By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Doesn’t it seem like ages ago when all the haters out there were standing tall, beating their chests and harping on the completely hackneyed idea that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is finished? Three weeks by unofficial count. Over the course of that stretch, the Pats have embarked on a three-game winning streak during which they’ve rolled up an aggregate 109-39 margin of victory. That’s an average of about 36- 13. Washed up? Hardly.
The latest example of the Pats rise from some mid-October ashes came on Sunday in Philadelphia where they beat the miserably coached disappointments of the season also known as the Eagles. After falling behind 10-0 early thanks to a couple of deep passes hit by Philly backup QB Vince Young, the Pats regrouped, adjusted to what the Eagles came out showing them and blew the doors, scoring 38 of the next 48 points en route to a 38-20 victory that wasn’t remotely that close. The Pats continued to click on offense while getting just enough out of their undermanned, no-name defense and took great advantage of the horrible, misguided coaching of the Eagles, a team that will never, ever win anything as long as its current head coach and staff is in charge. But perhaps most impressive of all, the Pats continued to display their team wide toughness and resiliency. Playing undermanned yet again, on the road, against a desperate team and falling behind early, they simply got up, dusted themselves off and took the game over, dominating from the 8:19 mark of the first quarter and well beyond the 8:35 mark of the fourth, the time of their final TD, when the miserable Eagles fans left Lincoln Financial Field en masse while calling for the head of coach Andy Reid. With five games left, all against mediocre competition, there’s no reason to think this team won’t finish 13-3 and given the lack of any real dominant team in the AFC, there’s also little reason to believe that despite the post-season failures of the past couple years, that they can’t make a playoff run. But those are conversations for down the road. For now, let’s get to this week’s report card.
Early on, it looked like another week of waiting for Tom Brady to get his tennis elbow loosened up before the Pats offense could really get moving. But as opposed to the past few games, this week’s wait lasted one drive. The second time they had the ball, the Pats went 80 yards in 12 plays over 6:52 of clock time and it was off to the races. Brady completed passes to just four receivers but who cares? He was surgical in doing so, looking vintage in picking apart the Eagles woeful pass defense, which chose to sit back in a soft zone all day while Brady found one wide open man after another. He finished the day 24-of-34 for 361 yards and three TDs and even though he got hit a couple times early, his uniform was virtually spotless when Brian Hoyer took over with seven minutes left to play (even after running the ball five times for 28 whole yards and looking slower than a walrus in the process). Brady was on the same page as all of his intended targets all day, looking otherworldly in completing long catch-and-runs to Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. He and Branch looked like their 2004 selves in recognizing one of the many dead spots in the Philly D and turning a 10-yard comeback route into a 63-yard sprint while he communicated telepathically with Welker on a 41-yard TD pass, the first of two to Welker on the day. Brady has always been a master of taking what the defense gives him. On Sunday, the Eagles gave him whatever he wanted and he responded just like the Hall-of-Famer he is.
Running Backs: B
It took 36 carries for the Pats to gain 104 yards on the ground (and Brady had the highest YPA with 5.6). But when BenJarvus Green-Ellis got rolling early, it set the stage for the play-action pass, which in turn softened up the Eagles defense even more, enabling Brady to do whatever he damn well pleased. BJGE finished with a modest 44 yards on just 14 carries, but he scored two TDs (the Pats first two of the game), his first time reaching the end zone since Week 5. Elsewhere, it was a mixed bag. No one else carried the ball more than seven times (Shane Vereen, who gained 18 yards again all in garbage time, but showed some more impressive credentials in doing so). Danny Woodhead continued to deliver when called upon, picking up 20 hard earned yards on just four attempts. About the only place to find anything to complain about was yet another no-show for Stevan Ridley (four carries, four yards), who has completely fallen off the map since his breakouts of Weeks 3 and 4. It would be nice to see the Pats commit a little bit more to the run; there were 36 runs against 34 pass attempts but several of the rushes came after the game was well in hand and while it’s nice to see the coaching staff try to keep everyone involved, shortening the rotation a bit, especially given Ridley’s struggles, might be a good idea. But these are minor problems at most. The paltry YPA notwithstanding, Sunday was a successful day for the running game.
Wide Receivers: A-
Boy were Welker and Branch awesome on Sunday. The duo combined for 240 yards and two TDs on 14 catches and both were so zeroed in with Brady, it was a sight to behold. Welker, who now has 82 catches for 1,143 yards and eight TDs on the season, looked as tough and powerful on his second TD as he did instinctive and smart on his first. It was another one of those option routes on which he can decide midway through whether or not he’s coming in or going out and on this one, he stayed inside, picked the ball out of the air and raced to the pylon, reaching for the score with a dive and just sneaking it in. And Branch, who was lauded over and over again by Belichick after the game (at one point, the coach said that, “we could all learn a lot from spending time around a guy like Deion”) had his best game since Week 2, a major development given how little there is at the wideout position after you get past him and Welker. The Eagles and their awful defensive scheme played right into the hands of a receiver like Branch; in-cuts, hitch and comeback routes within 10-12 yards of the line of scrimmage, open on nearly all of them. It was a banner day for these two, so much so that Tiquan Underwood (yes Tiquan Underwood, signed this week to replace Chad Ochocinco, as if anyone would have missed him) dropping a sure TD pass right on his hands in the second quarter was completely forgettable. About the only curiosity here was the absence once again of Taylor Price, who was dressed but didn’t play a single snap. The guy has been here almost two years and some practice squad scrub (Underwood) jumped him on the depth chart despite being signed to the active roster about 15 minutes ago. If things weren’t going so well right now, this could be cause for alarm. As is, it’s merely a head-scratcher.
Tight Ends: A
Rob Gronkowski, cyborg extraordinaire, took a huge hit early on and seemed to take a while to get on track after that (he even had to come off the field for a play). But in his stead, Hernandez stepped up and provided his usual steady as she goes performance. A-Herb caught six passes for 62 yards and it seemed like something cool happened on all of them. One was a one-hander snared right at his waist in traffic. Another was a simple slip screen on which he showed some of his wide receiver-like skills in eluding a couple would-be tacklers and outrunning a couple others. A-Herb has taken a back seat to the Gronk Show the past few weeks but make no mistake, he’s so so good and if he stays healthy and in everyone’s good graces, he may wind up just as valuable as Gronk somewhere down the line. As for Gronk, his numbers were down a bit this week but naturally, he scored a TD on a 24-yard strike from Brady, the TD that completed the scoring for the Pats on the day. Even on his quieter days, the T-One Million still provieds plenty of positives.
Offensive Line: B
More injuries to this group; Sebastian Vollmer, who has been off all year, mostly because of being hurt early in the season, suffered a foot injury and missed the second half. Before that, he was blown away on the only sack allowed by this group all day. Vollmer was so good last year that his shortcomings this season have been far more glaring. It will be interesting to see how well he functions when fully healthy, even if that doesn’t happen this year. Brian Waters gave up a couple holds late in the game but otherwise was his usual dependable self, looking back at Brady before every shotgun snap then passing information along to third-string center Ryan Wendell as well as helping shore up that part of the line in addition to handling his own responsibilities. Waters has been an unsung hero this year; he’s easily the most important free agent acquisition along with Andre Carter and his presence has been invaluable. Matt Light shook off last week’s ankle roll and played very well and Logan Mankins somehow avoided a penalty. Imagine that. The Eagles strong suit on defense coming in was their pass rush but they only registered the one sack and even though they were buzzing around Brady a fair amount in the first quarter, only two hits on the Pats QB were recorded. Not too flashy, but very nice work by the boys up front.
Defensive Line: B
Not too much from this group in the way of individual efforts but that’s OK. It’s not their fault that Reid predictably chose to ignore the fact that he has the NFL’s leading rusher and rushing offense and that the Pats allow over four yards per attempt by giving all-world back LeSean McCoy 14 touches for the entire game. A real coach who knew what he was doing and wasn’t stubbornly married to the same philosophy regardless of personnel that has never really worked for him in 12-plus years would have recognized that McCoy should have carried the ball at least 25 times. But that’s a digression; what’s important is that while the Pats didn’t get the pressure from up front that they’ve been used to the past few weeks (Carter and Mark Anderson had relatively quiet afternoons), they got enough and were able to stifle what there was of a running game. The Eagles leading rusher was Young and it’s a safe bet that Belichick and his staff prayed for such a circumstance while getting ready for this game. The biggest game from this group came from Kyle Love, who stuffed some run while also getting to Young a couple times. Everyone else, even Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham, who combined for seven whole snaps, was solid.
In the absence of Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich continues to have the most impact among this group. Ninkovich, who spent a fair amount of time lined up down with the big guys, rang up another sack while also contributing two tackles for negative yards and another hit on Young. Ninkovich seems to play like this in spurts; he’s been great the past three weeks but had been near invisible for a stretch right before that. Here’s hoping if he goes to sleep at any point in the near future, he wakes up by the time the playoffs roll around. Jerod Mayo had three tackles but one was for a loss as opposed to after 12 or more yards and he’s presided over this defensive renaissance so more power to him. And Tracy White has mercifully, officially supplanted Gary Guyton as the third backer without Spikes available, playing 64 of 73 snaps (as opposed to 11 for Guyton) in addition to all of his special teams duties. He had four tackles and covered pretty well too, giving up one significant pass on a play where he was in the right place, just a little but slow to react. White has been better than Guyton consistently since starting to get run with the regular defense a few weeks ago and he most definitely deserves to keep getting playing time when Spikes returns. Another fine day for the linebackers.
Defensive Backs: C+
A good chunk of Young’s 400 yards passing came late, when the game was out of reach. But 400 yards passing still doesn’t cut it. Credit should be given to Antwuan Molden, who had his best game as a Patriot by far and registered his first career INT. BUt after that, you have to go down the line to find another good performance and when you do find it, you may be surprised to know who it belongs to. Yep, it’s Julian Edelman, who after Sunday, can legitimately lay claim to being the Pats second best corner with the secondary as presently constituted. Edelman is instinctive and smart on defense and boy, can he tackle. He couldn’t have made a better play on a scrambling Young to prevent what would have been a huge first down inside the Pats 5 in the third quarter, lining up the Philly QB, keeping his eyes centered, holding his ground, making a big stick and wrapping Young up before flinging himself and Young to the ground. There were a couple of other plays he woulda/shoulda/coulda made if not for getting screened out of blocked; the point is, he knows how to play the position and he’s been playing it at a fairly high level for three weeks now. When Devin McCourty comes back (likely this week against the Colts), Edelman may get fewer snaps back there but it stands to reason the way he’s played that he should be covering the slot at least instead of Phillip Adams. It’s true. Julian Edelman is currently the New England Patriots second best corner, trailing only Kyle Arrington, and the New England Patriots are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Unbelievable.
Special Teams: B-
Seeing Stephen Gostkowski miss another very makeable field goal (39 yards) was disheartening though he redeemed himself later on with a 45-yarder. And there was actually a kick return that went past the 20 when Woodhead ran one back 34 yards. And once again, the majority of the praise has to go to our man Zoltan, who is making a real case for being the best punter in the AFC. He averaged over 48 yards on three boomers and put two of em inside the 20. Eagles return man/receiver/knucklehead DeSean Jackson is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the league and he had exactly none on the day. Good work, Zoltan. And of course, we have to mention Edelman, whom I’m terribly sorry I questioned a few weeks ago, again. In addition to playing offense and defense, he returned a couple punts and made a tackle on kick coverage too. James Ihedigbo is calling him Slash. A perfect moniker.
Another slow start though that seems to be OK with Belichick and staff. It’s like they rope-a-dope their opponents for a few minutes, trying to draw them out, see what they’re thinking, before turning around, dodging what’s being thrown at them and exploding. On offense, the coaches saw that the Eagles could be run on early and that would soften them up underneath, so they pounced. And on D, they knew early on that the Eagles wouldn’t dream of running so they played pass and even though there were a ton more yards allowed, they held firm with their standing as 10th in the league in points allowed, a number far more important that yardage totals. Along with the excellent in-game moves, the work done during the week must be mentioned; given everything stacked against the Pats coming in, the fact that they were so ready to play and so well prepared, in addition to the players toughness and fortitude mentioned earlier, spoke volumes. Of course, when a guy like Belichick goes up against a guy like Reid (who, in addition to everything else, now has to deal with a couple of his assistants getting into it on the sideline during the game), it’s almost always going to be a mismatch and if you don’t believe that, just look at the adjustments made by both teams during the game. Oh wait, you can’t. Because the Eagles didn’t make any. They didn’t recognize that the Pats were on to them early so they didn’t change a thing and thus, are now done. It never helps when guys like Jackson drop multiple perfectly thrown TD passes or when Young, playing in place of Michael Vick, who to be fair is having a lousy season, makes some of the decisions he made regardless of the 400 yards passing. But when the opponent’s coach is as outclassed and overmatched as was the case with Reid on Sunday, not only does it make life easier for the Pats, it magnifies just how good Belichick is and just how good a job he and his staff are doing. The Eagles have supposed All-Pros up and down their roster and they’re 4-7, losers of five out of six at home. The Pats start Sterling Moore at safety and have their No. 4 receiver making plays at cornerback. And not much more need be said.