September 16, 2014

Pats Pregame Points: Insufferable Super Bowl Hype, Week Two

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

So, it all comes down to this. One game out of hundreds this season to determine who holds aloft the Lombardi Trophy.

Should we have a bigger run-up to this contest? Is the magnitude sufficiently stated, or should we spend another week prepping?

No? Okay, then. Off we go…

Other Than That, How Was 2007? No matter what, at least this can’t become a replay of That Game. In case you missed it, here’s a link to a great piece by Bruce Allen written in February 2008 that summarized what he nailed as The Most Miserable 18-1 Season In History. While the Giants seem obsessed with the similarities to that season (peaking at the right time, for example), the Patriots seem more than happy to move on.

We’ll see which way works better. In any case, much, much different expectations this year.

Indiana And The Temple Of Doom: The Patriots might feel disappointed in having to play in Indianapolis. Not only does it lack the temperate climte of Miami or San Diego, New England hasn’t had a ton of success there over the years.

Well, different opponent, different Manning, different time of season. Who knows?

Speed Of Lightning, Roar Of Thunder: So who’s really the underdog in this thing? (Note: you can link to the theme song from “Underdog” here.) Despite losing the previous tilt this season, New England has been favored from the get-go. Still plenty of “no one believed in us” fodder for both sides, though, as several national media members have picked New York.

You ever get the feeling that no one knows anything? This seems like one of those games.

Moore Or Wes: So, who, if anyone, is going to come out of this thing a hero? Will it be an expected player, like receiver Wes Welker, or a surprise contributor, like rookie defensive back Sterling Moore?

Our thoughts? If the Patriots win, the MVP trophy will prove difficult to award to one person. Everyone from Tom Brady to Vince Wilfork to Zoltan Mesko will have to put in his best effort for New England to come out on top.

Do You Speak Trench? Brady needs time to throw; the Giants will do everything they can to disrupt that. This has been one of Matt Light’s best years at tackle. Word has it that Sebastian Vollmer has finally come back to play. Though the Patriots aren’t focusing on 2007, we’re sure Logan Mankins remembers his un-stellar performance during that game.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball…

What’s Love Got To Do With It? While most eyes will be on Wilfork, New England’s success may hinge more on what battery mates Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are able to accomplish vs. New York’s tested front. If the Giants have success running the ball – something they haven’t focused on as much this year as in years past – then the letters XLVI will translate roughly to “Ugh” for Patriots fans.

Riding Coach: Sure, it’s a team game, but in the end, this might come down to a battle between two guys. Coach Bill Belichick has guided a 5-3 team on a 10-game winning streak; Coach Tom Coughlin has endured a 9-7 season (and numerous calls for his head while losing five of six games) to get his team playing their best at the right time.

Who has the best game plan? Who can adapt better during the contest?

There’s a game this weekend. Check it out.

Email Chris Warner for the last time this season at [email protected]

Pats Pregame Points: Before the Big Game, Week One

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

That’s one way to make it to Indianapolis. Relying on their defense to overcome an uncharacteristic performance from Tom Brady, New England held on for a 23-20 stomach-cramp win.

With two weeks until the big game, this column will be more devoted to the AFC Championship than to Destiny in Indy (which may or may not be the title of an adult film). So put off tolerating highlights of a certain previous Super Bowl and bask in the glory of New England’s fifth AFC win since January 2001.

Billy, Don’t Be A Hero: Despite our rooting interest, we must feel some sympathy for Billy Cundiff, the Ravens kicker who failed at his job at the least opportune time possible. Just a tough way to go. A welcome way for Pats fans, sure, but still tough.

Stagger, Lee: Similar sympathy (and/or ironic thanks) to Lee Evans, who allowed Patriot defensive back Sterling Moore to knock a winning touchdown pass out of his hands.

The lesson? To paraphrase Mike Vrabel when he was asked about catching a touchdown pass vs. Carolina, hold onto that ball like it’s your newborn son.

Hold The Rice: After watching what must have seemed like a continuous loop of Ray Rice running for an 83-yard touchdown back in the 2009 playoffs, New England set out to stop the dynamo and did so, holding him to 67 yards in 21 carries for 3.2 yards per.

For a defense that had some trouble stopping the run in the regular season, the past two playoff games have seen a welcome change.

Kraft Work: Kudos to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, not just for his steady day toting the spheroid (15 for 68 yards, 4.5 per), but for his thoughtful touch to the MHK patch on his uniform. Good to see the team honoring the late Mrs. Myra Kraft this year.

Lest we forget, the 5-3 Patriots headed down to New York (well, New Jersey, but close) to take on the Jets in a fight for first place in the AFC East. They beat the Jets by three TDs and have won every game since. We’ll take it.

Where There’s A Wilfork, There’s A Way: The AFC Championship win came in no small part to the efforts of defensive lineman/bulwark Vince Wilfork, who finished with six tackles and one sack and seemed to make an impact on every other play. A great game for the big fella. He went against solid center Matt Birk, but too often seemed like he was in the back corner of the playground taking Birk’s lunch money.

How’s The Grankle? Tight end/Beanstalk resident Rob Gronkowski had his ankle twisted during a tackle by safety Bernard Pollard, a name so odious to New Englanders he’s approaching Bucky Bleeping Dent territory.

No matter what, Gronk’s playing. Let’s hope he helps the good guys triumph.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – AFC Championship, Patriots vs. Ravens

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Professor

Well, then. Now that almost 48 full hours have passed and all of us have likely caught our breath, we can examine more clearly and coherently then Patriots stirring, improbable, 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship. The win, which sends the Pats to their seventh Super Bowl and fifth under the magical tandem of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (the most of any QB/coach combo of all time), was maddening, scintillating, ugly, glorious and completely perplexing, sometimes all at once. The Pats won with defense and physicality and if you had that one down headed into the game, I’ve got some lottery numbers for you to play (I’ll throw in a healthy commission for your trouble), with Brady playing one of his worst games of the season and the team losing three turnovers but somehow getting away with it. Multiple defensive guys had huge days and when you take that, some strong, powerful running by the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, more of the same mental toughness this team has shown all year and at least a spoonful of luck (fear not, we’ll get to the missed, 32-yard field goal, also known as the biggest gag job I’ve ever seen), it all adds up to a trip to the big game 12 days from now in Indianapolis. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, all dressed up and ready for the dance.

OFFENSE: C+
Quarterbacks: C
Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: Brady is as tough, if not tougher than any QB in the NFL. On his fourth quarter, one-yard TD plunge, he was upside down in midair when he was blasted in the kidneys and lower back by the helmet and shoulder pads of none other than Ravens all-time linebacker Ray Lewis. And not only did he hold on to the ball, securing the points that would prove to be the difference in the game, he got right up, spiked the ball Gronk-styles and jogged to the sideline. It hurt just watching that play but if Brady was affected, no one either in Gillette Stadium or watching the game on TV knew it. Now, bearing that in mind, Brady pretty much sucked otherwise, just as he said on the podium after the game. He routinely missed open receivers. He was skittish and happy footed at times. He threw two interceptions and had two other ones nullified by penalties. His fourth quarter pick, one play after Brandon Spikes made one of the plays of the game, on which he needlessly forced a bomb into double coverage (intended for Matthew Slater of all people) was something you would never in your wildest dreams imagine seeing him do let alone in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship with a three-point lead. He finished 22-of-36 for 239 yards (6.6 YPA), zero TDs (the first time that’s happened in the playoffs since the 2002 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh) and the two picks, all good for a woeful 57.5 passer rating. He was outplayed by Ravens QB Joe Flacco (??!!). But hey, the Pats won and if we know Brady,, who tied Joe Montana for the most post-season wins by a QB of all time, this performance will motivate him to no end come Feb. 5. Let’s chalk this one up to a fluke, an aberration, a one-time thing. There’s still no one Pats fans would rather have.

Running Backs: B
Green-Ellis was a big factor all day despite splitting reps almost completely evenly with Danny Woodhead. It was a vintage, head down, straight ahead running kind of day for the Law Firm, who pounded his way to 68 yards and a TD on 15 carries. On one play, he got his helmet completely twisted around and ripped off, forcing him to go to the ground coconut unprotected, yet another display of the team’s overall toughness Most of the Pats success running the ball came on draws out of the shotgun with the Ravens D spread out and expecting the pass; the more traditional stuff was swallowed up with relative ease. But Benny did his part and then some. Woodhead was quiet save for once nice draw and Aaron Hernandez failed to replicate his monstrous efforts out of the backfield from the Divisional round win over Denver. And our binky Stevan Ridley sat this one out after fumbles in consecutive games, though given the Pats opponent in the Super Bowl, the New York Giants, he will likely be needed. The Giants have a ferocious pass rush and the Pats would be wise to run the ball a healthy amount in order to help neutralize it. On Sunday, Benny looked like he’ll be up to that challenge.

Wide Receivers: B-
This one was mostly the Wes Welker show again, with Deion Branch making two catches for 18 yards and everyone else doing mostly nothing (Julian Edelman caught one pass for eight yards). Welker had a couple of missteps (one drop, one slip, one deflection that turned into a pick that was luckily wiped out by a penalty) but was still his usual, dependable self. He finished with six catches for 53 yards, got the snot beaten out of him once again and naturally, a couple of his grabs resulted in enormously important first downs. At this point, as has been the case for several weeks now, Welker pretty much is the receiving corps. Any time Branch can put up an effort like last week against the Broncos (three catches, 85 yards, that amazing, 61-yard TD), it’s a bonus. This is Welker’s group. Everyone else (except Chad Ochocinco who may as well get cut before the Super Bowl if for no other reason than that he’ll be a distraction on Media Day getting asked over and over again why he is so awful, he doesn’t even dress for the biggest game of the year) is just renting.

Tight Ends: B+
Not quite the usual game-breaking day for A-Herb or Rob Gronkowski but solid nonetheless. Once again, the focal point of the Pats offense, they combined for 12 catches and 153 yards, though neither of them found the end zone. Gronk, who suffered a rough looking ankle injury late in the game but returned after missing just nine snaps, was immense in other areas than just catching the ball as he often is, at one point absolutely destroying Ravens pass rushing demon Terrell Suggs while staying home to block. And his first play back after leaving because of that ankle? He’s throwing a key block on Brady’s TD leap. These two guys are monsters, as we all know. But now that we’ve reached the final game, the biggest game, maybe we should look at them in the bigger picture. The bottom line is, in an amazing, exhilarating season filled with major moments and major performances, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have become the most important cogs in the Pats offensive machine whose names are not Tom Brady. And they’re both just in their second year. Unbelievable.

Offensive Line: A
Have to hand it to Matt Light; in what is probably the best season of his career, he just keeps getting better and better. Every week, it seems, there’s some stud, maniac pass rusher on his side and every week, that stud, maniac pass rusher is rendered an afterthought. On Sunday, it was Suggs, who had 14 sacks during the regular season and has garnered some sincere talk about being named Defensive Player of the Year. Against Light, he had two tackles. Period. That’s two. No sacks. Maybe once, he got within a yard and a half of Brady. And that’s it. The O-line is the core of this team and on Sunday, it stepped up and then some. And not just Light, either. Brian Waters, the best free agent signing this team has made in quite some time, was tasked with bottling up Ravens nose man Haloti Ngata and did just that. Logan Mankins once again shook off his late season knee injury to play a complete, spotless game. Nate Solder had the only blemish, getting beaten to the outside and allowing Baltimore’s only sack to someone named Paul Kruger, not exactly one of the Ravens big names on D. It was a fantastic performance and one that will certainly need to be duplicated in the Super Bowl against the Giants pass rush. The O-line’s inability to handle that same front four in Super Bowl XLII was one of the biggest reasons the Pats lost that game. If Sunday against the Ravens similarly fearsome D is any indication, this time around, this group will be ready.

DEFENSE: B+
Defensive Line: A
Anyone out there own a Vince Wilfork jersey? Cause I’ll buy it off you. That’s how valuable that thing has to be after Sunday. Wilfork, one of the best, most important Pats of the past decade, played the game of his life against the Ravens, making plays against the run and the pass, wreaking havoc and at one crucial point late in the fourth quarter, single-handedly taking over. On the Ravens second to last possession of the night, with a third-and-3 from his team’s 30, he blasted through the line to wrap up Baltimore’s star back Ray Rice with one arm, dragging him to the turf with one arm for a three-yard loss (a massive stupid play call by the Ravens by the way, but that’s another conversation). The Ravens then decided to go for it rather than try a 50-yard field goal (a decision that obviously makes a hell of a lot of sense now), so Big Vince simply steamrolled center Matt Birk right into Flacco’s grill, taking the QB to his knees while still carrying the giant O-lineman, forcing Flacco to lob the ball to no one and turn the ball over on downs. It was the most dominant sequence any Pats defensive player has displayed in ages when you factor in the situation and circumstances. And it’s fitting that Wilfork, one of the longest tenured, core members of the organization, was responsible for it. And that’s not even getting into some of the stuff he did earlier in the game, which he ended with the following stat line: six tackles, three for a loss, one sack, and another hit on the QB. And he did it all while missing just three of 73 snaps. Outstanding. Everyone else up front played well too; Mark Anderson got pressure on Flacco a fair amount of times and played the run well. Brandon Deaderick plugged up space and both Gerard Warren and Kyle Love played roles in holding Rice, who came in leading the league in total yards from scrimmage, to just 67 yards on 22 carries and only one catch for 11 yards. When this group plays this well and is able to physically overmatch its opponent, it takes so much pressure off of the secondary and makes life easier for everyone. It’s hard to imagine them doing that any better than they did on Sunday.

Linebackers: B
Good for Brandon Spikes. He’s still working his way back from that knee injury suffered against the Giants the last time they played the Pats, but man are his fresh legs a wonder. He made nine tackles on Sunday, a huge part of the defense slowing down the Rice and the Ravens rushing attack. But his finest moment, as well as what was for about three minutes the play of the game, came on a passing play. Spikes intercepted a fourth quarter Flacco pass by simply staying in his land, trailing the tight end as underneath help for the safety and making an awesomely athletic play, extending one of his big paws just enough to snag the darted throw and reel it in. It was a sensational interception; not only did it come out of almost nowhere and was it such a cool display of athleticism, but the timing was perfect. It’s great to see Spikes make plays like that when he gets to stay on the field in passing situations. He’s getting closer to becoming an all-around backer. If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, watch out. Jerod Mayo was solid, not great and that seems to be his M.O., which is OK. He made a couple of big hits and looked very impactful at times yet was doing the chasing, flailing thing a couple times too. It was a mostly typical day for him. And Rob Ninkovich continued to be the second coming of Mike Vrabel; he got to Flacco once (along with James Ihedigbo) and was great against the run, combining with Anderson to do good work taking away the edges. And Dane Fletcher was active and aggressive in limited time. The Pats defense is healthy and coming together at the most opportune time possible. The linebacking corps is no exception.

Defensive Backs: A-
Go ahead, try to start an argument on this one. If you think that more attention should be paid to Flacco playing one of the best games of his career (22-of-36, 306 yards, two TDs, 95.4 passer rating) and torching the secondary down the stretch than to Sterling Moore’s two season-saving plays, more power to you. Because if Moore hadn’t knocked away a sure TD pass to Lee Evans on Baltimore’s second to last defensive play of the day (a play on which Evans was completely complicit) or broken up what would have been a first down throw to tight end Dennis Pitta on the next play, we wouldn’t be having this little chat. Moore was almost as much a hero on this day as Wilfork and more power to him. He’s yet another one of Belichick’s collection of undrafted, unheralded, never-heard-of DBs who rose above the rest of them to become one of the biggest reasons this team is going to the Super Bowl. Gotta love it. Things were OK elsewhere despite the yardage totals and the Ravens success on third down (nine of their last 14); Patrick Chung wore the goat horns on a 42-yard pass play to Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith. Kyle Arrington missed a chunk of time with an eye injury, but was pretty good. Devin McCourty saw more time at safety and also could share some blame on that throw to Smith (as well as a 29-yard catch and run for a TD also by Smith) but managed to make it through another week without humiliating himself. Ihedigbo had that sack with Ninkovich on a nifty, delayed blitz and added eight tackles including one for a loss. And Edelman got matched up with the Ravens best receiver Anquan Boldin, and was burned more than once but completely lucked out that Baltimore’s offensive coaches were too stupid recognize the matchup until the final five minutes. It’s going to be interesting to see how this group deals with the Giants receivers, two of whom (Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz) are absolute studs (and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s say interesting means terrifying). But we’ll worry about that next week. For now, let’s continue to celebrate Moore. What a couple of huge, huge plays. Hallelujah.

Special Teams: C
Yikes. In what could have been a disaster, Woodhead fumbled a kick return at his own 30 following a long Ravens TD drive that gave them their first lead of the game. Luckily for him, the Pats defense came up with one of its best, stiffest stops of the evening afterward, keeping the Ravens from a first down and forcing them into a field goal that made the game 20-16, setting the stage for the Pats to reclaim the lead on their next possession. There was Woody again on the ensuing kick, running another one back, which was a big surprise, especially seeing as how Ridley had been banished for his fumble-itis and neither of those were half as costly. Anyway, it was a huge bullet dodged. The Pats have been pretty much nowhere in their return game all year but have gotten away with it. You have to wonder if Woody will be back there again next Sunday in Indy. As for the kicking game, Stephen Gostkowski was 3-for-3 on field goals and only had one kickoff returned all day and our man Zoltan blasted two punts for an average of just under 50 yards per. Job well done.

Coaching: B+
Maybe this grade should be a bit lower. Some of the play calling, particularly down the stretch, was questionable and that’s being friendly. The bomb to Slater made little sense at the time, even less so when it was picked off. And when the Pats got the ball back following the Ravens failed, fourth down conversion attempt, they went three-and-out with a chance to salt the game away, with a couple of real head-scratchers (a toss play to Benny on 2nd and 4?) included. But in the end, this grade is a testament to how ready Belichick had this defense ready to play. The Pats were on their heels on defense all year but allowed just 30 points in two playoff games and had guys making plays everywhere both weeks. There may not have been too many name guys out there, especially in the secondary, but they were Belichick’s guys, tough guys, guys who took his coaching and got better every single week. And now, the Pats have won 10 straight games and are going back to the Super Bowl. It’s pretty unreal. We could harp some more on the play-calling. Or we could do a comparison with the coaching on the Ravens sideline (so so poor in the fourth quarter in so many ways that it warrants its own 3,000 word column). But why bother? This season was arguably the best job of Belichick’s career. Let’s just leave it at that.

Pats Pregame Points: AFC Championship

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

We had almost forgotten the feeling: a heady mix of excitement and contentment after winning a playoff game can make for a fun week. At least until the Ravens start talking.

As nice as it would be to take some of New England’s points with them from their 45-10 Broncos corral, it’s on to a new (and much different) opponent as Baltimore comes to Foxboro.

It’s A Shame About Rays: Linebacker Ray Lewis has been around so long it seems like he’s 50 years old, but he continues to play like a crazy dude gunning for the guy who threatened his sister. The Patriots’ interior linemen have their work cut out for them with Lewis and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who’s so big and aggressive he could rent himself out to lumber companies to clear swaths of trees.

The other Ray, running back Ray Rice, offers an entire playbook’s worth of problems.

The Joy Of Six: When quarterback Tom Brady throws six touchdown passes in one game, you know he’s doing something pretty special. But when those passes come against a spent Denver team, it’s tough to carry that over to next week.

That’s partly because…

A Scary Reed: Old or no, hurt or no, safety Ed Reed puts every offense on notice. He’s a smart, talented player who’s been making big plays forever. Coach Bill Belichick spoke of Reed in such glowing terms, you’d think he wanted to take him out to dinner.

Nothing fancy. Just, you know, a quiet place with good food and engaging conversation.

2012: The End Times… Not sure if the Aztecs foresaw tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez having such a huge impact on the Pats’ offense, but maybe their whole shtick was less about “the world ends” than “the tight ends.”

Get it? Tight ends. Because, you know, they – oh, never mind.

Defense On Gronk Un-Seam-ly: It made no sense to us that Gronkowski got so wide open running along the seam of the Denver defense. The dude’s 6-foot-6, galloping down the middle of the field. How could Denver miss him?

Don’t expect Gronk to go unnoticed and/or uncovered vs. the Ravens.

Running An Aaron: So, running Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield? Why not? He started out with a 43-yard dash and added New England’s final TD of the game, a 17-yard reception that included a nifty maneuver to avoid a defender at the five-yard line.

(One note to Aaron: high-stepping into the end zone might work against the Bills and Broncos, but the Ravens will have something to say about it. And by “say,” I mean “do.” Just be careful.)

All of this tight end production helped out in other areas, like, for instance…

The D On Deion: When Deion Branch broke open along the sideline in one-on-one coverage for a second-quarter, 61-yard TD, it proved that, just when you think that guy’s done, he pulls off a veteran move (like a nice, not-quite-pass-interference nudge along the sideline). Something else for Baltimore to consider next Sunday.

Magnificent Seven: What a difference a game makes. Denver ended up with 14 negative plays on the day, thanks in large part to New England’s hustling, penetrating front seven. Brandon Spikes, great to have you back. Vince Wilfork, glad you’re still around. Rob Ninkovich, you looked awesome.

Of course, taking on a run-oriented offense like the Broncos’ and an efficient NFL-caliber offense like the Ravens’ are two different tasks. Interesting to see if the Patriots’ D can stay on top of running back Rice and pressure QB Joe Flacco. After last Saturday, that seems more likely than it did before.

I’m Special, So Special, I’ve Gotta Have Some Of Your Attention: Let’s not forget the special teams success in this one. Denver got very little return yardage despite fielding eight kickoffs. It’s usually a good sign if we’re not discussing special teams this time of year.

Interesting tidbit to take with you this week: This is New England’s sixth AFC Championship game since January 2002. That’s a lot of success in a decade, and it shows you how far this franchise has come.

Here’s hoping it goes a bit farther on Sunday.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected] to tell him how awesome he is.

Pats Pregame Points: Divisional Round

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Tebow is not a quarterback. The Tebow is a life decision. So what side are you on?

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow runs with authority and passes with mediocrity. He also tends to win big games, none more so than the 29-23 overtime shocker over Pittsburgh. We’ll see if the on-again, off-again trend continues this week in Foxboro.

Tim After Tim: Which one of these guys is going to show up? The one who went 0-3 to wrap up the season, finishing with a miserable 7-3 loss to Kansas City at home and needing the Raiders to turtle and miss the playoffs? Or the one who averaged over 30 yards per pass completion vs. the Steelers?

The way the Broncos win, coupled with Tebow’s outspoken religious beliefs seem aligned so perfectly, so improbably, that even Mitch Albom couldn’t write this book.

Cruel Runnings: Tebow takes over the ground like Cortez took over Mexico – relentlessly and, as he believed, with a higher power in mind. If New England begins the game at Gillette the same way they did at Mile High (giving up 167 yards rushing in the fourth quarter), Sunday churchgoers across the country will end up donning the orange and blue.

The Passed And The Present: Denver fooled Pittsburgh with a lot of play-action passes. The Steelers proved stubborn in leaving safety help downfield, a display of inflexibility that ended up biting them in overtime on the 80-yard TD pass.

Doctor Rosenrosen: Looks like much of this game will come down to what the Patriots’ defense can do, and that will depend on linebackers Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes. If Fletcher gets blocked, Spikes can come in for stronger run support, but pass coverage suffers with his lack of speed.

There’s A Tom And A Place: Quarterback Tom Brady had a rough start at Denver but got on track in the second quarter, leading the way for 41 points. Will he get on track at home from the start?

If not during this game, when?

And I Love Her…nandez: The Broncos held Lilliputian receiver Wes Welker and Brobdingnagian tight end Rob Gronkowski to 94 yards combined the last time these two teams met. Hernandez made the difference with nine catches for 129 yards, and could do so again.

If not he, then who?

Branch Out, Or Branch In? Who can play third receiver? Can Deion Branch make a difference? Will it matter? Will Brady keep an eye out for ol’ Chad Eight-Five (English translation)? Will he look Tiquan Underwood’s way once or twice? Exactly how many questions can I ask in this paragraph?

Safety Pinned: Looks like the coaching staff is attempting to relieve hopeless Devin McCourty from his pain at cornerback by switching him to safety. Might work. Can’t be much worse than what he’s done this year. I’ve seen better corners at the Guggenheim Museum.

(Kind of a visual joke there. Just go with it.)

Just Joshing: If former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels can come in as Patriots offensive assistant and make a difference, that would prove a major coup by Coach Bill Belichick. If not? Eh, it was worth a shot.

Another home playoff game this year. Let’s hope for another next week.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Pats Pregame Points: Playoff Bye Week

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Patriots’ 49-21 season-ending win over Buffalo resembled a 75-cent DVD: worth checking out, but only for three quarters.

With their playoff bye and home field secured, New England waits to see whom they’ll play on Saturday, January 14. Until then, some theme songs to ring in the New Year.

Start Me Up: Whatever it’s going to take, New England needs to figure out how to get going when the game actually begins. Their first quarter output has been miserable on offense, defense and – as Buffalo showed with a fake punt – special teams. Whether it’s individual effort or overall preparedness, the Pats have looked off the past couple of weeks. (Speaking of off, check out Mick Jagger’s moves in the “Start Me Up” video.)

Moving In Stereo: Again, that makes two games in a row where New England found themselves behind by double digits. Yeah, we’re repeating ourselves, but only because this song by The Cars is awesome.

I Musta Got Lost: Nothing better than this J. Geils beauty to explain the play of Foxboro’s defensive backs in the first quarter. Some positive change came from installing all-but-useless corner Devin McCourty at safety and switching around a few other other players.

Vacation: On the positive side, having a bye week for a home playoff run? It’s something you really wanted, even if you weren’t willing to admit it. Kind of like this Go-Go’s song.

Moore Moore Moore: How do you like it? When a guy like rookie Sterling Moore can come in and get two interceptions, maybe things are starting to break the right way for this defense.

Maybe. We’re just saying. At the very least, it’s entertaining, but in an unexpected way, much like this disco video from the 1970s.

You Got Lucky: Tom Petty brings home a good point in that New England has benefited from their opponents’ unforced errors. Whether via a delay of game penalty or a shotgun snap that looked more like an air rifle, Buffalo did all they could to give away momentum.

Starting with –

New Year’s Day: Many thanks to U2 for one of our favorite songs, and many thanks to receiver Steve Johnson for expressing his New Year’s wishes on a t-shirt, revealing it after a TD, and getting benched for the ensuing celebration penalty.

Up to that point in the first quarter, Johnson had four catches for 40 yards. Coach Chan Gailey then did what the Patriots defense couldn’t – shut him out of the stat book.

Wreck of the Ryan Fitzpatrick: The Bills’ second-half disaster was brought to you in part by their QB, who followed up a flawless, 21-point first quarter with a horrid scoreless stretch that included four interceptions (five if not for a McCourty penalty).

Minute By Minute: Always liked this song by the Doobie Brothers. Once again, it reminds us that no matter whom New England plays in nine days, a full 60 minutes will be required.

Tom Tom Club: QB Tom Brady joins an elite group of quarterbacks who surpassed (emphasis on “-passed”) 5,000 yards through the air. Glad to see it, and with the way he’s been playing this year, not at all surprised.

The song “Genius of Love” reminds us of good times from the past. With help from Our Tom, may more good times happen in the next few weeks.

If you agree with these song choices or can think of any better songs that fit the Pats’ situation, let us know in the comment section below.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – Bills at Patriots

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Professor

Hey class, you ever hear the one about the time the Patriots fell behind their opponent by at least two scores in the first quarter, looked completely incompetent on both sides of the ball in the process but bounced back to not only with the game but completely blow the doors off in doing so?

Yep, you’ve heard that one before. You hear it every week. The Pats ended their regular season on Sunday with a rousing, 49-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills but even though the final score was totally lopsided and the Pats entire point tally was unanswered, the game didn’t engender a whole lot of confidence headed into the playoffs. For the third consecutive week, it took a double digit deficit to wake the Pats from their Sunday afternoon nap and against Buffalo, it was the steepest of the three (10 two weeks ago in Denver, 17 last week against Miami and 21 on Sunday). Going back to their Week 11 win over Kansas City, the Pats have trailed in the first half every week except for one, the win in Week 13 against the Colts (though it should be noted that in that game, the Pats were an onside kick away from potentially blowing a 28-point lead to a then winless team). This inability to put a full, 60-minute game together hasn’t wound up being a problem during the regular season against mediocre competition (the best record of any team the Pats have beaten this year is 8-8). But now that the post-season is here, with potential games against the fellow iron of the AFC in Pittsburgh and Baltimore looming, can this team really afford to fall behind 21-0 in the first quarter and count on being able to make a few scheme and personnel adjustments, come back and win?

That’s something we’ll have to find out. On Sunday, after getting steamrolled by the Bills in the first quarter to the tune of an eight-play, 80-yard TD drive, a 10-play, 70-yard TD drive and a six-play, 82-yard TD drive, the Pats remembered they had a game to play and subsequently wiped the Bills off the Gillette Stadium turf. Tom Brady became the third QB to surpass 5,000 yards passing in a single season (the second in the last two weeks), finishing with 5,133, Rob Gronkowski set a new league record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end (1,327) while extending his record for TD receptions in a season by a tight end to 17 and Bill Belichick became the first coach in league history to win at least 13 regular season games in five different seasons. All of these records are wonderful and the Pats certainly looked immense at times over the final three quarters, even on defense (four INTs, two sacks, 217 yards allowed in the final three quarters, 61 yards passing allowed in the second half). But despite the overall dominance from quarters two through four, something still smelled a little bit funny. Luckily for the Pats, they have an extra week to figure out how to fumigate before their playoff run commences. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, brought to you by Lysol, Febreze or any other stink eater you can think of.

OFFENSE: B+

Quarterbacks: B+
Brady was just as guilty of failing to wake up on time as the rest of his teammates, missing his first three passes then taking a sack on his fourth dropback. It took him a few throws not only to get the right timing down with any of his targets but to get his accuracy where it needed to be, as he was firing throws into the ground in the early going. But naturally, since he’s, well, Tom Brady, when he picked it up, he really picked it up. After beginning the day 1-of-8, he completed 11 passes in a row and finished the day with a tidy line of 23-of-35 for 338 yards and three TDs (113.8 passer rating). He did toss his first pick in four weeks but it was off a deflection at the tail end of the first half and wound up not causing any damage. Perhaps best of all, though, was that Brady showed zero ill-effects from his non-throwing shoulder injury which caused him to be limited in practice all week and made for so much hand wringing by the local media. And along the way, he threw his 300th career TD pass, tying him with John Elway for fifth all-time. The Pats defense obviously needs to make some strides between now and the night of January 14, when they play their first playoff game against either the Broncos, the Steelers or the Bengals. But isn’t it comforting to know that Brady is running the show on the other side of the ball? The answer, without a shred of doubt, is yes.

Running Backs: B+
Not to toot one’s own horn, but did anyone see who was out there getting the majority of the reps at tailback? Yep, it was our newest binky, Stevan Ridley. Ridley took the most snaps of any Pats runner by a wide margin and made that decision pay off, rolling up 81 yards on just 15 carries and looking fast, quick and super tough in doing so. He did fumble once, getting the ball punched out of his arms from behind, though luckily, it bounced out of bounds. Ridley continues to look like the future at the position (with all due respect to fellow rookie Shane Vereen, who just hasn’t been able to get on the field enough). He has such good instincts that when he learns to refine his running style at all, he could be a major force. Another piece of good news pertains to the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who looked as good on Sunday as he has in over two months. Benny took a screen pass from Brady in the third quarter, put his head down and didn’t stop until he’d picked up 53 huge yards, looking fast and lithe in the process. He added two more TDs, giving him 11 on the season, and for the first time in weeks, was decisive and powerful in those short yardage situations (the first TD plunge was a textbook, picture perfect launching of himself over the pile and into the end zone). The Pats again chose to throw more than they ran but proved for the second consecutive week that they are onto something in the running game. Ride Ridley, spell him with Benny, particularly in short yardage, and watch the production (138 yards on 29 attempts, 4.8 YPA on Sunday) happen.

Wide Receivers: C
Just calling this section “Wes Welker” as opposed to Wide Receivers was certainly taken into consideration given that not only was Welker the only Pat in this position group to make a catch, he was the only member of the corps to have more than one ball thrown his way (Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood got 62 combined reps, had no catches among them and were targeted a grand total of one time). Welker, who seemed to have a bit of a hard time getting on the same page with Brady from time to time, managed six catches for 51 yards and got the snot beat out of him on a couple of plays, only to bounce right back up and jog back to the huddle every time, just like always. The fact that Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien know they can count on the tight ends to be options 1B and 1C in the passing game mitigates the fact that there is pretty much nothing there at the wide receiver position. Branch is completely unpredictable, Underwood is a glorified practice squader and Ochocinco is one of the biggest busts in Pats history. With that in mind, as many Pats fans must think on a weekly basis, thank god for Welker.

Tight Ends: A
Aaron Hernandez not making the Pro Bowl is reason No. 3,276 why the Pro Bowl is a joke, the biggest embarrassment of all the major, professional sports all-star games. Just days after being snubbed in favor of the Chargers Antonio Gates, who is grandfathered in at this point, A-Herb had his second monstrous game in three weeks, catching seven passes for 138 yards and TD and adding 26 rushing yards on two carries (making him the Pats second leading rusher on the day), those plays clearly a byproduct of his exceptional skill in running with the ball after the catch. Given his size and quickness as well as his skills in the open field, it’s hard to see how anyone can cover him; linebackers aren’t quick enough, safeties aren’t skilled enough, corners aren’t big or strong enough. Perhaps that’s why on his TD, a 39-yard sideline route on which he high-stepped into the end zone, there were no Buffalo defenders within 20 yards of him. A-Herb finishes the regular season with 79 catches for 910 yards and seven TDs, all while playing in the giant, cyborg shadow of Gronk, who only had the greatest season a tight end has ever had. We already discussed the cyborg’s exploits but just to recap, eight catches, 108 yards, two more TDs, played every snap, threw a couple of crucial blocks in the running game, and was so humbled after the game when he learned Belichick and O’Brien had specifically called the game’s final pass play – a 22-yard flare from Brian Hoyer – so he could get the receiving yardage record, he sounded like a high schooler. Gronk pretty much looked as much like the T-1,000,000 as he has all year. 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs. Absolutely amazing.

Offensive Line: C+
Matt Light returned to the starting lineup after missing last week with an ankle injury but even his presence couldn’t keep the line from starting off as slowly as the rest of the team. Brady got beat up on Sunday, taking four sacks and getting hit three more times and while he came out healthy and in one piece, that’s a little but too much abuse for Week 17 with a bye and at least one home playoff game already sewed up. With no Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell lined up at left guard and acquitted himself fairly well. Nate Solder got to see more time as the third tight end thanks to Light’s return and that always helps the running game. He also split time at right tackle with fellow rookie Marcus Cannon, who has seen better days. If Mankins is healthy enough to go in the Divisional Round and the Pats have the line they’ve played with for the most part all year (Light, Mankins, Dan Connolly/Wendell, Brian Waters, Solder/Sebastian Vollmer), there shouldn’t be much of a reason to worry. But that continuity is huge, as evidenced by the lack of it these past two weeks.

DEFENSE: C+

Defensive Line: B-
It feels like the gimmick of giving two grades to the defensive groups got stale fast so this one and the next two will represent some attempts at an average. You can pretty much chalk up a giant F for the D-line in the first quarter, when they were all dominated by the Bills offensive front both in defending the run and trying to get any semblance of a pass rush. But when the tide turned, it really turned. Mark Anderson wreaked havoc, getting in Bill QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face with regularity and rolling up his 10th sack and even looking stout against the run. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Anderson didn’t come off the field for the Bills final nine drives of the game, understandable given Buffalo’s need to throw on nearly every play and Anderson’s role as the team’s top pass rusher. He played 61 snaps, the most of any defender who isn’t a defensive back or named Jerod Mayo and looked like just what the Pats need in the absence of Andre Carter. Of course, Anderson’s playing time going forward will hinge on what kind of offense the opponent is playing; remember, after exploding against Denver two weeks ago while the Broncos were in catch-up mode, he barely played last week against the Dolphins. Elsewhere on the D-line, Kyle Love had another pretty good game, with a sack, another hit on Fitzpatrick and a nice stop of running back C.J. Spiller behind the line, while Vince Wilfork was mostly invisible (two tackles, neither solo). And Shaun Ellis followed up his strongest game of the year against Miami with a total no-show on Sunday. This group needs to step up and make things happen going forward given the massive limitations in the secondary. This has been the case all season though, and the results, to be kind, have been mixed.

Linebackers: B-
Dane Fletcher got off to a brutal start, missing a couple of tackles in particularly ugly fashion before bouncing back to have a pretty decent game. It was sort of a microcosm of the entire defense, the linebackers in particular, who lost Rob Ninkovich three series into the game with a hip injury, but recovered relatively well from both a sluggish start and Ninkovich’s absence. Mayo of course played every down and alternated between looking overmatched and overrated with making the occasional nice play, including a picture perfect pass breakup of what looked like a easy completion on a second half sideline throw from Fitzpatrick to one of his tight ends. And Brandon Spikes finally returned from a sprained knee that’s had him out of action since early November, getting a handful of reps (some of them in the Pats nickel package) and making three tackles. When Spikes got hurt, he was the best linebacker on the team. If he’s healthy, Ninkovich’s injury isn’t too serious and Tracy White, who’s missed two games with an abdominal strain, comes back for the playoffs, the Pats may just have themselves a legit strength and advantage at this position. Can you believe it?

Defensive Backs: C
In the first quarter, Fitzpatrick was 13-of-16 for 165 yards and two TDs. Antwuan Molden gave up a hideous, 47-yard pass interference penalty at the goal line on a ball that was overthrown and Devin McCourty was again so awful that he was moved to safety. But that’s OK, the Pats made their adjustments and those, combined with the benching of star receiver Steve Johnson (uncoverable to the tune of four catches, 40 yards and a TD in that first quarter) for getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty thanks to flashing an undershirt that said, “Happy New Year,” saved the Pats secondary. It didn’t hurt either that Sterling Moore, who got a lot of run in the second half thanks to a miserable effort by Kyle Arrington, made two stunning picks, both of which featured perfect reads, great timing and highlight reel catches. Moore ran the second of the two back for a TD and looked like he was more than capable of playing some serious reps at corner in the playoffs. And Julian Edelman moved into the slot in place of an ineffective Nate Jones following the Bills third TD march and didn’t come out of the game until he’d played 41 consecutive snaps. Edelman made five tackles in his longest stint on defense of the season and proved again that he may well have a future both with the Pats and in the NFL as a defensive back. Sunday also marked the return of Patrick Chung, who not only played for the first time since Nov. 9, he played the entire game. Chung played well, making a couple of big hits, running a textbook safety blitz on which he missed sacking Fitzpatrick by a spilt second but still caused a hurried, incomplete pass. As bad as the Pats have been at corner all year, they’ve been worse at safety, making Chung’s return and solid play reason for at least a temporary sigh of relief. As for McCourty, he looked OK out there roaming, assisting on tackles and not getting burned for one 40+ gain after another. He also came up with a pick off a deflection late in the game and returned it 38 yards while showcasing his amazing speed (and while we’re here, why don’t the Pats use this guy to return kicks? He’s perfect for that role). Molden had a pick too, though he didn’t play particularly well, which leads one to wonder what the rotation of defensive backs will look like come the Divisional Round. On Sunday, after the first quarter, Jones and James Ihedigbo were the odd men out (meaning Ihedigbo didn’t get to suffer his weekly injury thanks to the lack of snaps). Given how few looks have worked back there all season, here’s hoping that’s the way things line up on January 14.

Special Teams: B
The Pats defense actually made a stop on the Bills first possession of the game but the punt team fell victim to a fake – a direct snap to the upback who strolled through an 18-wheeler sized hole for an easy first down – which led to the Bills early onslaught. But other than that slipup, things were reasonably solid in this phase of the game. The Bills have a great return game (they ran back a punt for a TD just last week) but the Pats held it in check, allowing just five yards on one punt return and an average of 21 on two kick returns. Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals, one of which was borderline bomby (47 yards). And our man Zoltan, whose omission from the Pro Bowl roster was still another reason that game is such a farce, answered his snub with an average of 48.5 yards on two punts.

Coaching: B+
Just to get any negatives out of the way early, these slow starts are starting to cast shadows on more than just the players. The Pats were clearly playing for something on Sunday, a point everyone, starting with Belichick, didn’t miss a chance to stress during the week. So then how is it even remotely possible that they come out so flat when the game starts? Belichick’s coaching job this season has to be among his best ever; the fact that he won 13 games and earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed with this defense is transcendent. But what can he do to get his players to play a full game? Again, you can get away with weeks and weeks of extended dry spells whether in the first quarter or the fourth during the regular season against the likes of the Redskins or Bills or Colts. And maybe you can get away with it in the playoffs too (note: you probably can’t and if you don’t believe that, take a good look at both of the Pats last two playoff losses, particularly the one against Baltimore two years ago).

To really put the cherry on top of his stellar coaching sundae, Belichick needs to preside over an effort that doesn’t take 15-20 minutes to get going. It’s been made clear more than once this season that the Pats are perfectly fine with coming out, letting the other team get in a few solid jabs at them while they feel everything out, then pouncing. That philosophy has been stretched pretty thin at this point, though. The Pats have been outscored 38-14 in the first half of their last two games. It’s one thing to give the opponent a little time to show its hand, it’s another to fall behind by three scores while running just five offensive plays.

Belichick and his staff get this week’s grade because their incredible aptitude for making the exactly right adjustments to all of these deficits. While the Bills were shorthanded in the second half, holding a QB to 61 passing yards after letting the same QB pass for 246 yards in the previous half is an impressive feat. And on offense, the timing of moving to the no-huddle is perfect every week with Sunday no exception. From an in-game perspective, there’s no one better, as evidenced by how easily the Pats coaching staff runs circles around its opposite number on a weekly basis. But as great as this group is at changing things up when they need to be changed, how about a week in which they don’t have to? You know, like a week where the game plan is working from the opening kickoff and the Pats are the ones running out to a big lead. Now’s as good a time as any.

Pats Pregame Points: Game 16 vs. Bills

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

New England resolutions for the New Year:

Number one: Play 60 minutes of football. All in the same game.

Number two: If no number one, play 30 minutes of really good football.

Number three: Make sure those 30 minutes happen in the second half.

The Patriots overcame a 17-0 deficit to avoid drowning against the Dolphins in a 27-24 win. With a first-round bye in place, New England hosts Buffalo with an eye on the number one seed in the AFC.

Some thoughts heading into the regular season finale…

Line, Please? The Patriots’ offensive line had more switches than a Dickens-era schoolteacher, ending up with rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon at left and right tackles, respectively. Looks like both guard Logan Mankins and tackle Matt Light will be held back until the playoffs.

The rookies and new Patriot Donald Thomas (left guard) deserve praise for gelling in the second half, but Buffalo’s defense may not prove as kind to the newbies.

What’s Blue And White And Runs All Over? Speaking of rookies, nice work by running back Stevan Ridley. He seems to possess a burst that BenJarvus Green-Ellis doesn’t, as well as some serious bulk that running back/pixie Danny Woodhead lacks.

In short, the more carries for Ridley, the better.

Ochocinco Para Uno: When New England signed Chad Ochocinco before this season, they had hopes of developing him into a complementary receiver. Not so much, as Ochocinco caught just one pass, again. He has 15 catches for 276 yards and one TD.

Ochocinco has set our expectations at this mediocre level, so if he has a game with a few catches and a touchdown, we’ll be first in line at the parade.

Don’t Call It A Comeback: Well, we’re not sure what else you could call it. Down 17-0 at the half, New England scored 27 straight in the second half to pull away from the Dolphins. Earlier this season at Buffalo, the opposite occurred, as the Pats failed to hang onto a 21-0 lead before losing on a last-second field goal.

What Pats team shows up in the first quarter this week? Will they need some more comeback magic?

Doing More With Wes: Receiver Wes Welker has 116 receptions for 1,518 yards and nine touchdowns. For a bit of perspective, Ochocinco would need eight seasons in New England to match that output. (And some are wondering whether or not to lock up Welker’s contract?)

Should Welker sit out this game? We wouldn’t mind it, but we wouldn’t expect it, either.

Call Us New Englan – Without the “D”: Sure, the Patriots’ defense held Miami to only seven points in the second half. Yes, they recovered a fumble and notched an interception. But you have to contrast these turnovers with the fumbles they forced at Denver.

The Patriots got into position to make strong plays and strip the football at Mile High stadium two weeks ago. Against Miami, they fell on a botched snap and caught what amounted to a punt by Dolphins QB Matt Moore (Devin McCourty was behind the receiver by two steps and mistimed his jump to the point where he almost missed the ball. Maybe the kid needs glasses).

When they play better teams in January, New England will need better play from their defense. Less luck, more pluck.

Planting The Seed: Win or lose, New England gets to rest their linemen, put in some fancy plays for Ochocinco, and maybe – maybe – settle down their defense. Either way, not too bad.

A serious note from me about the passing of a dear friend. Father Tom Fleming lived and worked in and around Boston for over 50 years, leaving the area only when he was a military chaplain in Vietnam. Father Tom has been a part of our family since the 1960s – among many other connections, he baptized me and married me to my wonderful wife. He will be missed.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – Dolphins at Patriots

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

OK, class, today’s lesson is a very important one so naturally, it starts with a very important question: At what point does it become OK to be worried/anxious/disappointed following a win? Because in the case of the Patriots, now just one game away from the start of the post-season, that time feels very, very near.

It’s hard to come to many other conclusions after Saturday’s 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins, their seventh consecutive victory, yet another week in which the Pats failed to play a complete game and fell way behind before relying on their own experience and their opponent’s lack thereof to come back and take it. The Pats trailed the Dolphins 17-0 at halftime, had four three-and-outs and punted six times over that stretch while simultaneously allowing still one more journeyman, bottom-of-the-ladder QB carve them to shreds and look like a Hall-of-Famer in the process. Of course, everything changed at halftime. Adjustments were made to the offensive strategy, a couple of looks changed on defense and the Dolphins, who are better than their 5-10 record would indicate, remembered that they are a team chock full of mediocre players coached by mediocre coaches, allowed the Pats to score 27 straight points and escape with the three-point win, clinching a first-round playoff bye. But when those playoff games begin roughly three weeks from now, the competition is going to be far better than the Miami Dolphins and probably the Denver Broncos (who, if certain things fall into place, could well be the Pats Divisional Round opponent in Foxboro the weekend of January 14-15; and while we’re here, let’s hope they are). Can the Pats afford to fall behind by three scores against teams with defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, regardless of where the game is played? Given the events of last year’s Divisional Round loss to the Jets, if the little brother team from New York somehow finds its way back into the tournament and winds up here again on that weekend, will the Pats be able to come back if they fall behind in that one? They couldn’t/didn’t last year.

And therein lies our dilemma. Of course, a win is a win and there’s nothing more important than getting out with that W next to your team’s name in the standings, no matter how it happened. It’s been written in this space pretty much ad nauseum, especially this season. But this team, with its rash of injuries all over the roster and its still abhorrent defense, has really been pushing its luck of late. It’s wonderful to continue to see the Pats overall mental toughness and character demonstrated in multiple ways on a weekly basis. Those intangibles most definitely separate this group from the ones that were dismissed from the playoffs so quickly and resolutely the past two seasons. But at this point, with the games that really count so close and without a win that was ever even remotely in doubt since before Thanksgiving, a good old-fashioned ass-whooping sure would be sweet, seven-game winning streak or not. Sorry to be nitpicky, but it’s true. If the Pats play the way they’ve played in any of their last four games – all against poor to middling competition – in the post-season, it’s going to be yet another long, cold, head-scratching winter in New England. But that’s a column for another day. For now, let’s just get to this week’s report card.

OFFENSE: C+

Quarterbacks: B-

Someone down on the field was wearing a Tom Brady jersey in the first half on Saturday, it’s just hard to be certain whether or not it actually was Brady himself. It certainly didn’t help that not only did his left tackle, Matt Light, aggravate an ankle injury that caused him to be scratched from the active roster during pre-game warmups, his left guard, Logan Mankins, only the best lineman on the team, was felled by a knee injury filling in for Light at LT on the second series of the game forcing him to miss the rest of the afternoon. All of the shake-ups on the line resulted in some serious protection issues and communication problems in the first half and along with all of that, Brady simply wasn’t sharp, skipping throws to open receivers and coming up short or low on one pass after another. Prior to the Pats final drive of the half, which ended in a missed, 51-yard field goal attempt, Brady was 3-of-14 for 37 yards and the Pats ran 27 plays for 56 total yards with just three first downs. But on that final drive of such a miserable half, the Pats discovered that when they shifted to a complete spread formation with five receivers and no running backs on the field, the Dolphins, who’d been throwing one blitz after another at the Pats depleted offensive front all day long up to that point, sacked Brady three times before the half and got to him five other times. But Miami had no answer for the Pats adjustment and wound up surrendering the game’s next 27 points. The Pats scored on five of their six second half drives with Brady going 20-of-27 for 217 yards and a TD over that stretch. He looked to be forcing the ball to Wes Welker in the first half but after halftime, when he spread it around a little bit more, Welker got more room and wound up with one of his patented, double-digit reception days. And again, like in so many other games, he proved to be the master of the QB sneak, twice employing it for TDs while picking up a couple of crucial first downs on other occasions. Brady was a different guy after halftime, pretty much his usual self, and that was lucky for the Pats. What’s also lucky for the Pats is that they have Brady at all. This season, in which there’s been less room for error than any since Brady’s time here began, may well wind up being his best. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has appeared to be the sure-fire MVP all year long. But there have been whispers of late that Brady, given what he has to work with and how near perfect he’s had to have been all season given the shortcomings of his defense, may be a dark horse candidate. Rodgers is fantastic, a superstar in every sense who is having the best year of any QB for the league’s best team, just like Brady in 2007. But Brady’s doing similar stuff with less around him. Maybe there should be some steam to those whispers. Maybe Brady’s the MVP, again.

 Running Backs: B

The Pats don’t want to run the ball very often and when they do, they divvy up the attempts among three, four, sometimes five ball carriers (on Saturday, six players, including Welker and Aaron Hernandez, had at least one rushing attempt). But against the Dolphins, one of the many Pats runners made yet another case that he should be the man going forward. Rookie Stevan Ridley, who has averaged five yards every time he’s run the ball this year, had another big game, acting as the closer (20 of his 28 reps came in the second half) and ripping off 64 yards on 13 attempts, including a couple of back breakers in the final minutes. It’s been noted in this space before both that the Pats need to run the ball more and that Ridley is the man, but so what. Let’s say it again! The Pats are always, always, always at their best on offense when their rushing attempts and passing attempts line up. And Ridley, who has really come on the past two weeks after spending a good chunk of the middle of the season in mothballs, is, with all due respect to Danny Woodhead and the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, their best, strongest, quickest, shiftiest back. Keep giving him the snaps and the ball, please. As for the rest of the bunch, Woodhead made the most of his four touches in gaining 20 yards and Benny continued his slide down the depth chart, carrying just three times for 10 yards while playing the fewest snaps of any of the Pats runners. Going forward, how’s about Ridley getting 20 or so carries, Woody as the change of pace, third down guy and Benny in short yardage or at the goal line. Everybody wins.

Wide Receivers: B

Welker had six passes thrown his way in the first half an only caught one. This wasn’t really his fault; he’s Brady’s ultimate security blanket and Brady was under so much duress that he was forcing the ball mostly in an effort to just get rid of it. And it hardly helped that Welker was blanketed early by the Dolphins best corner, Vontae Davis, who was not only in his back pocket but was bumping and chucking him at the line of scrimmage before he could get into any of his routes. But after halftime, when the Pats spread it out, Welker came alive, catching every pass Brady threw his way but one and finishing with a ho-hum, 12 catches and 138 yards, the best of which saw him and Brady immediately recognize that somehow, a linebacker was singled up on him so he ran a streak down the far side seam, hauled in the pass and wound with a 42-yard gain. It says a lot about Welker that even when he’s silenced for long stretches of games, he still almost always has a major impact on them, whether it’s taking some of the coverage away from the Pats other pass catchers or just being patient enough to withstand a one-catch first half and have an 11-catch second half while becoming the all-time leading receiver in franchise history in the process. Please pay the man. Please? Elsewhere, Deion Branch returned from a one-game absence to catch three passes for 37 yards and a TD on which he broke his man’s ankles in cutting back across the end line to flash open just long enough for Brady to find him in the back of the end zone and cut the Miami lead to 17-10. And Chad Ochocinco provided his weekly catch, giving him 15 on the season, or one per game. Six million bucks very shrewdly spent.

Tight Ends: A-

Would you believe that Rob Gronkowski had another big game? He didn’t find the end zone for the second straight week but when the Pats spread it out and he stood and went wide, he blew up. Seven more catches, 78 more yards, a couple more broken tackles and one hysterical cut away in which he wished the CBS viewing audience a Merry Christmas while wearing both a very loud Santa hat and a very silly looking grin. Again, when playing a glorified wide receiver spot, Gronk was basically uncoverable, as was A-Herb, who had a much quiter game than last week in Denver (four catches, 36 yards) but sparked the offense with a 15-yard catch and run on the first play after the Pats opened up the formation and went spread late in the first half. These two, particularly Gronk, play more snaps on offense along with Welker than anyone. Makes sense considering they’re the three most important cogs in the passing game.

Offensive Line: B-

It took a while to get going thanks to all of the personnel changes. No Light, then no Mankins meant two rookie tackles (Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon) along with Donald Thomas, signed 10 minutes ago, at guard and Dan Connolly, just back from an injury, at center. You could see how difficult it was to get everyone on the same page in the first half. But that simple adjustment to spread everything out made all the difference. Again, it helped that the Dolphins couldn’t adjust back, stopped blitzing and basically sat on their heels waiting to get picked apart by Brady. But these guys are so, so well coached that it’s not surprising they shook off some rust and unfamiliarity and wound up dominating. Solder played three positions on Saturday, both tackles spots and tight end, and played them all pretty damn well. The Pats have a real gem in him. And his fellow rookie Cannon continued to draw praise from the coaching staff following just his sixth game after his non-Hodgkins lymphoma went into remission. The Pats aren’t going anywhere if they can’t keep Brady upright and clean, a prospect that seems like it may be difficult if the injuries to Light and Mankins are at all serious. But at least they showed, after a rough beginning, that they can handle being without those two All-Pros if needs be.

 DEFENSE: C

Defensive Line: C

Another tale of two halves kind of thing for the defense as a whole, with the front four particularly complicit. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush gained 115 yards on 22 attempts, most of it in the first half, when the Pats D-line was getting pushed around. This week, in the absence of Andre Carter, the Pats came out heavy, moving Brandon Deaderick over to Carter’s side and inserting Shaun Ellis in at the other end. While Ellis played his most snaps since October and had by far his best game of the year (three tackles, a sack, a couple of hits on Dolphins QB Matt Moore) his playing didn’t do much for the Pats run defense, which for the second straight week was suspect at best. Among the interior group of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Gerard Warren, there were only three solo tackles registered. That’s not going to cut it at all in most weeks. And whither Mark Anderson? After exploding in place of Carter against the Broncos, Anderson got in on only about a third of the defensive snaps (likely the result of the team’s decision to go really big up front) and while he got to Moore for a couple of hits, he was otherwise silent. The Pats pass defense is so susceptible to giving up plays, they need the run defense to step up in a major way and it just hasn’t been there the past two weeks. Wilfork did have a fumble recovery after a bad snap on the Dolphins first drive of the second half. And thanks to the Pats offense taking control of the game in the third and fourth quarters, there were fewer opportunities for the Dolphins to push the Pats around. But there’s reason for alarm up front and the best player in that group is out for the year.

 Linebackers: B-

While we all sit here and wonder if Brandon Spikes, out seven weeks now after establishing himself as the team’s best linebacker, will ever return, let’s take some time to give a heaping pile of credit to Dane Fletcher. Fletcher had a very nice game on Saturday, making a couple of solid stops, defending the pass well and making a perfect read of the Dolphins snap count to get into the backfield and disrupt the play. Fletcher is not nearly the player Spikes is from a skill level standpoint. But his work the past couple of weeks is probably making the decision to keep giving Spikes more time to heel for the post-season somewhat easier. Jerod Mayo, the $45 million man, looked more like his old self on Saturday than the playmaker he’s been over the past month. He seemed to be on top of a lot of piles rather than making tackles of his own and he was flailing in pass coverage on more than one occasion. But he did have two sacks and bounced back nicely from being one of the many who was getting bullied in the first half. And Rob Ninkovich continued his strong season with six tackles and another sack while playing both standing up and as a down lineman in pass rushing situations. It was a bit odd to not see Tracy White at all, even on special teams; maybe he’s injured and we don’t know. But this group looked pretty decent on Saturday, certainly the strongest of the three levels of the defense.

Defensive Backs: C-

Is it even worth discussing Devin McCourty anymore? You know what’s going to be said/written. “McCourty looked helpless and overmatched once again, giving up a handful of enormous pass plays for whatever reason, blah blah blah.” That pretty much sums it up. McCourty gave up a 39-yard pass play, a 47-yard pass play and a 41-yard pass play while also getting a pass interference penalty on what was basically a throwaway by Moore that wiped out a third down stop in the first half. He did make a couple of nice tackles against the run and did record his first pick of the season (though it must be noted that he was beaten by two steps on that play and made the pick because Moore’s pass was woefully underthrown and he actually turned back to look for the ball, which he didn’t do on any of those long completions). But it’s gotten so bad for McCourty that these scrub/second stringers who light up the Pats secondary every week are looking to target him from their first dropback of the game and are bascially ignoring Kyle Arrington, himself no great shakes, like he’s Deion Sanders. There’s no rhyme or reason to it I’ve never seen any player in any sport go from being as good as McCourty was last year to being as bad as he’s been this year. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Beyond the misery that is McCourty, it should tell you all you need to know that Patrick Chung’s return, if it ever happens, will be an enormous plus for this secondary and Chung isn’t even that good. That’s how bad the safeties have been. James Ihedigbo, when he’s not getting hurt and helped off at least twice per game, has been exposed over the past few weeks as a special teams player forced to play in the regular defense while Sergio Brown has been just that all year but is still getting regular reps with the regular defense and sucking as badly as anyone who’s ever played the position. The Pats have gotten away with this monstrosity of a secondary for 15 games now. Can they get away with it for as many as four more? Let’s hope so. Because it’s not getting any better.

Special Teams: B-

What a weird day for Stephen Gostkowski. First, he misses a 51-yard field goal that would have put the Pats on the board at the end of the first half by about 20 feet. Then, after he hits from 45 to get the Pats on the board about three minutes into the third quarter, he makes a fingertip tackle on the ensuing kick return that saved a TD and wound up representing a 14-point swing after the Pats turned a Dolphins fumble three plays later into a TD of their own. He would go on to make another kick but it was that tackle on the kick return that highlighted his day. Our man Zoltan was called on six times in the first half alone and of course, he was up to the challenge, averaging 52.3 yards per kick and mixing a 65-yarder in there. Thankfully, he wasn’t needed in the second half (no offense, Zoltan) but on Saturday, he proved once again that he’s worthy of All-Pro honors. Where the Pats struggled on special teams was in the kicking game going both ways. Gostkowski shouldn’t have to make a shoestring tackle after a 38-yard kickoff return. And the team should have more going on in their own return game. Even with Woodhead breaking a 37-yard return at one point, the average kick return was 27.7 yards per. Not good. This is a problem that’s been there all year so it’s likely not going away. But man, wouldn’t it be fun to see someone run back a kickoff? Where’s Ellis Hobbs or Bethel Johnson when you need them?

Coaching: B-

Clearly, the plans drawn up by Bill Belichick and his staff going into the game didn’t work. The lack of continuity on the offensive line can’t have helped but the Dolphins took away everything the Pats wanted to do on offense with their blitz packages in the first half while their offensive line completely dominated the Pats up front, leading to that 17-0 lead. Still, once again, Belichick and his coaches wound up with the last laugh, turning the Dolphins D inside out with their adjustments on offense, which subsequently changed Miami’s approach and play-calling on offense. The biggest props should go to line coach Dante Scarnecchia for having his reserves (Solder, Cannon, Thomas) not only ready to play but, after the early hiccups, capable of looking like the regular starting bunch was out there. And on defense, although Belichick and de facto coordinator Matt Patricia have yet to figure out how to stem the tide constantly overwhelming the secondary, the defense overall has been far more aggressive in recent weeks and it’s paying some dividends, particularly in the turnover department, where the Pats are +14 over their seven-game winning streak. Clearly, given the shortcomings in the talent department on this roster, the players have completely bought into what Belichick is selling, unlike in 2009 when the Adalius Thomas’s and Derrick Burgess’s of the world roamed around the locker room. Look at what has happened to the only two dissenting voices, Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth, this season. Gone post haste, both of them. The Pats togetherness and mental toughness, both qualities that come directly from up top, have played a big role in carrying them to this point. We’ll see how much further that can go. The guess here, especially if the injury situation clears itself up somewhat by Divisional Round weekend, is pretty far.

Pats Pregame Points: Game 15 vs. Dolphins

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Patriots got on the “nice” list with a win at Denver and found something in their stockings: the AFC East championship. Now if only Santa could step in at defensive back.

Though far from perfect, the Patriots’ 41-23 conquest in Colorado showed flashes of an opportunistic defense, stout special teams, and of course an offense that creates mismatches week by week.

Keeping that victory in mind, let’s look ahead to the Christmas Eve tilt when the Pats host the Dolphins.

On Ridley, On Woodhead, On Brady: The Pats had some success running the ball in Denver (141 yards on 36 rushes, with quarterback Tom Brady notching his annual rushing TD). This kept their time of possession up and kept their defense off the field. Important elements come playoff time.

They had to step up because –

Run, Run Rudolph (and anyone in a Broncos uniform): Want a scary stat? (Sure you do!) After the first quarter, Denver had rushed for 167 yards – that’s rushing only. They were on pace to run for over 650 yards Sunday. Just for perspective, New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 635 yards rushing this season.

The jolly old elf might describe that defense as naughty, or at the very least not nice.

Oh Christmas Bush, Oh Christmas Bush: Miami’s Reggie Bush has been a dynamic all-purpose back in recent games. If New England starts this game the same way they did in Denver, that trend will continue.

Mark, The Herald Angels Sing: Kudos to pass-rusher Mark Anderson for his two sacks and forced fumble. That type of pressure will become even more important Saturday with Andre Carter lost to injury and Miami’s efficient QB Matt Moore coming to Foxboro.

Seven Guys A-Blocking, Six Points A-Getting, Chad Ochocinco! Yes, Chad Ochocinco blew by Broncos coverage to score his first TD in a Patriots uniform. And it only took 14 games. So … hooray. Right?

Anyway, it would be nice to see Ochocinco contribute on a more regular – oh for the love of God haven’t we said this a dozen times already?

Tiquan Under-the-mistletoe: Actually, we were happy for Ochocinco, but we’re more intrigued with Tiquan Underwood as the third receiver. He caught one pass and should have caught another (he hugged the sideline too closely on the route and ended up out of bounds), but more importantly, he seems to understand the playbook and doesn’t appear lost in the hurry-up offense.

In The Aaron, There’s A Feeling Of Christmas: When the Broncos took away receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski, hybrid Aaron Hernandez became the gift that kept on giving, scoring an important touchdown, converting a crucial fourth down, gaining 16 yards on an end-around play and compiling career highs of nine receptions for 129 yards.

Miami’s defense has been playing well, but whom do they cover? How many receivers can they take away?

And that’s all because of…

Three-score Leads, Two Touchdowns, And A QB Named Tom Bra-a-d-y-y: We know this for sure – the Patriots have made the playoffs. We have no idea how far they might get, but, hey, let’s relish the consistency of Brady (320 yards passing to eight different receivers last Sunday). He runs the offense, protects the defense, and even sets up special teams for success.

That, by itself, has been a gift. We wish you a Merry Christmas, New England.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – Patriots at Broncos

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Remember when the Patriots had to travel 2,000 miles to take on a superhuman deity? Nah, neither do we. But, class, we do remember when the Pats traveled 2,000 miles to take on an upstart, first-place team with unexpected playoff aspirations that was on a six-game winning streak led by a quarterback in Tim Tebow who has become the most polarizing figure in the NFL since Michael Vick’s return to the league from a stint in federal prison, or at least since last year when BrettFavre spent three months stumbling around, embarrassing himself and his team while simultaneously tarnishing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.

No, the Pats trip to Denver and subsequent 41-23 win, their sixth straight, wasn’t quite what all the pre-game hype made it out to be (and if you don’t believe that, just ask Tom Brady, who told Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver after the win, “I’ve been in a lot of big games, Mikey. Games a lot bigger than this.”), but it was still an intense, at times breathtaking contest that settled, or at least went a long way toward settling a lot of arguments buzzing around the two teams that played it. On the Pats side, the game pointed out that they are able to win a playoff-style game against a quality opponent in a hostile environment while again displaying that as a team, they possess the mental toughness to absorb their opponent’s best shot, get up, dust themselves off and make more than enough plays to win. After one quarter on Sunday, the Pats looked worse on defense than they have all season, giving up a whopping 167 rushing yards and 218 total yards over that stretch. Just take a second to process such a claim. But from the second quarter on, they were a different team on that side of the ball, making the right adjustments to contain and control the Broncos running game while forcing Denver to have to throw to keep up. and getting out of Dodge allowing just 175 totals yards over the final three quarters. While that defensive metamorphosis was occurring, the Pats were putting up their most complete performance on offense since the 37-16 shellacking of the Jets back in Week 10. Without Deion Branch, their already thin wide receiver corps was even thinner but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and company from rolling up a season-high 41 points while piling up another 451 total yards. It wound up being one of the best, most satisfying wins of the season for reasons that had zero to do with that it came at the expense of Tebow. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, completely non-denominational as always.

OFFENSE: A-

Quarterbacks: A

Brady probably would never, ever say it. But he had to have been at least a little bit pissy about the attention showered upon Tebow in the week leading up to Sunday’s game. One guy has won six in a row. The other guy had won five in a row and oh by the way, has three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP awards and is as much a lock for the Hall of Fame as anyone is in any sport. Maybe that had something to do with the amount of oomph he put into the spike following his second quarter rushing TD, his first since last November. But regardless of all that, Brady was masterful playing in a city where he’d only won once in six previous tries. Playing without Branch, seeing the Broncos double and sometimes triple teaming Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the afternoon and having to stay alert to a fearsome Broncos pass rush, Brady pretty much shrugged and completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards (9.4 YPA) and two TDs to go with that one-yard scoring plunge. He became the second QB in NFL history to throw 35 or more TD passes in three different seasons and if he really lights it up in the final two weeks of the season, he could cross the 40,000 yard mark for his career (not to mention the fact that he’s just 213 yards shy of his career-high in yards for a season and 407 short of 5,000 for this year, both feats he should achieve easily). He bounced right back up after getting absolutely planted on a third quarter sack by Broncos pass rushing demon Elvis Dumervil, and even connected on a 33-yard TD pass to Chad Ochocinco, which may have been his most impressive accomplishment of them all. Brady won’t win his third MVP award this season; Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a mortal lock for that award, as well he should be. But on Sunday, Brady showed that he’s still just as good as anyone, maybe even better.

Running Backs: A-

It’s time to officially declare rookie Stevan Ridley our binky. He’s the most electric runner the Pats have had since Curtis Martin, a big and strong yet shifty, elusive and quick back who can somehow shapeshift when he needs to. Ridley had his most productive game since early October on Sunday, gaining 65 yards on just 11 carries to pace the Pats 141-yard rushing attack. Sometimes, Ridley, who seems to be on the verge of exploding with energy even when there’s nowhere for him to run, looks as though he can’t remember which way the play is supposed to be going. But he does so with the kind of power, vigor and speed that will look even more impressive as he grows into a feature back who gets 20-25 carries per game. Along with Ridley, Danny Woodhead solidified the Pats running game, posting his second straight solid game and adding his first TD of the season, a 10-yard scamper on a perfectly executed draw play late in the third quarter. Even Aaron Hernandez got into the act, lining up in the backfield for a key third down play early in the second quarter and getting sprung for 16 yards and a first down by a massive block by Gronk. About the only disappointing aspect of the running game on Sunday was the lack of production from the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who managed just 17 yards on 10 carries and, although he scored the Pats final TD after the Broncos had made it a two possession game in the fourth, again seemed to have trouble gaining a yard when that’s all the Pats needed. He did catch a couple of dump-offs from Brady and turn them into good gains, Benny just hasn’t been himself for weeks now. Maybe it’s the toe injury he suffered back in October, who knows? But complaining about such things after getting the kind of output the Pats got from their run game on Sunday is nitpicky. The Pats best offensive games of the year have all been when the running game and the passing game are balanced. Sunday, a day when they ran 36 running plays and 34 pass plays, was no exception.

Wide Receivers: B

Seven of Brady’s 23 completions went to wideouts with Branch out of the lineup, but that was enough. Wes Welker was held to just four catches and 41 yards but he still did his usual great job of either moving the chains or at least getting the ball close to them, while setting a new career-high for receiving yards with 1,380. He also moved into second place on the Pats all-time receptions list with 536. Even when he doesn’t have a huge day, Welker, who made one of the prettiest diving catches you’ll ever see on the Pats second TD drive of the game, has a huge day. Ochocinco played 54 snaps in Branch’s absence and although he had just the one catch, it was obviously huge, his first TD as a Patriot. He ran a great route on the play, making a quick double move before faking the corner inside then cutting outside to catch Brady’s pass perfectly in stride and waltzing into the end zone. Ocho also threw a couple of key blocks on the afternoon, making Sunday his most productive day in a Pats uniform despite just the one catch. And Tiquan Underwood showed that if there are any emotional scars left over from last week’s sideline confrontation between Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien of which he was the focal point, that he’s covering them up well. He had a catch and it went for 12 yards. Good job, Tiquan. way to man up and bounce back.

Tight Ends: A

If this were an episode of some cheesy, life lessons-style melodrama on ABC Family, it woukd be called “A-Herb Finally Gets His.” Hernandez, relegated to second banana status all year in the face of Gronk becoming a folk hero, national celebrity and pop culture icon all rolled into one, had a career day on Sunday, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a TD. Hernandez, as has been mentioned here before, is such an athletic specimen for a tight end, it’s nearly impossible for any safety or linebacker to cover him. The Broncos sent their rookie strong safety Quinton Carter after him early on and to say that it was a mismatch would be an insult to pretty much every mismatch ever perpetrated on a football field. It started with a crossing route that went for a  46-yard catch and run on the Pats first drive of the day and went from there. He burned Carter again on his TD, a one-yarder after a perfect play fake by Brady. And on a huge fourth and short in the second quarter right as the Pats were seizing momentum, Brady stumbled after taking the snap, recovered and flipped it to a wide open A-Herb, who then turned upfield, made a couple moves and turned it into a 25-yard pickup. Again, A-Herb is like a giant wide receiver; there have been few tight ends in my memory who possess the kind of speed and moves that he does at his size. And man, has he grown in the maturity department. The fact that with his skills, he;s still been second in line to Gronk pretty much all year but has done nothing but keep his mouth shut and patiently wait his turn for a day like Sunday speaks volumes. What a massive weapon he is. As for Gronk, he was quiet by his standards, especially given the past few weeks. But, as always, he was crucial blocking in the running game and still managed to pull one huge play out of the thin, mile high air, taking a short throw from Brady and turning it into a thunderous, 38-yard gain. Thin wide receiving group? Who cares? Not the Pats, who have the best tight end tandem in the NFL.

Offensive Line: A-

There was one communication breakdown on the right side that led to Dumervil’s ferocious sack of Brady. But other than that, this group once again shined bright. Denver’s rookie phenom Von Miller didn’t get anywhere near Brady all day save for one play on which the Pats QB fumbled the snap. And Dumervil was almost completely neutralized. There are three All-Pros on this offensive line; Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters (who drew some chunks in the gullet when he had to leave the game briefly in the second quarter) and rookie Nate Solder looks like he’s on his way to being one. Denver came in with 37 sacks as a team and got just two, one of which was on a delayed safety blitz. And the fact that the running game produced those 141 yards at just about four yards a pop (Benny’s slow day and Brady’s six attempts for two yards crushed what could have been a much better YPA) spoke volumes about the play of this group as well. It’s a multi-purpose group that’s stayed mostly healthy all year and seems to be getting stronger by the week. That should bode very, very well come playoff time.

DEFENSE: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game : B

Defensive Line: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game B+

There’s no other way to to grade the D than to split the game into the first quarter vs. the last three quarters. 15 rushes for 167 yards in the first, 16 rushes for 85 yards after that. 218 total yards allowed in the first quarter, 175 total yards allowed after that. 16 points allowed in the first quarter (plus 1:13), seven points allowed after that. Whatever wasn’t working in the first quarter was fixed and then some going into the second and those adjustments proved to be the key to the entire game. No defensive group transformed itself from the first quarter to the second more dramatically than the D-line, which was absolutely, completely and thoroughly dominated in the early going. The holes and running lanes created by the Broncos offensive line against Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Pats front were big enough to fit three running backs through, let alone one. The Pats, in a 4-3 alignment, were physically brutalized by the Broncos as Tebow, Willis McGahee (seven carries, 70 yards) and some dude named Lance Ball (11 carries, 64 yards) looked like Fran Tarkenton, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith in rolling to a 16-7 lead. But this group, which sadly lost its best player Andre Carter to a season-ending quad injury late in the first quarter, changed course, switching to a 3-4 base and subsequently making the Denver running game look normal as opposed to otherworldly and forcing Tebow to have to make plays with his not-so-godlike arm. Lots of folks stepped up in the second quarter, starting with Mark Anderson, who took over for Carter and for a stretch, took over the game. He got just three reps before Carter’s injury but played almost the entire rest of the game following it, and responded with two sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, two tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two more pokes at Tebow. If Anderson, who now has nine sacks on the year, is going to get the majority of Carter’s snaps, Sunday was a great way to start showing the coaching staff he can handle the workload. Elsewhere, Kyle Love continued his excellent season, bouncing back from being a chief culprit in the first quarter to being a force afterward. He only registered one tackle but when the look went to a 3-4, he plugged up the middle well enough to allow some of the linebackers and safeties to make plays. Ron Brace made the first play of his Pats career (now almost two full seasons in), forcing one of the Broncos three second quarter fumbles, this one on the first play of the Broncos next possession after the Pats cut the lead to 16-14. And Gerard Warren managed to get a little camera time by saying something Tebow thought was really funny after a third quarter sack. Not having Carter going forward is going to hurt; he’s been the best player on this defense all year. But this defense was last in the league with him so how much worse can it be without him? On Sunday, it was actually a little bit better.

Linebackers: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B

Again, a tale of two games. In the first quarter, the creases were so huge, the linebackers didn’t even have time to react before the Broncos running backs were being chased down by the Pats secondary. But Jerod Mayo (who is now somehow making the same money as 49ers star middle backer Patrick Willis, and yes, you read that correctly) and company still wound up getting theirs. Rob Ninkovich probably could have had five sacks if he’d been able to wrap up Tebow a couple more times; as it stands, he also bounced back from being victimized for not being quick enough to set the edge in the first quarter to finishing the day with a very tidy stat line that included a 28-yard sack of Tebow in the fourth quarter that pretty much iced the game. Both Tracy White and Dane Fletcher have likely had better days but both had his moments, with Fletcher in big on Brace’s forced fumble and coming up with the recovery. And there was even a Gary Guyton sighting, which wasn’t terribly exciting. Once the Pats went to that 3-4 in the second quarter, it opened things up for this group and it responded. Just don’t forget, if you guys get the Broncos again come playoff time (and looking at the current scenarios, that’s a very distinct possibility for the divisional round), try to avoid attempting to tackle Tebow high. Go low on Tebow!

Defensive Backs: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B

Tebow completed half of his 22 passes for 194 yards and looked like he’s maybe, possibly coming along as a passer in the process. There were a few throws that a real, pure QB would have easily completed and a couple more on which the Broncos receivers settled as comfortably into the enormous dead spots in the middle of the Pats deeper than deep zone as any receiving corps all year. But there was only one really big, really damaging play against this group after the first quarter, a 39-yard, sideline throw on 3rd and 18 in the fourth quarter that was in part a blown coverage by guess who? Yep, Devin McCourty. It didn’t help that Belichick took Sergio Brown out of mothballs to play safety in this one and Brown, who is not a regular defensive player in any football league anywhere in the world, was about 10 seconds and 35 yards late in coming across to help. But given the Broncos struggles throwing the ball (Tebow seems to give up on every pass play on which his first read isn’t open), this group was able to get out of this one relatively scot-free. Maybe some day, Patrick Chung will play again and there will be some semblance of continuity at the safety position (although, to his credit, Nate Jones had a decent game and Matthew Slater made four tackles in just 10 snaps). And with Miami and Buffalom two teams with (to be kind) middling passing attacks coming up prior to the playoffs, there will be plenty of time for guys to get healthy and more comfortable playing together. This is still the weakest of weak points on the Pats defense. But days like Sunday, even when the opponent is limited, have to breed confidence going forward.

Special Teams: B+Coaching: B

What looked like an absolute disaster early became a clinic for in-game coaching later on. The Pats seemed to be the only people on earth who weren’t ready for the Broncos to come out running and running and running some more in the first quarter. Or maybe they were ready and just didn’t recognize some of the Broncos looks and blocking schemes. Either way, what they came in with wasn’t even slightly working so give a truckload of credit to Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for making changes that saved the game for the Pats. On offense, O’Brien had his troops playing as crisp and fluid as in any game all year; the game plan was fantastic and was executed to near perfection by Brady and Co. Any time you get a guy like Belichick matching wits with a guy like Fox, you have to like your chances. But beyond that, the head man and his crew once again got the absolute maximum out of what he has at his disposal and now is looking right down the barrel of yet another AFC, No. 1 seed. With this defensive group, that might garner some Coach of the Year attention in other years. This year, Pats fans will just have to settle for it being yet another stellar showing by the best coach in the league.

Pats Pregame Points: Game 14 At Broncos

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

This must be New England: where else would following a 10-3 team get depressing?

Dropped passes, airheaded penalties and a consistent lack of defense led to a 34-27 shootout in Washington – not exactly the late-season salve Patriots fans sought against a 4-9 team.

New England returns to the road this weekend, heading to Denver to face quarterback Tim Tebow and His Tebowites. Somehow, the man who started the season unable to throw a football into a kiddie pool is 7-1 as a starter, with each comeback win jockeying for its own mini-documentary on ESPN. He has shown significant improvement of late.

Some thoughts for the week…

If You Want You Can Look And You Will Find Me, Tom After Tom: So quarterback Tom Brady throws for 357 Yards and three touchdowns, and of course all we’re interested in is his verbal confrontation on the sideline.

Is the pressure of having to be perfect getting to Our Tom? Could be. But maybe he just felt stupid throwing an interception. In any case, it seems like he needs to relax a bit back there – it’s as if he trusts his receivers less and less, which affects him throughout the game.

That pressure won’t subside this week facing Denver’s defense. Tebow’s not the only Bronco working miracles every Sunday.

Tiquan Underthrown: According to his combine stats, receiver Tiquan Underwood can leap over 41 inches high. Seems unfortunate that the Patriots QB lofted a pass to him that the defender could get to in the end zone.

Sorry. Moving on. Don’t get defensive.

Speaking of which…

Vince Wilfork Over Some Money For A Fine: Hey Vince Wilfork, just a thought… if the running back has fallen to the ground, you should probably not hammer him with a forearm and earn a 15-yard penalty. You’re a veteran. Your younger, less-experienced, less-talented teammates look up to you. Keep that in mind.

Devinstatingly Dumb: Speaking of questionable conduct, why on Earth would Devin McCourty commit a pass interference penalty on third and 18? Of all the plays he decides to act aggressively, that’s the one? Next time, let the guy make the catch (for about a 10-yard gain), make the tackle, and force the punt on fourth and long.

Leading 14-3 with 4:30 left in the first quarter, the Pats had a real chance to do some damage if they’d gotten the ball back there. Instead, first down Redskins, an ensuing TD, and a dogfight.

Will this team ever pull it all together for 60 minutes? Hard to say.

On the positive side…

Not To Sound Like A Broken Record, But: Versus Indianapolis, gargantuan playmaker Rob Gronkowski thought he had the record for tight end touchdowns in a single season, but the final TD was deemed a run (Brady’s pass was a lateral). Gronk – or is it The Gronk? – made up for that twice this past week, catching six passes for 160 yards and two TDs.

For the season, Gronkowski has 71 catches for 1,088 yards and 15 touchdown receptions. We’re no defensive coordinators, but we’re pretty sure the Broncos are taking a good, long look at that.

When Wes Is More: Seven pass receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown would be a good game for anyone. For Wes Welker, it’s merely average. The man has 100 receptions for 1,339 yards and nine TDs with three games left. For comparison, number two receiver Deion Branch has 48 for 665 and four. In other words, just under half of each.

The Patriots have some weapons, but they’ll need a near-perfect game to take on the Tebow (He is offense, He is defense, He is special teams). Tough thing for the Pats is, that’s the type of game they haven’t played in weeks.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]