By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
It took them almost two full months, but on Sunday in their regular season home finale, the Patriots finally submitted an effort worthy of a playoff team for 60 full minutes. In thrashing the Jaguars 35-7, the Pats got plus performances from almost everyone on the game day roster, locking up the AFC East and severely damaging Jacksonville’s postseason prospects in the process. The offense gained 464 yards, showing perfect balance with 197 of those yards via the run, and averaged 8.6 yards per play. The defense didn’t let up a single point until the fourth quarter with a 35-point lead and held the Jaguars vaunted running game to under 100 yards and four yards per attempt on the day, while getting more key plays out of the revamped secondary. It was a near perfect game, the Pats best since the back-to-back destructions of Tennessee and Tampa Bay in October, and although the overall effort (and the quality of the competition) doesn’t change the fact that this team still has enough flaws to make even the most die hard fans a bit worried about their playoff prospects, it still provides a comforting sigh of relief with one game left before the real meaningful stuff begins. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, the last of the decade.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A
It would be hard to imagine a better effort in every aspect than the one the Pats offense submitted on Sunday. Everyone who played on this side of the ball (with one notable exception) was at least good; several were outstanding. The play-calling was consistently excellent, keeping the terrible Jags defense on its collective heels all day thanks to a perfect mix of passes and runs. The production came from almost everywhere with four backs combining for those 197 yards and 5.5 YPA and Tom Brady completing passes to seven different receivers. And the offensive line, which has been very good ever since the debacle in New Orleans four weeks ago, played perhaps its best game of the season, not only opening up the room for all of those rushing yards but keeping Brady literally untouched all day. There were two 10-play drives, a six and a seven-play drive each of which resulted in a TD and a 20-play march that salted away the game, all even more evidence of a completely dominant performance. For an offense that has been drifting (to be kind) the past few weeks, Sunday provided a very bright, confidence-inspiring turn of events.
I guess Brady is feeling better, eh? He played a virtually flawless game, completing 23-of-26 passes for 267 yards and four TDs (the only incompletions being an overthrow to Randy Moss, a drop by Fred Taylor and an out-of-bounds throwaway) to go over 4,000 yards for the third time in his career. He must like playing the Jags, against whom he was 26-of-28 for 262 yards and three TDs the last time he saw them in a 2008 divisional playoff game. He was a sharp as he’s been since the Indianapolis game, making every throw, feeling what little pressure there was and sliding or stepping up to the right spot and spreading the wealth, not just to Moss and the tremendous Wes Welker, but to his other receivers, both tight ends and a couple of backs as well. Through all of this, he didn’t hit the deck a single time and while a lot of the credit for that must be levied to the offensive line, it is worth noting that for a guy playing with a variety of injuries that have clearly affected his play over the past couple of games, the fact that he stayed upright all day was a major plus going forward. Brady will not see the kind of ineptitude out of too many playoff defenses that the Jags, who have even less of a pass rush than the Pats as well as very suspect secondary play, displayed. But if he has time and plays as sharply as he did on Sunday, it may not matter come postseason time.
Running Backs: A-
Poor Laurence Maroney. Just when it seemed he finally had conquered his dancing demons and gotten the gist of what it takes to be a productive running back in the NFL, he loses his third goal line fumble of the season at the end of a fantastic, game-opening march and gets benched for the remainder of the day. That’s not an exaggeration, folks. Maroney started, carried the ball five times for 22 yards with a long of nine, then took a handoff from Brady on first and goal from the 1 and put it on the ground. The replay showed the ball may have crossed the plane of the goal line before it came loose but really, who cares? Maroney did it again, a familiar refrain throughout his tenure here, and even though it didn’t wind up costing the team, it was a major, major boo-boo and it may have cost him his job thanks to the return to full health of Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. Tough stuff for Maroney, who has been very, very good the past two months. Morris, for his part, took the bull by the horns after Maroney’s benching and exploded for 95 yards and a TD on just 12 carries, including a career-high, 55-yard scamper on third-and-one from a power set with guard Dan Connolly as his fullback and lead blocker, setting up a one-yard scoring blast two plays later. It was a huge game for Morris and a relief as well given the circumstances surrounding Maroney. Fred Taylor returned, entering the game in the fourth quarter against his ex-team and contributing 35 tough yards, many of which came on the Pats 20-play drive that ran out the clock in the final frame. And Kevin Faulk did his thing too, with 41 yards on just six carries, most of which came came in the first half when the Pats were hammering the helpless Jags D. The running game has been excellent the past three weeks and Sunday was the cherry on top.
Wide Receivers: A
So what will the Randy Moss haters say this week? Will they point out that he had just four catches for 45 yards? They could, but they’d have to add that three of those catches were for scores. What about failing to block on running plays or quick throws? Can’t go there either; he was blocking out wide all day including a crusher on a hitch to Wes Welker in the third quarter in which he was sprung for 11 yards en route to an eventual score. The crowd appropriately saluted Moss with a standing ovation. Will his critics? After another outstanding game by Moss, they should. As for Welker, ho-hum. 13 more catches, 138 more yards, another franchise record for receptions in a season (122), and his seventh game this year with at least 10 grabs, tying a league mark. Again, ho-hum. There are hardly any words left to describe Welker’s greatness. It’s already been pointed out that he is this offense’s most valuable player this season a million times. Let’s make it a million and one then. The only disappointing aspect to Welker’s year is the fact that he’s now gone 83 catches without a TD, which is one of the top five longest such stretches in league history. It’s hardly his fault; it’s not really anyone’s. But wouldn’t it be great to see him score? Julian Edelman was Sunday’s third receiver and made a 28-yard catch on a crossing route that looked Welker-esque. And Sam Aiken softened up his hands enough to make a catch of his own. It was a great day for the entire receiving corps with Welker and Moss, as usual, leading the way.
Tight Ends: A
They were used! Again!! That’s right, the Pats utilized both Ben Watson and Chris Baker in the passing game and boy did it pay off. Baker had two catches for 32 yards including a reaching, twisting TD reception in the second quarter on which he fought off a couple of defenders. It was a great throw by Brady but the way Baker contorted his body to come up with the ball in traffic was equally impressive. Why can’t he be a primary target more often? Obviously, he’s no Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, but he has shown on a few occasions this year that he can be a very effective receiver. Watson made one catch, a nice grab on a roll out on the first drive of the game that took the ball to the one right before Maroney’s fumble, but he also spent a lot of time split out in spread sets and contributed his usual solid performance blocking. Again, it’s hard to grade these guys since it’s not always clear what kind of impact they have when they don’t wind up on the stat sheet. But when either of them scores or sets up a chance to score, as they both did on Sunday, in our weighted grading system here at PDU, that’s reason enough for the big A.
Offensive Line: A+
Stephen Neal returned and set up the perfect alignment for this group. Why? Because with Neal back at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, with Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen at their usual spots, the O-line submitted its best performance in weeks, if not of the entire season. Again, Brady wasn’t even hit. That’s zero hits to go along with zero sacks, a phenomenal stat. Sure, the Jaguars pass rush is non-existent. But that makes four straight games now that Brady hasn’t been sacked which tells me that this unit is peaking at precisely the right time and now with Neal back (though with his injury history, it’s always touch-and-go) they keep Brady completely clean. There was one play in the third quarter on which Light was beaten by former first-rounder Derrick Harvey, but Brady felt the heat and ducked under the sack, keeping the line’s perfect showing intact. Vollmer was whistled for a couple of false starts but neither mattered. And again – 197 yards rushing, 5.5 YPA. As much credit as the backs should get for those numbers, so too should the line. It’s hard to imagine them playing better as a group than they did on Sunday. Great, great stuff.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: A
Another big game for this group, which continued to put its problems from the middle of the season further into the rearview mirror. Vince Wilfork sat out again while Ty Warren suited up but only played a handful of snaps and was more of an insurance policy than anything else, but it didn’t really matter. The Pats held the Jags to just one score on nine possessions and after their first drive, on which Maurice Jones-Drew looked like a bowling ball knocking over pins disguised as defenders for a few plays, they tightened up, held on both third and 1 and fourth and 1 (the latter play a gem on the part of both Warren and James Sanders) and were barely bothered by the Jacksonville rushing attack again. The “cocktail party formation” made another appearance and again paid dividends both defending the run and pass and the secondary produced another solid effort now three weeks after putting youngsters Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler (who was inactive) into sub roles in favor of vets Sanders and Shawn Springs, with Brandon Meriweather finally getting his head out of his you-know-what and making an impact multiple times. The Jags two top receiving targets, Mike Sims-Walker and Marcedes Lewis, were bottled up and injured respectively. Other than a 16-play drive to open the second half that ended in a Springs interception at the 2, the Jags were not able to sustain a drive more than six plays all day. With a 35-0 lead in the fourth quarter, the Pats let up a bit, allowing the Jags to fly down the field and score in just five plays, but it was far too little, far too late. With the kind of success this defense has had the past two weeks, with its best player sidelined and another crucial one at far less than full strength, there is reason for a lot of optimism headed into the playoffs.
Defensive Line: B+
Other than rookie Ron Brace, who showed why he’s not been allowed anywhere near the stadium on game days after getting swallowed up by center Brad Meester on the Jags opening drive and was subsequently banished to the bench, it was a solid day for the line, even without Vince Wilfork. Jones-Drew was never able to get going after that opening series, managed just 41 yards on 13 carries for the remainder of the game. Ty Warren made a huge impact despite his limited reps, breaking through to slow Jones-Drew enough for James Sanders to finish him off on the fourth and 1 in the early going. Mike Wright wasn’t nearly as active as last week in Buffalo and he missed a couple of tackles in the process but was still serviceable, as was Jarvis Green, who according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss’s handy snap count chart, played more downs than any other lineman. Rookie Myron Pryor also returned from injury and saw some time on the nose and shined with five tackles. It will be interesting to see how much regular time these guys will get when Wilfork returns vs. how much “cocktail party formation” is employed. For the past two weeks, the mix has been just right.
The year of Tully Banta-Cain‘s life continues. Tully stepped up big again, notching his ninth sack (which forced a fumble) to go with a couple of more hits on Jags quarterback David Garrard as well as five tackles, one of which came out of the “cocktail party formation” and dropped Jones-Drew for a loss. He played the whole game again and has clearly emerged as one one of the most important weapons on the entire defense, coming out of nowhere to do so. What a find for the Pats – it’s too bad he had to be allowed to leave, fizzle out somewhere else and come back before it happened but the Pats will surely take it. Jerod Mayo had his best game in weeks, submitting 15 tackles and getting some pressure on Garrard while looking fast and active all over the field. Gary Guyton made a few nice stops and sacked Garrard while Rob Ninkovich saw some extensive action thanks to the number of “cocktail party” plays and responded with three tackles. Derrick Burgess wasn’t the bear he’s been the past couple of weeks but he was quick and active, getting pressure on Garrard multiple times without actually coming up with a sack. And Adalius Thomas, who was run over by Jones-Drew early on bounced back to make a couple of key plays including one on which he ran down Jones-Drew on an outside run from a ways away and held him to a short gain. In fact, Thomas and Banta-Cain were huge in run containment all day, staying home when the Jags went away from running the ball between the tackles and forcing the play back into the middle of the defense on several occasions. It was a very good day for this once beleaguered bunch, which has seemed to improve as a unit every week since Miami.
Who knew that bouncing Jonathan Wilhite out of the starting lineup and Darius Butler altogether would give this group so much life? Wilhite, for his part, continues to thrive as a part-timer, posting six tackles and looking solid against the run while again not having to bear the burden of being responsible for too much. Leigh Bodden played the whole game and Shawn Springs was in for just about the entire run and both came up big, especially Springs, who beautifully jumped the route on a quick in pass to Sims-Walker near the Pats goal line at the end of that one sustained Jacksonville drive to come up with the pick and preserve the shutout. It was a perfect, veteran read and one I’m not too sure Wilhite or Butler would have been able to make. Maybe Springs lack of playing time earlier in the year had less to do with ineffectiveness or injury and more to do with keeping him fresh for this portion of the season. Whatever the reason, his presence has clearly paid off. Brandon McGowan and Pat Chung saw time in nickel packages but did most of their work on special teams. Which brings us to the other safeties, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather, both of whom were among the biggest stars of the game. It started when Meriweather smelled a reverse on third and 1 on the Jags first drive and stuffed receiver Mike Thomas for no gain. Sanders made the stop on Jones-Drew on the next play and off they went. In the second quarter, Garrard went deep to Lewis but severely overthrew him, and Meriweather, playing center field, snagged the ball and ran it back 55 yards to the Jags 27, setting up the TD pass to Baker two plays later. Sanders, who laid out Lewis on the play, knocking the Jags tight end out for the rest of the game, was in perfect position to make the pick had the throw been lower and added a couple more big hits as well as a couple of passes defensed later on. The big test for these guys comes this week when they face the first high-powered passing game they’ve seen since New Orleans when they travel to Houston. But if they play like they did on Sunday against an admittedly far inferior offense in the Jags, they’ll be just fine.
Special Teams: B
How about Kyle Arrington? The rookie out of Hofstra, who was acquired from Tampa bay after Week 1 and has played in just seven games, has become the ace of the Pats special teams. He had three tackles and was on two others, giving him 15 on the year. Oh yeah and he also missed a punt block by about four inches. What a find he’s been. Stephen Gostkowski was perfect on his five point after tries and also hit a couple of kickoffs into the end zone, something he hasn’t been doing much of lately. Chris Hanson only had to punt once and it was a solid 42-yarder. If there was a problem, it was the non-existent kick return game, which went one for 16 yards (by Edelman). The Pats came into the game ranked 31st in the league in this category and have been unable to find the right answer there all year (hint – it’s not Edelman or Matthew Slater). It’s a minor problem but on which needs fixing nonetheless.
The Jaguars are a fairly easy looking team to figure out; they want to run, are conservative when they need to pass and are young, undermanned and not too talented on defense. It’s a combination over which a guy like Bill Belichick probably licks his chops. The game plan on both sides of the ball was sparkling. The only real impact guy on the Jags defense is nose tackle John Henderson so the Pats doubled him up, neutralized him and forced other linemen and linebackers to stop the run, which did not happen. Brady’s numbers attest to how easy it was to pass on the Jags and while it certainly helped that they hadn’t the first clue how to cover either Welker or Moss, the ease with which the Pats threw had to have been something for which they were prepared. The balance of run and pass in the play calling was perfect; it was Bill O’Brien’s best day as de facto offensive coordinator in a long time. And on defense, after making the adjustment with Brace after that first Jags possession, everything they did worked with guys in position to make plays at every level all day. It’s said here for a couple of weeks now that Belichick and his staff seem to be rounding into form after a tough season. Sunday against the Jags was the most convincing, resounding proof of that yet.