
Reason for grade: This was one of the matchups to watch, the third-best rushing team in the NFL vs. the third-best rushing defense. The Seahawks entered the game allowing 3.3 yards per carry. The Patriots on Sunday averaged 3.3 yard per carry. Stevan Ridley had a drop early and never found any rythym, carrying the ball 16 times for 34 yards. The other two backs -- Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden -- had real success, picking up 53 yards on 10 carries. You could absolutley make the case that the third-quarter injury to Bolden was a quiet game-changer, it forced Ridley back into the mix (he was losing snaps to Bolden after the drop) and he struggled in the second half with 24 yards on 12 carries.
Peak: Woodhead was excellent on Sunday, his best game of the season (6.3 yards per carry, five catches for 46 yards) and he was the best back on a field that included Marshawn Lynch and Ridley, who still is on pace for 1,500 yards. Woodhead pounded out some tough yards that you didn't see from an oddly passive Ridley, including a 7-yard rush on a third-and-6 in the third quarter on which the back carried Greg Scruggs for the final three yards.
Valley: If Ridley is indeed going to be the elite back that many think he will be, he has to do better than carries of zero, four, four, zero, six, one and one yard in the fourth quarter.
Number that stands out: 5 -- The Patriots rushed for five first downs on Sunday, none in the fourth quarter. In the previous two games they had russhed for a total of 37 first downs.
RECEIVERS -- A
Reason for grade: Forty-six targets, 36 catches. Keep in mind the six Brady underthrows, the two picks and the two near picks, and do the math. Welker had 10 catches for 138 yards and the TD, Lloyd had six catches for 80 yards, including another one of those sideline grabs that no one else makes (there was a scare late in the game when it looked like Lloyd suffered a serious shoulder injury diving for a ball on the sideline, but he returned for the final two offensive plays) and Daniel Fells made a diving catch for 35 yards (beating Brandon Browner) on the opening drive of the second half. Aaron Hernandez returned and had six catches for 30 yards, including a 1-yard TD on an end-zone fade over safety Jeron Johnson. Eight targets, six catches for Rob Gronkowksi, who consistently won his matchup with Kam Chancellor.
Peak: Watching the Browner hit on Welker in real time in the second quarter on Sunday, my immeadiate reaction was that he was going miss games -- plural -- and maybe more with concussion issues. Turns out it was a hit to the chest, but it still was a brutal shot. Most guys are done for the day after that, Welker was back after three plays and caught an 11-yard pass from Brady on third-and-7 (absuing Marcus Trufant) to extend the drive. Hits like that are exactly why Welker wants a long-term deal, and I suspect hits like that are exactly why he won't get one. But there is no tougher player in the NFL.
Valley: Nope. This was a pretty clean performance. No unforgivable drops, no penalties.
Number that stands out: 4 -- The number of consecutve 100-yard games for Welker, the first Patriots player to do so since Randy Moss in 2007.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
Reason for grade: Brady was hit five times and sacked once in 58 pass attempts vs. a group that sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in a half. Not perfect, but not too shabby. The run-blocking was weaker, the huge holes we've seen over the last two weeks (particularly to the left side) were non-exsistent for the most part on Sunday.
Peak: Logan Mankins must have tossed Earl Thomas three yards in leading the way on a Welker second-quarter screen. The line as a whole gave Brady plenty of time on the throws to Lloyd and Welker on the first-quarter TD drive.
Valley: Nate Solder struggled against Chris Clemons, allowing a late sack (it was Solder who actually landed on Brady) and was beat by Clemons on the final play of the first half.
Number that stands out: I don't know, nothing jumps out at me. Zip. Could be I'm espcially selective, or it could be I'm a moron. I will admit, for the first time, to being a little tired of being called a moron. It's happening all the time, in comments and tweets and e-mails and callers on the radio. I'm starting to think I actually am a moron. And it took a long time for me to get to that point. Which would be, I guess, consistent with being a moron.
But then I think of stuff like this: If I were a moron, would it be possible to complete nearly a quarter of a People Magazine crossword puzzle in one sitting? Granted it was a three-hour session on the throne, but it has to count for something, right?
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
Reason for grade: Marshawn Lynch was a non-factor, finishing with 41 yards on 15 carries. Wilson was sacked twice and hit seven times. There was time when the defensive line didn't put enough pressure on Wilson and plays were made, but that's not a fair ask of a line. They are supposed to do it every single snap, the secondary has to make plays on its own at some point. From a defensive perspective, I put very little blame on the defensive line or linebackers in this loss.
Peak: It's been a little over a month, and I think we've seen enough to know that tight ends cannot block Chandler Jones one-on-one. It happened again on Sunday, as Jones went through Zach Miller and sacked and forced a fumble on Wilson in the third quarter. That was one of two sacks for Jones (first career multi-sack game), who beat tackle Paul McQuistan to take Wilson down in the fourth quarter. Jones had two more hits on Wilson and a tackle for a loss on Lynch.
Valley: Jermaine Cunningham started as Rob Ninkovich moved to linebacker with Dont'a Hightower out and twice whiffed on chances to tackle Wilson on rushes, one of which was a 9-yarder on a third-and-4 at the New England 28 on a drive that ended in a Seattle TD.
Number that stands out: 4.5 -- The number of sacks Jones had at Syracuse last year in seven games. He already has five this season.
Reason for grade: See the defensive line -- not a dominant effort by the loosest defintion, but perfectly solid. Plenty of credit for the silencing of Lynch goes to Brandon Spikes, who had two tackles for a loss on Lynch, including a 2-yard loss on a third-and-1 at the New England 9-yard line that forced a field goal. This defense has stopped Chirs Johnson, Fred Jackson and now Lynch (Ray Rice had 100 yards) and Spikes has been a huge factor.
Peak: Jerod Mayo wiped out a Brady fourth-quarter interception, stripping Zach Miller and recovering the fumble at the New England 37-yard line on the third play of drive following the Brady INT.
Valley: Mayo was first to miss on Wilson on the third-down 9-yard rush, and his stop would have been left the Seahawks a couple of yards short of a first down (Cunnningham would have been very close).
Numbers that stand out: 83 and 32 -- That's the total number of yards and carries from Lynch, Jackson and Johnson against the Patriots this season (2.6 yards per carry).
Reason for grade: Take your pick: Kyle Arrington going to the bench after giving up a 50-yard catch and a 24-yard TD to Doug Baldwin, Devin McCourty giving up a 51-yard pass to Golden Tate on the first play of the first fourth-quarter TD drive for the Seahawks, Patrick Chung allowing a 29-yard pass to Sidney Rice and mauling Tate for a 40-yard pass interference on the end around with Rice, Alfonzo Dennard failing to turn around on a Braylon Edwards TD catch (though the PI call against Dennard was awful) and, of course, Tavon Wilson torched on the game-winning TD pass to Rice. Russell Wilson completed 16-of-27 passes for 293 yards -- 10.9 yards per attempt, Brady has averaged over eight yards per attempt in just two seasons, both MVP years -- three touchdowns and nothing close to an interception. As Alex Speier noted Monday, this defense is on pace to allow 40 TD passes, which would be the most in NFL history. This secondary looms as the fatal flaw for this team -- the offense will be fine, the linebackers are productive and the defensive line has Wilfork and Jones. No regular in that secondary, not McCourty, Chung, Arrington, Steve Gregory, has played close to well enough to deserve to be a starter in the NFL. It's not working and hasn't worked for a long time, and there's zero reason to think it'll be fixed with the players on this roster.
Peak: McCourty is the best safety on the team, but the Patriots won't make the switch. He had a pair of superb tackles, one on Lynch for a 1-yard loss on the play right before the Jones sack and forced fumble, and another on Tate just three plays after allowing the 51-yard reception to Tate.
Valley: Has to be Rice beating Wilson, though the list of nominees was the deepest since the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1993. One question: Where was Nate Ebner on that play? Why are the safeties always incredibly late to arrive on these deep balls? And how did Ian Eagle butcher the name Scott Secules so badly?
Number that stands out: 33 -- Again stealing from Alex Speier's blog post on Monday, the Patriots have allowed 33 completions of 20 or more yards this season, seven more than any other team in the NFL.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Reason for grade: Stephen Gostkowski made all three field goal attempts, Wes Welker had a nifty 27-yard punt return and Matthew Slater had a couple of solo tackles on return coverage. But the one glaring error was key, as Sterling Moore failed to contain Leon Washington on his 25-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, giving the Seahawks field position at the New England 43-yard line for the game-winning drive.
Peak: No kick has been longer than 35 yards, but at least Gostkowski has made four in a row after missing 2-of-3 in Buffalo.
Valley: Bobby Carpenter took a lousy angle on the Washington return, both he and Moore had chances to limit the 25-yard gainer.
Number that stands out: 60.0 -- Jon Ryan's average on his four punts Sunday. Mesko averaged 44.3 yards on three punts.
COACHING -- D
Reason for grade: It's a little bothersome that all the guys in the secondary -- young guys, not veterans who basically coach themselves -- have significantly regressed over the last year or so, right? At some point doesn't someone have to take a hit for this? Look, if a Norv Turner- or Jason Garrett-coached team bungles the clock as egregiously as the Patriots did at the end of the first half it's expected, almost comforting, swell fodder for a snarky tweet. But Bill Belichick and Tom Brady pissing away 21 seconds for no reason is a Level 5 shocker. Throw in the two timeouts in the second half -- one taken because the play clock was running down, the other with 12 men on the field -- and no answers for Russell Wilson and you've got a legitimate stinker from Belichick and his staff.