I suppose it's important to note that the Patriots did beat the Bills on Sunday. I was there, I saw Patriots 37, Bills 31 with 0:00 on the clock. It happened, the Patriots are 6-3 and a look at the standings confirms this team has won three games in row and are one game behind the Ravens (though in actuality it's two with the head-to-head loss) for the second seed in the AFC.
It's all worth noting, because the media around here has basically told you the Patriots lost on Sunday, have now lost two of three after Mark Sanchez beat them three weeks ago, now stand 4-5 and are just another team that maybe needs to fire the GM and a couple of defensive coaches at the very least.
There seems to be a genuine gulf between many if most of the fans and many if not most in the media regarding this team. As always, the truth is closer to the middle than to either edge. The 2012 Patriots are a good football team -- they are going to win 10, 11 maybe even 12 games. Lousy teams generally don't do that. So yes, the media holds this team to an unusually high standard. And yes, I think some in the media enjoy kicking this team around because they haven't had a lot of chances to do it over the last decade or so. Then there are the professional Bill Belichick haters.
But the fans, perhaps as a reaction to all this, take it too far the other way. If I have to hear that this team is three plays away from being 9-0 one more time I'll vomit every piece of food I've eaten in my life. Why don't I hear the same people say this team is two plays away from being 4-5? That's as dopey (and true) as three plays away from 9-0. And this defense is flawed right now, OK? Don't take it personally. They are 25th in yards allowed, 15th in points allowed and opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 2,568 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in nine games. Can we all agree that there is some room for improvement?
It's not going to change, this has been the conversation for two years. Both sides are wrong and both sides are right and the two won't meet until the Patriots win another Super Bowl. Unless the defense doesn't play well in the game, of course.
To the report card we go ...
Reason for Grade: There are a million differences between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tom Brady -- that's why I'm here, folks -- and you saw just one of them on Buffalo's final play in the fourth quarter. Look, Brady hasn't been perfect in the crucial spots the last few years, but you'll never see him throw that hideous an interception with the game on the line. Brady was solid but only that Sunday, completing 23-of-38 passes for 237 yards, two TDs and no picks. A case can absolutely be made that this offense again failed to close out a game -- a TD on that last drive and whatever Fitzpatrick does or does not do is irrelevant -- but they did take nearly six minutes off the clock and convert three third-downs. Brady and others on the offense were crediting the defense for bailing them out with the two late turnovers but that's just saying the right thing to say the right thing: The Patriots scored 37 points at home against the Buffalo Bills and that has to be enough to win every time.
Peak: Two passes to an otherwise quiet (and clearly hobbled) Rob Gronkowski -- a beautiful touch pass over the middle for 24 yards in the second quarter and a perfectly placed ball in the corner of the end zone for two-yard touchdown after the absurd pass interference call on Stephon Gilmore against Brandon Lloyd. There is no call in sports I hate more than a bogus PI that puts a team at the 1-yard line and basically hands them six points for doing nothing other than chucking a ball and relying on incompetence.
Valley: If Brady completes a pass to a wide-open Danny Woodhead on 3rd-and-goal on the Patriots final drive the game is over. Instead, he short-hopped it and the ball landed a yard or so in front of Woodhead. Brady was moving to his right but it was an easy play -- looked like he just lost his grip on the ball during the throw.
Number That Stands Out: Brady hasn't thrown an interception since the fourth quarter of the Seattle loss, 127 passing and counting. To be fair, he was lucky not to be picked after Marcell Dareus tipped his first-quarter pass and Joshua Nesbitt wasn't able to make the play.
RUNNING BACKS: B+
Reason for Grade: Might be too low, actually. The Patriots were expected to be able to run the ball against the 31st ranked rushing defense -- a group that allowed 247 yards to the Patriots in September -- and they ran the ball against the Bills, picking up 117 yards on 29 carries, with Stevan Ridley (22 carries, 98 yards) doing more to inch closer to No Question, This is A No. 1 Guy status. Throw in a Danny Woodhead with two touchdowns and a B+ feels a little conservative. But after last Tuesday I'm feeling the need to be a little conservative, and this piece of real estate is my only shot at it.
Peak: Woodhead's 18-yard TD catch in the third quarter was really a terrific effort, as he slipped out of the backfield, got past Nick Barnett (who struggled all day) in the open field, caught the Brady pass and made a cut to his right to beat Jaruis Byrd and Da'Norris Searcy and sneak into the end zone.
Valley: Ridley rushed for a touchdown but also had a rush for a loss of two yards at the Buffalo 1-yard line (first quarter), another for a loss of a yard at the Buffalo 1-yard line (second quarter) and one for a loss of two yards at the Buffalo 2-yard line on first down on that final drive. And on the very next play Ridley was (correctly) flagged for a false start.
Number That Stands Out: Ridley is on pace for 1,446 yards this season, which would be fourth-best in franchise history.
RECEIVERS -- C+
Reason for Grade: Drops. Three really stand out, two by Wes Welker -- including a wide-open, right in his mitts special in the first quarter that would have been a sure touchdown -- and one by Deion Branch that could have been intercepted (also in the first quarter). Welker's second drop was also potentially game-changing, as he slipped and couldn't bring in Brady's pass from the New England 1 on the drive following the McCourty forced fumble in the fourth quarter (more on the play calling in that series later). If Welker makes that catch it's a first down -- instead the Patriots are forced to punt to the Bills, who take over at the New England 45-yard-line and put together a TD drive that made it a 34-31 game.
Peak: We already mentioned the Gronkowski catches, so how about the 23-yard catch from Welker in the fourth quarter that saw him cut back and reverse field? At the time -- final drive, just over three minutes left, moved the ball to the Buffalo 23-yard line -- it had the feel of a game-closer. Superb blocking from Deion Branch and Gronkowkski on the play to help spring Welker.
Valley: I'm stealing from the great Tom E. Curran, who tweeted this as it happened, but watching the third-quarter screen catch by Gronkowski again it's striking just how slow he is at this point. He's still the best tight end in this league, but this is 70 percent of the guy from last season.
Number That Stands Out: Deion Branch was targeted eight times (four catches, 30 yards) on Sunday -- he had been targeted 12 times in the six previous games.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Reason For Grade: Plenty of injuries -- and Logan Mankins was spotted in a walking boot after the game -- Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald as the guards at the end of the game and you've still got a line that helped the backs average four yards a carry and allowed Tom Brady to be sacked just once. There was some pressure at times, sure, but this was a strong outing from this group.
Peak: If you'll allow a couple: Donald Thomas and Ryan Wendell opened a huge hole for Ridley on his 24-yard rush, Mankins and Nate Solder were key in Woodhead's TD rush and Ridley followed solid blocks from Sebastien Vollmer and Gronkowski on his TD score.
Valley: We all get that there is tough, there is really tough and there's Logan Mankins. But he was obviously nowhere close to 100 percent Sunday before leaving the game with the foot injury. Mankins was run over by Kyle Williams and was responsible for a sack on his last play on Sunday (Wendell was also beat by Marcell Dareus on the play).
Number That Stands Out: Mario Williams was dominated by Nate Solder on Sunday, an absolute non-factor for the second time this season. The line for Williams in the two games? Five tackles, zero sacks, zero quarterback hits.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
Reason For Grade: There were moments -- this might have been the most productive game of Jermaine Cunningham's career, Justin Francis had a hit on Fitzpatrick, Vince Wilfork forced a fumble, Rob Ninkovich had a sack -- but this group has to take a hit for 162 rushing yards allowed. The failure wasn't so much from Wilfork (though he was quiet after the sack and forced fumble, facing double and at times triple teams) but from the edges, as Chandler Jones and Ninkovich were unable time and time again to slow down Fred Jackson and Spiller. All season long we've seen tight ends embarrassed in one-on-one matchups with Jones, but Scott Chandler was able to keep Jones out of the backfield when matched up on Sunday (which, to be fair, wasn't often -- Jones was matched up with Cordy Glenn with help for the most part, but Chandler did take Jones out of the play on Jackson's 14-yard TD rush). The defensive line has been and will continue to be a strength for this team, but Sunday was probably its second-worst effort of the season (Baltimore).
Peak: Wilfork strip-sacked Fitzpatick at the Buffalo 13-yard line in the first quarter, a fumble that was recovered by Cunningham (who also had a sack, drew a holding penalty on Chris Hairston and had another hit on Fitzpatrick). The Patriots converted the fumble into points with Ridley's TD rush.
Valley: Zero pressure on Fitzpatrick on the final two drives, he was never uncomfortable in the pocket. The interception was in no way due to any kind of pressure from the line, just a terrible read from Fitzpatrick.
Number That Stands Out: The Bills averaged 3.6 yards per carry in the first meeting in September and 5.8 yards per carry on Sunday.
LINEBACKERS -- D+
Reason For Grade: Some people think Jerod Mayo is an elite linebacker in the NFL, some think he's hugely overrated. He's become one of those guys in this city -- Rajon Rondo is another -- where there seems to be no middle ground, though I've tried to find it. Mayo is a flawed but very good linebacker, you see the good and the bad almost every week. But I can't remember Mayo playing worse than he did on Sunday. He was toasted by Scott Chandler on a couple of catches (twice fooled by Fitzpatrick play-action), he whiffed on a chance to take down Fitzpatrick -- not exactly Fran Tarkenton -- in the open field on the play that eventually ended with Dennard being flagged for unnecessary roughness, he missed Spiller in the backfield on what turned out to be a 25-yard gain and was given his own unnecessary roughness penalty for a late hit on Spiller (after Spiller beat him to the sideline) that helped the Bills on their fourth-quarter TD drive.
Peak: Brandon Spikes actually was pretty strong against the pass and forced a Jackson fumble with another of his blasts, though the Bills recovered. I'm still not sure if the Spikes hit on Fitzpatrick was dirty or not, but I can understand why Fitzpatrick called Spikes out. There is a line and Spikes gets awful close to it often. If I'm a Patriots fan I'm more than OK with it -- though I could live without Spikes celebrating as the Bills recovered the fumble -- and I would love that he's the kind of player an opposing team hates. This defense needs more of that, not less.
Valley: Donta Hightower had his worst game, as he was beat by Chandler on a TD catch and taken out on Jackson's TD rush.
Number That Stands Out: Nothing fits, so there's this: The Patriots have a plus-98 scoring differential this season -- the other three AFC East teams are a combined minus-138.
Reason For Grade: It just seems that guys are always so open, right? I understand this isn't the 1985 Bears, but this isn't the worst pass rush in the league and I don't see other teams that struggle with this so consistently. Alfonzo Dennard was brutal on Sunday, and this is the guy we've been told is the best cornerback on the roster. He started (with Kyle Arrington) and was beaten by Steve Johnson and Donald Jones with regularity, giving up a TD to Jones and a fourth-down catch to Johnson. He also missed several tackles and had a truly moronic unnecessary roughness penalty on Fitzpatrick. He's a rookie and has shown plenty of promise at times, but on Sunday he looked no different than everyone else who has struggled in that secondary this season.
Peak: McCourty bailed out the defense twice in the fourth quarter, forcing a the Jackson fumble in the fourth quarter (a great, heady play) and intercepting Fitzpatrick to close out the game (right place, right time). He's the best safety on this team, it's not even close and he's only going to get better.
Valley: Is Steve Gregory going to contribute to this team at some point this season?
Number That Stands Out: Fitzpatrick has thrown for 350 and 337 yards in the two games against the Patriots this season. His next-highest total this season is 239 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Reason For Grade: As Chris Price noted on Monday, Stephen Gostkowski took Leodis McKelvin completely out of the game. Maybe the best kick returner in the NFL, McKelvin had just one chance to return a kick (Gostkowski had eight kickoffs) and picked up just 21 yards before Derrick Martin collected a solid solo tackle. Gostkowski also made all three field-goal attempts, including a 48-yarder that gave the Patriots a 10-point lead with 14:10 left in the fourth quarter. Zoltan Mesko -- just two punts -- also helped neutralize McKelvin, as one punt was downed inside the 20-yard line and McKelvin had a fair catch on the other. Julian Edelman had a 32-yard kickoff return that was helped by a Shane Vereen block.
Reason For Grade: This defense isn't going to be particularly aggressive against teams with quarterbacks that Belichick doesn't think can beat him -- see Sanchez, Wilson and now Fitzpatrick. Sanchez and Fitzpatrick proved him right, Wilson made the plays and avoided the critical errors. The philosophy isn't going to change, we've seen it for the last three years. I hated, hated, hated the play calling after the McCourty forced fumble -- the Patriots take over at their own 1-yard line against the league's 31st ranked rushing defense (a defense they have rushed at will against for eight quarters this year) with 9:35 left and a 10-point lead and throw the ball three times and take 19 seconds off the clock? Inexplicable at best, trying to hard to be the smartest guy in the room.