By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Not a bad last day of the semester, eh class? In their 38-7 lambasting of the moribund Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the Pats authored a fantastic finish to the regular season in which they achieved pretty much all of their goals in closing out the 2010 schedule with a flourish and a 14-2 record. Save for one minor hiccup on the part of Danny Woodhead, the offense continued it’s fine-tuned dominance. Save for the very occasional hiccup in the defensive backfield (where else?) the defense looked as powerful and and, perhaps more importantly, as competent, as it has all year. Other than Woodhead getting dinged up early on and having to sit out the rest of the game, any injuries were avoided, a far cry from the calamity of Wes Welker’s disastrous knee blowout in last year’s equally meaningless season finale in Houston. They easily dispatched a division foe which is always a priority regardless of the circumstances. Plenty of reserves saw lots of playing time and most performed exceptionally, with Julian Edelman, Taylor Price and Brian Hoyer standing out in that group. And several milestones were reached as well, from Tom Brady’s closing out the season with another INT-less game and reaching 335 consecutive pass attempts without one, to the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis making it to the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time of his career, to finishing up with just 10 turnovers as a team, the fewest amount in a 16-game season in league history. While these marks are not nearly as important as the end results and the teamwide accomplishments, they are noteworthy in so far as they add a little bit more of an aura of excellence to the league’s best team, which can’t hurt at all in giving the Pats that much more of an edge heading into the playoffs. It certainly didn’t hurt on Sunday that the Dolphins are awful and barely bothered to show up for the game on either side of the ball and it was comforting (and predictable) to hear Bill Belichick comment that while 14-2 is nice, it’s just one singular achievement, the Pats haven’t really accomplished their biggest goals yet and that to him, right now they and everyone else are even at 0-0 (as opposed to say, Jets coach/bullshit artist Rex Ryan, who immediately declared after his team’s preseason-esque win over the Bills on Sunday that it would win the Super Bowl as a sixth seed and that a matchup with Peyton Manning and the Colts this coming week is “personal,” a comment so asinine, it may actually be in the running for the stupidest thing he’s ever said, a big deal considering the litany of stupid things he’s blathered). So with that, let’s get to this week’s end of the regular season report card, compiled with all the starters in for the entire game.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A
So Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez didn’t play, Woodhead left early in the first quarter and Brady was sat down after one series in the third quarter of a game that meant exactly zero and the offense posts 502 total yards and 38 points. Ho-hum, just another chart-busting week for the NFL’s top scoring team. Again, the Dolphins suck and didn’t show up so the Pats job was made that much easier. But the performance was hugely impressive nonetheless. Brady shredded the hapless Miami pass defense with the same ease he’s shown all season long, completing 10-of-16 passes for 199 yards (12.4 YPA), two TDs and a whopping passer rating of 145.6. He finishes the year with the 335 pass attempt streak as well as the fifth highest passer rating of all time (111.0), 36 TD passes against four picks (again, one of which was on a Hail Mary) and 3,900 passing yards. In some ways, these numbers don’t even completely sum up his utter brilliance this year; if anyone still thinks Michael Vick or someone else still deserves consideration for the MVP award, they clearly aren’t/haven’t been paying attention.
BJGE needed 72 yards for the grand so he went out and got 80, as well as another TD, his 13th of the season. Law Firm, one of the team’s multitude of low round picks/undrafted free agents is the first Pats back to run for 1,000 yards since Corey Dillon in 2004. He’s the Pats best back since Dillon as well. Rob Gronkowski was the de facto No. 1 target with Welker and Branch resting (although one could argue he’s the No. 1 target every week, regardless) and put up another super game with six more catches, 102 more yards and another score, giving him 10 – 10!!! – on the year. Gronk had an outstanding year and should only get better (and maybe even bigger). What a monster he’s been.
Elsewhere, Hoyer acquitted himself quite nicely in relief of Brady, completing 7-of-13 passes for 122 yards (9.4 YPA), a 111.7 passer rating and a stunning, perfect TD pass to Brandon Tate from 42 yards out on which he dropped the ball right into the outstretched receiver’s hands. I’m not interested in seeing Hoyer play in any other situations than he did on Sunday but it’s nice to know he’s got some excellent ability if he has to and that pass to Tate was perfect evidence. Edelman turned a fake reverse, bubble screen pass into a stellar, 40-yard catch and run and Price, in his first NFL action, caught three passes for 41 yards. And the O-line, which featured playing time for everyone except the injured Dan Connolly, did it’s typical thing, keeping Brady and Hoyer almost entirely clean, opening up nice creases for BJGE and Co. and eliminating the opponent’s most threatening defensive weapon, in this case league sack leader Cameron Wake, who had three tackles, period. It may have been tempting to think the Pats may have let up a bit on Sunday, considering the stakes, or lack thereof. But that’s not how they do things in Foxboro. They play as hard as they can, as well as they can at all times. And why shouldn’t they? That’s their job.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: A
Two of the Pats biggest defensive dogs had a couple of typically crappy moments on Sunday – Darius Butler was roasted twice in the late going, once costing the team a pass interference penalty, then a TD, and “Pro Bowler” Brandon Meriweather embarrassed himself for the umpteenth time this season when he tried to shoulder bump Miami backup QB Tyler Thigpen to the ground instead of, you know, tackle him, and was run over. Other than that, it was all sunshine and puppies for the D, which can thank the Dolphins pathetic quarterbacking and woeful offensive line play for being complicit in such a devastating performance. Starting with Jerod Mayo, who for the second straight week played as if shot out of a cannon, posting one of the best games of his career. He had six tackles, a sack, two more QB hits and two tackles for a loss while spending seemingly the entire afternoon in the Miami backfield.
Overall, the Pats had five sacks, with Rob Ninkovich and Vince Wilfork rolling up two each while both buzzing around Thigpen and his partner in suckiness, Chad Henne, many more times. Devin McCourty capped off his outstanding rookie season with yet another picture perfect INT on the Dolphins first possession (on the first of many throws by Henne that wouldn’t fly in a college game let alone the NFL), and breaking up a couple more throws, including a long ball on which he displayed absolutely flawless technique (I wonder if Butler has ever watched the way McCourty plays?). Scrap heap signing Eric Moore made the case for even more playing time with another big game that featured a forced fumble, a pass breakup and a handful more tackles. And the run defense, spearheaded as usual by Wilfork, once again fronting an extremely thin front line, held the Dolphins to 44 yards and just 2.8 YPA, a death knell for a team that has to count on a QB as bad as Henne. It was the fourth time in five games in which the D allowed seven points or fewer, which has to be a confidence booster for this young group going forward. It gets Brandon Spikes back from his suspension for the divisional playoff a week from Sunday, too. Maybe Meriweather will learn how to tackle by then.
Special Teams, Coaching, Everything Else: A
Belichick lamented some of the kick coverage in the aftermath of the game but that’s OK when your punt returner runs one back 94 yards for a TD, the longest such play in franchise history. Edelman backtracked almost 10 yards, fielded the ball, shed one tackle, sidestepped another and was gone, like that. It was an electrifying play that showcased Edelman’s tantalizing potential (along with that 40-yard catch and run, it probably marked the most exciting game of his young career). The play came with 18 seconds left in the first half and gave the Pats a 24-0 lead, effectively ending the game (although the game was arguably over when McCourty picked off Henne and the Pats scored six plays later).
As far as the coaching goes, it’s hard to imagine what else can be said. A lot was made on the interwebs yesterday about how far the Pats exceeded pretty much everyone’s expectations this year. Most predictions had them anywhere from 8-8 to maybe 10-6, that’s it. Instead, they’re 14-2, the best record in the NFL, and have home-field throughout the playoffs and a first-round bye. The players, particularly Brady, are hugely responsible for that. But they were put in position by Belichick and his staff, who squashed any thoughts of this being a bridge year early on and never looked back. Whether it was the trade of Randy Moss, the re-acquisition of Branch, the jettisoning of Laurence Maroney in favor of BJGE, the use of so many late round or undrafted guys on both sides of the ball or whatever, everything Belichick’s done this season, every decision he’s made, has worked and worked smashingly and even though there’s a way to go, it’s pretty difficult to fathom. Even on Sunday, in a game that didn’t mean anything, he had the troops fired up to play like it was Jets or Colts week in late November or early December. It feels like 2001 around here in so many ways and Belichick is the chief reason why. For all the good that Todd Haley did this year in Kansas City or Raheem Morris did in Tampa, neither did as good, as impressive, as challenging a job as Belichick did with this Pats team. He’s the Coach of the Year and if you don’t believe it, go back and watch the tape. It’s all right there.