By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Light staff today at PDU, dear readers. Seems several professors, TAs and deans have called in sick today or gone on unannounced sabbaticals. I would have too if I’d thought of it in the aftermath of Sunday night in Indy. What was looking like the perfect game imaginable against the Colts went off the rails in burning, fiery fashion in the final two-plus minutes thanks to the biggest coaching mistake seen around these parts in eons. By allowing his team to go for it on fourth-and-2 from its own 28-yard line with a six-point lead just before the two-minute warning, Bill Belichick deserves a truckload of criticism. A steaming pile of crap type truckload of criticism for that matter, in light of a king-size, all-purpose gag job. In one fell swoop, a dominant, potentially season-defining performance was flushed down the toilet in the most inexplicable of ways, ending in a 35-34 loss. And instead of being able to revel in the amazing play of Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, Kevin Faulk and virtually the entire defense for the first 54-55 minutes of the game, all that is left to ponder is why the coach, who so rarely makes any mistakes let alone one so egregious, made the decision he made and how the game even got to that point. Still, it was unarguably one of the best regular season games I’ve seen in quite some time, an absolute classic, regardless of the outcome. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card. Apologies in advance if any sections seem terse or distracted or even unfocused. Just thinking about this game and how it got away is making my stomach do backflips.

OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A-

477 total yards, 35 minutes of possession and 34 points will almost always be enough to get the job done, even on the road against great teams. But not on Sunday night. For the majority of the night, the game plan was perfect. Attack the Colts’ injury-depleted secondary and run plenty of draws and delays out of a shotgun formation to neutralize Indy’s star pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Everything was clicking until the fourth quarter, when the play calling got slightly conservative and what was a dominating offensive display became a bit watered down. The Pats managed just three points on their last four possessions covering the final 12:14 of the game. Aggression turned to passivity and it cost the Pats.

Quarterbacks: A

bradyCan’t put much blame on Brady for this one. He was spectacular, looking as close to his 2007, record-setting form as at any point so far this season. He finished 29-of-42 for 375 yards and three TDs (along with one, slightly ugly pick that wound up not costing the team too much) and made it look easy in passing for 300+ yards for the fourth straight game, the longest such streak of his career. He made all the throws, zipping underneath routes to Welker and Moss, firing rockets that looked like ropes, particularly the 55-yard strike to Moss in the first quarter and provided just the right amount of touch on his deep throws, none better than the 63-yard TD bomb down the right sideline to Moss in the second quarter. His third down throw to Welker on the game-deciding drive in the fourth quarter was a little tentative and wound up partially deflected by Mathis, and there were a couple of other throws he missed here and there but to downgrade him for those would be too picky. He outplayed Peyton Manning, who won an unofficial, NBC straw poll of Hall of Fame QBs regarding who’s better by a surprising landslide, by a mile for most of the game. Any worries about Brady that may have lingered from earlier in the year have to be gone by now. He’s back.

Running Backs: B

This is a purely spilt grade. Thanks to the continued absence of Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor and the illness of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Pats used just two backs, Faulk and Laurence Maroney. Faulk gets an A, his failure to come up with the first down on the big fourth down play notwithstanding. Maroney (13 carries, 31 yards) gets a C with his regression back to being a tap dancer in the second half along with his awful fumble into the end zone at the end of an otherwise picture-perfect, 12 play, 86-yard drive that ate 7:51 of clock overriding a fine first half performance that included another tough TD run. It seems like every time something bad happens in the running game,Maroney’s fingerprints are all over it, which is why despite how well he’s played the past couple of weeks, it wasn’t the least bit surprising that he had such a lousy time of it in the second half. As for Faulk, he was brilliant, racking up 79 yards on 12 carries, mostly on those draws and delays. Along with Welker , he’s the ultimate security blanket, making it easy to see why he was the target of the fateful fourth quarter, fourth down pass. He was one of the best players on the field all not, but I’m pretty sure though that he’d give back all the pretty numbers in exchange for a win.

Wide Receivers: A

An utterly awesome game for Moss. He was all over the place, catching deep balls, seam routes, underneath possession-type throws and pretty much anything else that came his way for that matter. Bradyunderthrew him on the interception and there were a few other balls on which he was blanketed by double teams. He also had a drop that hurt a bit late in the third quarter. But his play was so dominant and looked so effortless most of the time that the misses hardly matter. On a pass over the middle in the third quarter, he made the catch in traffic, dropped the ball, then caught it again as it fell toward the turf. It was two catches on one play and I can’t think of too many other guys who could have done anything like it.Welker was his usual dependable self, adding nine more catches to his league leading total and seeming to get a first down (or at least get right up to the first down marker) on every one of em. Julian Edelman returned from the broken arm he suffered against Tennessee and caught his first career TD pass on which he stayed alive by running across the formation while Brady eluded pressure before finding him in the front of the end zone. It will be very sweet to see Edelman once he’s captured all the nuances of playing the position as he has excellent instincts and could well be great if he continues to develop. And finally, props to practice squad QB Isaiah Stanback, who appeared out of nowhere (wearing No. 9, no less) and made a couple of grabs, one a big one on the sideline in the red zone in the second quarter. He seemed to take the place of Sam Aiken in the game and showed that he can do some things if given the opportunity.

Tight Ends: B+

Not too much to report here. Ben Watson made his customary big catch in the second quarter, going up for a perfectly feathered Brady lob and coming down with a 36-yard gain. Chris Baker made two short catches in the third quarter, one of them a big red zone first down that came just a couple plays before Maroney’s fumble. Both had their moments blocking as well, with one or the other at times helping to contain Freeney and Mathis.

Offensive Line: B+

Wow, is Vollmer good. Freeney, who had a sack in nine straight regular season games and came in with 9.5 on the year, had exactly none, along with no tackles.Vollmer trusted his technique, was not fooled by Freeney’s constant spinning and didn’t get beat with his speed at all. If you miss Matt Light, who should be scheduling free agent visits with other teams now, you are in the minority. On the other side, Nick Kaczur, who has been superb all season, didn’t fare as well as the rookie. Mathis ate Kazcur up all night, pouring on eight tackles along with two sacks of Brady, three other QB hits and a pass deflection on the third down throw to Welker on the last drive. Mathis was the best defensive player on either team, dominating Kazcur, who for his part, mostly had to handle Mathis one-on-one. The middle of the line was excellent, though. Dan Koppen had his weekly penalty, but looked extremely solid especially with his availability in doubt all week. Guards Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins also performed very well, providing ample time and space for Brady to step up and throw all evening. Neal left the game late in the second half with a head injury but all-around fill-in Dan Connolly did a nice job in his stead.

DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B

We were on our way to a great big A here folks. There’s no way one could think otherwise based on the results of the first three-plus quarters. The game plan was to hurry Peyton Manning, take tight end/superstar Dallas Clark away via chips and double teams, bump and press the receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their timing with Manning and give up short, underneath stuff in the middle of the field. It worked perfectly, as well as could possibly be imagined. Until they stopped doing it. When the lead was bumped to 31-14 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, the Pats backed off, moving to a deep zone, calling off a lot of the pressure and almost looking like they were in a semi-prevent. Why this decision was made against one of the best quarterbacks in the league after what had come before was working so well, I have no idea. There were 14 Indy possessions in the game, 11 prior to the fourth quarter, and nine of them ended in either a punt or an interception. The way the Pats then played the final 10 minutes was shockingly like the 2006 AFC Championship Game, and I thought the lesson from that game, which was to not let lift the foot off the neck of such an explosive offense, had been learned. Apparently, it hadn’t. Major, all-around props to Leigh Bodden, Vince Wilfork (of course), Brandon McGowan (who recovered nicely after a couple of early missed tackles), Jonathan Wilhite, Jerod Mayo and even Derrick Burgess, for executing the game plan flawlessly, before it inexplicably changed.

Defensive Line: B

No Ty Warren to go with no Jarvis Green seemed to suggest that it would be a long night for this crew, but it wasn’t too bad and even could be looked at as a mildly pleasant surprise.Wilfork did his usual anchoring job as well as possible considering he had less help on either side of him than he normally does and also moved to the outside in a couple of situations a la the Miami game and barely missed a beat. Mike Wright spent some time on the nose when Wilfork moved over and held up well, as he has done pretty much every week all year. With Warren out, rookie Ron Brace finally got into a game and the Boston College product acquitted himself decently, though not great. This group has been better, no surprise seeing as how it wasn’t at full strength. And in the fourth quarter, when the dogs were called off, it would have been nice to see a little more movement upfield toward Manning. But all in all, it was a good, solid showing.

Linebackers: B

Injuries did this group which perhaps played a role in Belichick’s unfortunate late game decision. Tully Banta-Cain, only the best pass rusher on the team, as well as someone who seems to have developed into a stout, all-around player, suffered a first half rib injury and didn’t return. His replacement, Rob Ninkovich, made a couple of plays before also leaving due to injury. In the aftermath of those losses, Gary Guyton led the defense in tackles while Mayo, another week along in his return from the opening night knee injury, had a great game, with six tackles, a key sack of Manning (the Pats only one) and a couple passes defensed and stops for a loss.Adalius Thomas made a nice play on a Colts rushing attempt in the second quarter but for the most part looked old and slow, as he has throughout the year. If anyone out there is particularly attached to Thomas, do your best to get it out of your system by January because at this rate, there is no way he will be on the team next year. And as for Burgess, my favorite guy to pick on from the defensive side, well – he had a nice game. Lined up as a pass rusher on the outside all night, especially after Banta -Cain’s injury, he frequently beat his man around the edge and was at least near Manning on several occasions, just missing a sack three times and registering one official hit on the quarterback and another tackle for a loss. He played all night like the guy I have to assume the Pats thought they were getting via the preseason trade with the Raiders and finally proved that he is capable of making a difference. Hopefully, it won’t take him nine more games to make more of an impact.

Secondary: B+

For starters, Leigh Bodden. The free agent pickup by way of Cleveland and Detroit played his best game of the year, making one play after another and locking down the side of the field not occupied by Reggie Wayne all night. Even on Pierre Garcon’s fourth quarter TD catch, he had position and was right there in coverage; it was just a textbook perfect pass by Manning that no one but Garcon could make a play on.Bodden was fantastic and inspired faith that he will be able to handle the responsibilities of a No. 1 corner for the rest of the year.Wilhite was victimized by Wayne a couple times, none more costly than on the game winning score. But he covered the all-world Wayne very well all night, was right on his hip even on Wayne’s two impossible receptions and added a big, second half pick on one of Manning’s several less than stellar throws.Wilhite , who hung with Wayne all night, also inspired some good feelings and looks ready to continue to assume a good chunk of responsibility as well. Darius Butler played well, his phantom fourth quarter pass interference penalty on Austin Collie notwithstanding. McGowan started slow, looking a step behind on Indy’s first scoring drive, but played a huge role in the slowing down of Clark while Brandon Meriweather was quiet and again looked less than stellar against a good opponent as opposed to how well he’s played against cupcakes like Tampa and Tennessee. These guys were very good most of the night, enacting the game plan well most of the evening before the conservative stuff came out late. Manning didn’t have a great game despite the final numbers and the Pats defensive backfield had a lot to do with that.

Special Teams: A-

Good stuff all around, not the least of which was Welker’s awesome, third quarter punt return that went for 69 yards and set up a short scoring drive culminating in Moss’s second TD of the night. Stephen Gostkowski made two field goals and boomed one kick after another to the depths of the end zone and Chris Hanson, who didn’t get a last chance to pin back the Colts with just over two minutes to go, was booming punts at a 44-yard clip. Kick and punt coverage was excellent.

Coaching: F

It’s all on them, especially Belichick. The fourth down call is the headline but the mismanagement of the clock and the team’s timeouts beforehand must be mentioned. Also, the decision to back off and give Manning a chance to make plays after dominating him for three-plus quarters made zero sense and reflected a pattern the Pats fall into when they have a late lead in big games the last couple of years (see the ’06 AFC Championship and Super Bowl XXLII to name two). Look, Belichick is a great coach, one of the greatest of all time. He saw an opportunity and he threw caution to the wind and took it even though it went against everything he seems to stand for. It was the wrong decision and turned out to be a horrible mistake. He will have to live with it. But is he Grady Little? No. Was it borne out of hubris and arrogance? Not really. Will it haunt the team for the rest of the year? Hardly (just wait until they get to take it out on the pathetic Jets this weekend). Was the game plan and its execution through three-plus quarters outstanding? Absolutely. It was just an awful mistake made by a guy who rarely makes them. He deserves all the second-guessing and criticism he gets (and by the way, the harshest I’ve heard has come from two of his all-time favorites,Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison). But it wasn’t the playoffs, the season isn’t over and as bad and painful and unnecessary a loss it was, it was just that – one loss. He and the team will bounce back, to be sure. Don’t worry about preening, no-nothing schmucks like ESPN’s Steve Levy, who’ve been openly mocking and making fun of Belichick for two straight days now. Everything will be fine. It’s a shame that it ended the way it did – the game was en route to proving the Pats to be a clear Super Bowl favorite and a force to be reckoned with. But as bad as it was, it will ultimately be seen as just what it was – tough, regular season loss.