By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Boy was that fun. I mean really, being a follower of the New England Patriots and seeing them not only beat their arch-rival, the New York Jets, on the road, in a game many predicted them to lose and do it in decisive, humiliating fashion? Absolutely outstanding. the 37-16 final score hardly does it justice. And lest we forget, it was a win that hearkened back to the glory days of 2003-2004, when no-names like Earthwind Moreland and Randall Gay and Hank Poteat roamed a secondary that also featured none other than all-time Pats receiver Troy Brown. On Sunday night, people named Jeff Tarpinian and Sterling Moore joined the likes of Antwuan Molden, Phillip Adams, James Ihedigbo and Tracy White to produce the Pats best, wire-to-wire defensive effort of the season. It didn’t hurt that bigger names/old standbys like Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson came up huge. Or that Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is absolutely horrendous (64.7 passer rating against this secondary). Or that after another lethargic first-half, the Pats offense turned to the no-huddle and the decision not only liberated Tom Brady from his near month-long funk but flummoxed the Jets so thoroughly that one has to wonder what exactly was going through the heads of Rex Ryan and his defensive staff when they were game planning last week. That makes two wins in two tries for the Pats against the Jets this season and two times Bill Belichick and company coached circles around Ryan and his minions as well (which may have something to do with Ryan saluting one of his team’s die-hard fans in such a typically classy manner). The Pats needed this win about as badly as they’ve needed any in the regular season in a long time and they got it done in style. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card.
Kind of touch-and-go again for a while with Brady, who looked skittish, off-kilter and flustered for most of the first half. He threw 25 passes before the break and completed just 1 of them and even though the pass protection was mostly good, he still rushed more than a handful of throws and got an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety. Brady was lucky to emerge from the first half relatively unscathed (he should have had at least two picks) but at the end of the half, after Sanchez presented yet another reason why he’s simply not a good QB by calling a timeout with the Jets down near the Pats goal line (which in turn allowed Brady and the Pats offense 30 extra seconds with which to operate on a half-ending drive that ended in a TD), the resurgence began. Brady led a spotless, six-play, 80-yard drive in 1:11 on which he was 5-of-7, the final completion being a feathery, perfectly placed lob to Rob Gronkowski just out the reach of a defender for a score and a lead the Pats would never relinquish. He kept up the pace in the second half, completing 12-of-14 passes for 106 yards and two more scores, doing a majority of his damage with the Pats still firmly ensconced in hurry-up mode. On more than one occasion, he was able to buy enough time (with the help of the O-line) to let his receivers get away from the Jets secondary’s coverage and still make plays. And his accuracy and sharpness seemed to increase exponentially as the game went on. He audibled fairly frequently with nearly every decision being the right one (one choice, which was a super quick rocket to Deion Branch in the flat for 17 yards while the Jets defense was still scurrying around trying to get set was particularly awesome) and just generally resembled the Brady of the previous 10 seasons as opposed to the impostor who’s been showing up since the Dallas game. Overall, 26-of-39, 329 yards, three TDs, no picks, 8.4 yards per pass attempt, a 118.4 passer rating, no sacks taken, hit only once. Welcome back, Tom. We missed you.
Running Backs: C
The night’s only real weak spot, there wasn’t much there for any Pats backs except Danny Woodhead, who ripped off a few nice gainers as Brady’s no-huddle backfield mate and finished with 38 yards on just seven carries (5.4 YPA). The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, perhaps suffering from his nagging toe injury a little more than anyone realizes, put up his second stinker in three weeks, managing just eight yards on eight carries. Benny can’t put up numbers if he’s not in the game getting the ball but in his past four games (since the first Jets game in which he blew up for 136 yards and two TDs on 27 carries), he’s carried the ball 37 times for 127 yards and zero scores. And what’s become of Stevan Ridley? Sure, he’s playing behind a couple people, but his breakout games against Buffalo and Oakland seem like years ago as opposed to a few weeks. On a positive note, even though he didn’t see a lot of action, it was nice to see Kevin Faulk back on the field. The Pats can’t be running the ball 28 times per game and only gaining 60 yards. Clearly, the running game needs to be addressed in some fashion.
Wide Receivers: B
Not too much to report here either given the prevalence of Gronkowski in the passing game, but still a fair amount of positives to mention. Ryan made the decision to take Wes Welker away so he put his superstar corner, Darrelle Revis on the Pats top receiver and basically got what he wanted. Welker had six catches for 46 yards, statistically right there with the loss to Pittsburgh as his quietest game of the season. But, as most of the rest of his offensive teammates did, he made an impact when the tide turned to the no-huddle. Five of his six grabs came in the second half and even though the production wasn’t where it’s been in previous games, Welker has become such a major threat, his mere presence can open things up for everyone else under the right circumstances and Sunday night, that’s what happened. Branch bounced back nicely from his virtual no-show against the Giants last week with five catches for 58 yards and the Pats last offensive TD, on which he was left uncovered at the top of the formation, took a hitch from Brady, made one quick hesitation move as a Jets safety ran right by him and strolled into the end zone, imitating insufferable Jets fan Fireman Ed as a celebration (and while we’re at it, considering what a overenthusiastic, self-aggrandizing, over-hyped buffoon Fireman Ed is even though the Jets haven’t won a single game of consequence in over 40 years, can you imagine how much worse it’d be if they did win something?). And even Chad Ochocinco got in on the festivities, catching two passes for 65 yards in the first half, the second of which, a 53-yarder, was a perfectly executed route that froze multiple Jets DBs and left No. 85 so wide open, if he’d not caught it, there would have been grounds for him being the first player cut in the middle of a game in NFL history. Small steps, Chad. Keep it going.
Tight Ends: A
At this point, a legitimate case could probably be made for Gronk to be an Offensive Player of the Year candidate. He caught eight more passes for 113 more yards and two more TDs and now has 52 receptions, 709 yards and eight scores on the year. Everyone gushed over Gronk during and after the game; NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, Ryan, Brady, etc. And why not? He’s the best tight end in the NFL, able to dominate both as a pass catcher and a blocker. More than one of his catches on Sunday night required a lunge or a dive or at least a long reach but Gronk seems to be able to do all of those things and make them look easy. There were a couple of throws from Brady on which the two looked as if there may have been a slight bit of miscommunication. But for all the good that Gronk does, a couple of missteps (and a ridiculous celebration penalty for having the temerity to spike the ball after a score) here and there are allowable. Gronk was so good in this one, not only did Ryan put Revis on him at times in the second half, but he made his fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, practically invisible despite a respectable, 4-catch, 41-yard performance. Welker may be the most important Patriot on offense not named Brady. But damn is Gronk closing the gap.
Offensive Line: B
There was Logan Mankins’ weekly penalty, the second botched shotgun snap in two weeks by Dan Connolly and nothing whatsoever out of the running game. But Brady had all day to throw all night long and that’s thanks to the O-line. With the exception of the safety, a play on which Sebastian Vollmer was turned around by Jets linebacker Jamaal Westerman, no one got anywhere near Brady at any point in the game. He had so much time to throw, especially in the second half, on a couple of plays it was borderline funny. The Jets aren’t one of the better pass rushing teams in the league anyway; the strength of their defense is further back. But Brady’s uniform may not have even had to go in the laundry after this one. Particular kudos must go to right guard Brian Waters, a veteran free agent who came in well into training camp and has been pretty much flawless ever since (after the game, Brady said of Waters, “Brian’s a great example for all the young players of what it takes to be a true professional.”) and Matt Light, who played arguably his best game of the season. Again, it’s imperative the Pats figure out why they had so much trouble running the ball on Sunday night. But when the line is protecting Brady as well as it did in this game, such issues become slightly less pressing.
Defensive Line: A
Hail Andre Carter. Other than Wilfork, he’s been the most consistent, steady, excellent member of the Pats defense throughout the season and it all became as apparent as ever on Sunday night. Carter set a franchise record with 4.5 sacks and was positively monstrous in doing so. He was all over the Jets offensive line, dominating their star left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson with regularity and with ease. Carter was such a menace, not only did he ring up all those sacks, he hit Sanchez eight other times and registered four tackles for a loss. That’s eight. And four. Just an incredible performance by a free agent signing that’s actually worked out (between Carter and Waters, there may be a pattern of sorts emerging here). And Mark Anderson, finally freed to play more downs and in more situations than mop-up duty, got his due as well. He only had half a sack, but he was instrumental in a couple of Carter’s and managed to get in Sanchez’s face on a couple of other occasions as well, including the pick-6 he threw to Ninkovich that closed out the scoring. Vince Wilfork played nearly the whole game and although it cost some of the other middle guys some time, it was absolutely necessary. It should be noted that the Jets ran the ball well, rolling up 110 yards on 25 attempts. But Carter and Anderson were so tough and at times, so overwhelming, that for the purposes of this discussion, we can let that go. All season long, the cry has been for the defensive line to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks so as to ease the burden on the overmatched secondary and it’s been getting better over the past handful of games (minus the debacle in Pittsburgh). But Sunday night was the best it’s been yet by far. The D-line controlled the line of scrimmage, giving the linebackers chances to make plays and taking a truckload of pressure off the likes of Molden, Moore, Adams et al in the defensive backfield. Just the way it’s supposed to be.
It’s been a while since Ninkovich has made a real impact but boy did he ever snap out of that on Sunday night. Ninkovich added five tackles and two passes defensed to his two picks and first career TD. It was a banner night for the next Mike Vrabel; he even got to share the postgame interview with Brady and if you had that one in the pool, I’d like to bring you with me to buy some Mega Millions tickets. Elsewhere, it was Tarpinian and White filling in for the injured Brandon Spikes and I’ll be damned if they didn’t both acquit themselves very nicely. White had five tackles in playing 50 defensive snaps while Tarpinian, playing in the base defense, had four. White played a big part in Ninkovich’s TD, leveling Jets tight end Dustin Keller at the line, which led Sanchez’s eyes and Ninkovich toward outlet receiver LaDanian Tomlinson and the rest is history. Both White and Tarpinian, no-name special teamers, certainly earned themselves some more reps with their respective performances. And if those reps again come at the expense of Gary Guyton (dressed but did not play a single down), that’s even better. As for Jerod Mayo, minus a few of his patented misreads, whiffs on attempted tackles and chasing guys who went to where he was supposed to be but wasn’t, he didn’t play all that badly. The way it’s been for him throughout this year, let’s call that a moral victory.
Defensive Backs: B
It took Patrick Chung not playing, Devin McCourty missing half the game and Moore (who was responsible for McCourty’s injury) playing not only his first game of the season and not only the first game of his life at safety, but playing every flipping defensive snap, for the Pats secondary to post its best game of the season. Sanchez did throw for over 300 yards but over 100 of those came after the Jets had fallen behind by three TDs and he also threw the two picks while looking thoroughly confused for long stretches. The Jets never fully took advantage of the massive soft spots in the middle of the Pats defense; After their first drive of the game, on which they blew right down the field only to miss a chippy field goal, they only got into a real rhythm throwing the ball once for the rest of the night when they managed an 11-play, 78-yard TD drive from late in the third quarter and into the fourth. Plaxico Burress scored that TD but other than that, he had only two other catches which considering the lack of size, strength and playmaking ability of nearly all of the Pats corners, is flabbergasting. Molden was in coverage on that score but he also broke up another throw to Burress and looked far more competent than two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Kyle Arrington played every snap and was solid while James Ihedigbo had his best game of the year with seven tackles and excellent support both in covering tight ends and against the run (Ryan went out of his way to praise his former player afterward). And, perhaps most impressively, even Julian Edelman got in late at slot corner and threw a huge, textbook tackle on Tomlinson. Who knows how long the Pats can survive with these guys out there running around? It’s hard to say; there’s no way anyone could have predicted that this crew would achieve what it did on Sunday night. And even though Chung will likely be back for Monday night against the Chiefs, McCourty, who seems to have a dislocated shoulder, will probably miss some time. But at least now we know it’s possible. And we couldn’t say that a week ago.
Special Teams: B+
Still absolutely nothing to say about the kick return game but in every other area of special teams on Sunday night, the Pats shined. They bottled up the league’s leading return man, Joe McKnight, holding him over 12 yards below his season average on kick returns. They forced a turnover (a fumbled punt by McKnight) and recently signed Niko Koutouvides, picked up last week specifically to spark the special teams, recovered the loose ball. They got three field goals out of Stephen Gostkowski, including a 50-yarder. And they got yet another All-Pro-esque outing from our man Zoltan (four punts, 46.8 yards per). It will be great when all of these things happen and someone returns a kickoff or punt more than 12 yards. But for now, the improvements shown on Sunday night will do just fine.
It could well be an A+. Belichick shut out all the noise from the previous two weeks, got 10 undrafted free agents ready to play, patched up his seriously damaged secondary and went on the road to blow out his arch-rival. There were no turnovers, no penalties and the safety was the only real mistake. And again, look at who was out there. Tarpinian and Moore are so anonymous, NBC just showed still photos of them when introducing the Pats defense instead of having them say their names and where they went to school like with every other player in the NFL. Add to that the fact that he so utterly and completely outcoached Ryan (who, by the way, looks worse and worse every week his supposedly vaunted defense gets nothing out of anyone not named Revis) for the second time this season, and the effort looks even more impressive. Now, suddenly, the Pats are in complete control of the AFC East and given their schedule, they should cruise to at least 11, probably 12 wins. Whether or not they can finally win a playoff game for the first time since 2007, especially if Sunday night’s cast of characters sticks around until then, remains to be seen. But that’s way down the road. Sunday night was just one game out of 16 and there’s seven more to go before the postseason. But man, was it a virtuoso game for Belichick and his staff. Easily their best of the season. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.