Report card time, and remember this if you are understandably ready to bury this team after watching Mark Sanchez go up and down the field a week after watching Russell Wilson outplay Tom Brady:
Yes, the Patriots have a glaring, nearly historic weakness with their secondary. And they still could very easily play in the Super Bowl again.
Take a look at the AFC standings. There are as many teams over .500 in the NFC North (three) as there are in the entire AFC. Texans, Ravens, Patriots. That's it. You've seen the Ravens already -- does the prospect of having to win a playoff game in Baltimore against that defense terrify anyone? The Texans are 6-1 and will have home-field advantage for the entire AFC playoffs. I think they are a better team than the Patriots, thought they were better when the season started. They are the one team in the NFL without an obvious weakness, and the defense (save for the Green Bay loss) has been brilliant. But this isn't exactly a franchise or coach or quarterback (if he can stay healthy, an issue for any QB but particularly relevant in his case) with tons of positive postseason experience.
Yup, the secondary stinks. But let's take a deep breath and look around the division. This team is going to win 10, 11 games and that'll take the AFC East by three games. There's panic that's justified, sure, but not from a divisional perspective.
Have you seen the other three teams? With this offense alone they will have a live shot to win every playoff game. If -- and we are at the stage where it should be treated as an if -- the Patriots beat St. Louis on Sunday they have the Bills, Colts and road games at the Jets and Dolphins before the Texans come to Gillette. Not impossible that the Patriots are 9-3 when that game begins, even if the secondary doesn't improve over the next month and a half.
Point is, they've picked the right year to have some very real problems. The struggles of the secondary won't be going away soon -- and I still believe it will ultimately doom this team in January -- but the Patriots are still on the short list of favorites in a terribly mediocre AFC.
To the card we go ...
QUARTERBACK -- B
Reason for grade: Have to be consistent here. If I'm ultimately going to judge Brady on wins and losses -- see his D+ for last week's inept performance in Seattle -- and how he plays when it matters the very most, it's tough to ignore what he accomplished on the final couple of drives on Sunday. Overall he was inaccurate at times -- though, unlike last week, his receivers had several drops -- but still finished 26-for-42 for 259 yards, two TDs and zero picks. Not a masterpiece, but Brady did enough to win a football game a week after he did enough to lose one. Of course, if Stephen Gostkowski misses a field goal at the end of the game (or in OT) we are looking at Brady's effort in a completely different way, but that's how it goes.
Peak: Final drive in regulation. Down three points with 1:37 left at the New England 21, Brady directed the Patriots on a six-play, 54-yard drive that ended with Stephen Gostkowski's 43-yard field goal. On the drive Brady completed four of five passes for 54 yards, with the only incompletion a drop by a diving Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. It would have been a tough catch, sure, but a perfect throw in that spot.
Valley: Following an offensive pass interference call against Lloyd for pushing off on Kyle Wilson, the Patriots had a first-and-20 at their own 11-yard line with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter. Brady was rushed out of the pocket by Calvin Pace and panicked, throwing off his back foot deep to Rob Gronkowski. Brady was bailed out by Antonio Cromartie, who was in perfect position (and even turned around -- some cornerbacks know how to do this) but dropped an easy interception. Reckless stuff from Brady, but we've seen that kind of reaction to pressure at times this season.
Number that stands out: 6.0 -- That was Brady's yards per attempt on Sunday, his lowest of the 2012 season and worst since the loss to Pittsburgh last October 30. Going with our When It Matters Most Theory, though, there is this: Brady completed 9-of-13 passes for 95 yards on the final two drives of the game, good for 7.4 yards per attempt. For the season he's averaging exactly 7.4 yards per attempt (he's at 7.5 for his career).
RUNNING BACKS: C+
Reason for grade: OK if unspectacular. The Jets are 31st in the league against the rush, allowing almost 150 yards per game (4.6 yards per carry). The Patriots rushed for 131 yards on 31 carries, with no rush longer than 16 yards. Stevan Ridley (17 carries, 65 yards) was an impact player for really only one series, the 15-play TD drive in the third quarter. He had seven carries for 27 yards on that drive, but that included rushes of zero, two, zero and -1 yards. Danny Woodhead had just 17 yards on six carries, but was targeted four times and had four catches, including a 20-yard reception on the field-goal drive at the end of the first half. Reason No. 44,886 why spending a week previewing an NFL game is dopey: We all expected Shane Vereen to start (with Ridley and Rob Gronkowski on the sideline) and finish 49 yards on eight carries, right?
Peak: Vereen opened the game with a 10-yard catch and 14-yard rush on the first two plays from scrimmage for the Patriots. He also had back-to-back carries for a total of 24 yards on the last two plays of the third quarter.
Valley: The aforementioned -1 rush from Ridley came on a first-and-goal at the Jets 1-yard line, a solo tackle from Bart Scott.
Number that stands out: 2 -- Entering Sunday, that was the total number of carries for Vereen since last November 27.
Reason for grade: Drops. Brandon Lloyd was targeted six times, had three drops, and had just one catch for six yards. Wes Welker (six catches, 66 yards) had a third-down drop and Gronkowski also dropped a third-down pass from Brady. After a flawless performance in Seattle this was a shaky outing. Welker had a pair of catches for 25 yards in overtime and Aaron Hernandez (hobbling badly later in the game -- fair to wonder if it makes more sense to sit him against the Rams and let him have two more weeks to recover; also fair to ask if he came back too soon) had five catches for 54 yards, including a 16-yarder to the Jets 1-yard-line that was first called a fumble but correctly overturned.
Peak: Gronkowski had his second TD of the game two plays after that Hernandez catch -- a nice piece of play-action from Brady that fooled Bart Scott -- but it was his first TD that stood out, a diving catch in the left corner of the end zone over LaRon Landry. The coverage was really good -- and Gronkowski even took a pretty good hit on the line of scrimmage at the start of the play -- but the route and throw were better. I don't know how many tight ends in football are capable of that making that play, but there aren't more than four or five at best.
Valley: Lloyd had a brutal afternoon, and it's not like Darrelle Revis was on the field. He dropped a deep ball that was right between his arms on the opening drive and should have made that diving catch at the end of regulation. Was it routine? Nope. But if Lloyd is going to be a legitimate No. 1 (or 1A) guy, those are the plays that have to be converted.
Number that stands out: 0 -- That would be the number of playoff games Cam Newton has played in during his very young career. So kindly please stop throwing your coaches and teammates under the bus and just worry about winning a game or two. If I'm a Panthers fan that was an alarming post-game press conference from the franchise quarterback. And it's another reason why the Patriots never say anything. What's to gain?
OFFENSIVE LINE -- B+
Reason for grade: Brady had 42 pass attempts and was hit twice and sacked once (and that sack -- David Harris beating Ryan Wendell -- was at least as much on Brady for holding the ball too long as it was on Wendell). Not too shabby, plus 131 yards on the ground. Plus plenty of time for Brady to make throws on the game-tying drive in regulation and the field-goal drive in overtime. All this done without Logan Mankins and (for three quarters) Dan Connolly, with Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald filling in at the guard positions.
Peak: McDonald flattened Damon Harrison on the back-to-back Vereen runs at the end of the third quarter. And Connolly was key in both Vereen runs at the start of the game.
Valley: A holding penalty on Thomas slowed a promising second-quarter drive, putting the Patriots in a second-and-20 at their own 40-yard line. The Patriots punted two plays later.
Number that stands out: 1 -- Brady was sacked just once on Sunday, tied for the lowest total of the season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Reason for grade: The Jets were held to 3.2 yards per rush, Mark Sanchez was sacked four times, Vince Wilfork played a crucial role in creating a safety and two members of the group teamed for the sack and fumble that ended the game. Mark Sanchez is a terrible NFL quarterback who had about a good a game as he'll have for the rest of his career. Do I put some of that on the defensive line? Yup, I guess he could've been sacked seven, eight, nine times. But let's be realistic -- there are many times when Sanchez is sacked twice and stinks. This is a very, very good defensive line. You can win a Super Bowl with this group, no question about it. The passing numbers are on the secondary and the struggles of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in coverage. Plain and simple. Maybe it'll be fixed and maybe it won't, but that's where this team is on October 23.
Peak: I'd argue Rob Ninkovich has made three of the four biggest defensive plays of the season for this defense -- the two forced fumbles against the Broncos and the sack of Sanchez on Sunday (the forced fumble at the goal-line in Buffalo by Spikes would be the fourth). I of course have no clue -- and neither do you -- if the Jets were going to go down the field and score a touchdown in overtime, but it felt that way after Sanchez connected with Kerley for a 17-yarder. But two plays later Ninkovich (beating Austin Howard) got the high hit and fumble from Sanchez after Jermaine Cunningham got through (beating Brandon Moore) and got a hold on Sanchez's legs.
Valley: Chandler Jones blew past D'Brickashaw Ferguson to force Sanchez out of the pocket and right to Kyle Love, who collected a 4-yard sack in the first quarter. Jones was quiet, however, for the rest of the game -- he did draw a holding penalty, to be fair -- though it should be noted that he faced a fairly steady double team for the last three quarters.
Number that stands out: 4 -- Ninkovich has forced four fumbles this season, tied with Elvis Dumervil for most in the NFL.
Reason for grade: Terrific against the run, mediocre against the pass. Both Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes struggled at times over the middle with Dustin Keller (seven catches on seven targets for 93 yards), and the two were both to blame on Keller's TD. But Mayo (10 solo tackles) had two stops for losses on Greene, and Spikes (seven solo tackles) knocked the back out of the game with a wicked (though not deserving of a fine -- Spikes led with his shoulder and Greene was not defenseless) blast early in the fourth quarter. And Dont'a Hightower returned with his best game of his rookie season, seven tackles and a late fourth-quarter sack of Sanchez that drove the Jets back 10 yards and forced Nick Folk to make a game-tying field goal from 43 yards.
Peak: Has to be the obliteration of Greene by Spikes, right? I'm still not convinced that Spikes is a dirty player, but we'd agree that there is some evidence out there. I just don't think that hit qualified. I've watched it a dozen times and it was plenty aggressive but clean. I still wouldn't be surprised if he gets fined -- the NFL has no consistency with that stuff.
Valley: Both Spikes and Mayo (and Tavon Wilson) were beaten by Keller on his 7-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter. Sanchez squeezed the ball between the two linebackers, but it looked like Mayo could have made a play on it if he had actually seen the ball.
Number that stands out: 72 -- Mayo's tackle total for the season, tops in the NFL.
Reason for grade: Well, let's just go with the fourth-quarter TD drive that cut that 10-point deficit to just a field goal. A 14-play, 91-yard drive saw a 21-yard completion to Stephen Hill against Alfonzo Dennard, a 19-yarder to Jeremy Kerley (who entered the game with 47 career receptions and had seven catches for 119 yards on Sunday) on Devin McCourty that also had a holding penalty against Ras-I Dowling (he had three holding penalties called and missed a couple of tackles, including one on Keller that turned a third-down stop into a first down) declined, a third-and-7 completion to Hilliard against Kyle Arrington (the worst player this season for the worst secondary in the league -- no easy feat; Arrington was mostly responsible for Kerley's career game) for eight yards, 11 more yards to Kerley with McCourty in coverage, and the TD to Keller had Tavon Wilson as lost as Spikes and Mayo.
Mark Sanchez completed nearly 70 percent of his passes on Sunday, his most accurate game in 35 months. With Pat Chung out, McCourty started with Wilson at safety and not much changed. There were no real impact plays from McCourty (though at least the Patriots weren't beat deep for a touchdown this week, and McCourty did break up a pass for Kerley on the final drive of the half). It's hard to believe the solution for this secondary is currently on the roster.
Peak: Dennard had an interception on a brutal Sanchez floater at the New England 2-yard line. Sanchez had Hill open, but made a truly hideous throw with a couple of safer options wide open. But at least Dennard made the catch to stop the drive, more than Cromartie could later claim.
Valley: Arrington's entire performance. Staggering regression from 2011.
Number that stands out: 99.2 -- Opposing quarterbacks have a higher passing rating against the Patriots than Brady's own rating (96.9) this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- C+
Reason for grade: Plenty of positives -- McCourty's kickoff return for a touchdown, Zoltan Mesko with three punts inside the Jets 15-yard line, the pair of clutch field goals from Gostkowski -- but also some negatives, including shaky coverage on Joe McKnight (29 yard average on four returns) and what could have easily been a game-costing fumble from McCourty at the Patriots 18-yard line with 2:01 left in the fourth quarter.
Peak: McCourty's 104-yard kickoff return was sprung in part by blocks from Daniel Fells and Vereen, which allowed McCourty to really only have to get past Nick Folk on his way to the end zone.
Valley: McCourty's fumble was caused by a Lex Hilliard hit, but this wasn't the kind of hit that should cause a fumble. This one was totally on McCourty. He has to hold on in that spot.
Number that stands out: 6 -- Mesko had six punts on Sunday, matching his career high.
COACHING -- C+
The Patriots had 10 men on the field twice on Sunday, including on the Greene TD rush. They called a timeout on the other occasion, just before a first-quarter midfield punt from Mesko, when it probably would've made more sense to eat the five yards and keep the timeout. If this is Jason Garrett or Norv Turner coaching all you'd be reading about is lack of preparation and communication. In-game coaching can't fix what's wrong with the secondary, though it's fair to wonder what role the coaching plays in this disaster.