By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Repeat after us, Patriots Daily University students, friends and trustees: A win is a win. A win is a win. No matter whether you have to hold your nose while watching for fear of inhaling too much of too much of that rotten egg-like stench emanating from your TV or not, what matters is having more points than the opponent at the end of the game and that’s just what the Patriots did on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Of course, it helps when the opponent is as woefully bad in all aspects of the game as the Panthers, racking up one penalty, bad decision or poorly executed play after another. And when one of the top two receivers plays his heart out and practically wills his team to victory while the other endures his worst game in three years. And when the defense is spared another public undressing thanks to the opposing quarterback’s inability to even get his offense lined up properly on multiple occasions. And when the offensive play caller remembers that the tight end is a guy that is always an eligible receiver. And when the lead running back has realized that best way to roll up yards and in turn see more playing time is to run hard, head down. And when the kicker displays major, major balls by drilling two long, massively important, fourth quarter field goals in crappy weather conditions. All of these ands helped contribute to the Pats snapping their two-game losing streak with a 20-10 win, no matter how ugly it was. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, completely odor-free for anyone still dealing with the after-effects from the reek of the actual game.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B-
Better, but still not great. The Pats did a couple of things against the Panthers that were much needed, committing more to the run and at least involving the tight ends in the game plan beyond just staying home to block. Both decisions paid major dividends as they ran for 185 yards and a TD and scored the winning touchdown on a pass from Tom Brady to Ben Watson, who found paydirt for the first time since London. They were also aided by the Carolina coaching staff’s absurd decision to leave Wes Welker matched up one-on-one, several times by a linebacker, which in turn allowed them to move the ball as well as they did all day in the third quarter, particularly on the 13-play, 96-yard, 7:20 scoring drive on which they effectively put the game away. Still, the first half was so ugly, so completely lacking in any sense of urgency or energy, so weak (the longest play from scrimmage was a 30-yard pass interference penalty), that it didn’t take much to make things look good. Unless you’ve been asleep for 48 hours, you know how little Randy Moss contributed, which was a problem, and other key players didn’t have such great days either. And in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers were still technically in the game, closing it out seemed a bit too difficult. But once again, enough plays were made to win the game, which is all that’s really important.
Brady’s grade naturally must be taken with a grain of salt given his list of injuries coming into the game and the fact that he was apparently a game-time decision (though it’s likely the only way he wouldn’t have played was if he had an allergic reaction to the flak jacket he wore to protect his ribs). Basically, he looked bad in the first half, but when the money got pushed to the middle of the table, he came up with multiple clutch throws. The interception in the first quarter (you know, the one on which Moss “quit”) looked to be high and wide; it’s likely that even if Moss had come out of his break as hard as he could, the ball may have been overthrown. And his 6.0YPA and 74.0 passer rating leave a lot to be desired. But again, when it was winning time, he looked very sharp. The TD pass to Watson was a bullet laid right onto Watson’s hands through two defenders. Pretty much every throw to Welker in the second half was right on target mo matter if it was with touch or fired in there. And he seemed to move relatively freely when he needed to despite the rib problem, sliding away from pressure when he needed to. It was clear that Brady was banged up and he likely will be for the rest of the season. But he seemed to figure out how to adjust to his physical problems as the game wore on and got out of there without making anything worse, both of which bode well for the coming weeks. A gutsy game for Brady.
Running Backs: A-
Mark it, dude – Laurence Maroney played his best game of the season. The dancing seems to be mostly a thing of the past, replaced a majority of the time by purposeful, hard-nosed running, which has been in good supply the past few weeks. Maroney posted 94 yards on 22 carries with a long run of 17 yards and while he didn’t score, he was one of the only guys on the offense who was there to play from the opening kickoff. Most of his damage was done on inside runs as the Pats looked to attack the middle of the Panthers defensive line, but he even made some tough yards on a few outside runs too, an aspect of the running game with which the Pats had pretty much zero success until Sunday. Additionally, he caught a couple of passes out of the backfield and looked like a complete back. It’s getting harder and harder to not like Maroney given the way he’s seemingly figured it out over the past two months and now, he seems to have put his fumble-itis of a few weeks ago behind him. Kevin Faulk was immense as well, racking up 58 yards on just 10 carries, including a three-yard TD run to close out the first half and get the offense off the schnide. Again, the draw play out of shotgun worked well, as it has all year, but Faulk also pulled a few carries out of power sets and still managed to chew up yards, including a 19-yard run up the middle early in the third quarter. Faulk has always been invaluable to this team and Sunday was no different. Then only thing keeping this grade from being a straight A is Sammy Morris, who was pretty bad. He dropped an easy swing pass from Brady in the second quarter, fumbled on the Pats first drive of the second half, killing the most productive march of the day for offense up to that point and again failed to gain five feet on a fourth-and-one call in the first quarter. Sammy will be fine, Sunday just wasn’t his day.
Wide Receivers: C+
Split grade here with Welker earning a solid A and Moss getting an F. It’s impossible to overpraise Welker, the most valuable, important, indispensable player on the team. He had 10 more catches, 107 more yards and took an absolute pounding while doing it, but it didn’t seem to affect him, particularly when he bounced up from one vicious hit and exhorted the dead Foxboro crowd to ratchet up the noise level. He has 18 more catches than anyone else in the league despite missing two games, is on pace to finish the year with the second most catches in league history, is the fourth receiver in history to catch at least 100 passes in three straight seasons (the second longest such stretch in league history), and is second in the league in receiving yardage with 1,158. Oh, and he also took the game over on that 96-yard drive with five of his 10 catches good for 64 yards (and making every catch on the drive but the touchdown to Watson) and was compared afterward to the legendary Troy Brown by Bill Belichick. If you think things have been bad the last few weeks, imagine life without this guy. Not a pleasant thought. As for Moss, I’m not interested in joining the fray on his situation all that much. We all saw the lack of hustle on Brady’s INT, the alligator-armed drop in the fourth quarter, the fumble, the awful false start penalty. But still, without feeling the need to pile on, I’ll stay somewhere between ESPN’s Keyshawan Johnson, who said he still thinks Moss is the best receiver in the NFL regardless of Sunday’s no-show, and Michael Felger, who is convinced Moss is the spawn of hell, thinks he should be cut immediately and is so over the top in his raging hatred for the guy that it’s borderline embarrassing (and in the interest of full disclosure, it says here that Felger is one of the best media guys we have in these parts). What is clear is that Moss played his worst game as a Patriot on Sunday, has looked lost/disinterested/frustrated/fragile for going on four weeks now with Sunday’s travesty the coup de grace, and needs to step it up big time. Hopefully for the sake of the team, he will man up and do just that.
Tight Ends: B+
How about that? The tight ends had something to do! Hallelujah! Admittedly, things looked bleak when Brady tried to check down to Chris Baker in the second quarter and the ball bounced off his face. But starting with that 30-yard interference call late in the first half, it seemed Brady was looking for Watson, who saw three passes come his way and caught all three of them for 37 yards including the five-yard score. The need for Watson to step up and/or be more involved was magnified by both Moss’s lousy game and the injury to Sam Aiken, who was inactive. The fact is, the offense has been one-dimensional and easy to defend the past few weeks and as great as Welker is and Moss can be, there needed to be more diversity in the play-calling. Watson has made big plays in the past, even earlier this season, so the coaches have to know what he’s capable of. He rewarded their faith on Sunday. Hopefully, they will keep calling his number. And for his part, Baker’s blocking paid off big time in the running game.
Offensive Line: A-
This group had an excellent day for the most part, keeping Brady upright all day and plowing enough terrain for the Pats to rush for nearly 200 yards. Missing Stephen Neal again, the Pats got Sebastian Vollmer back and the gigantic rookie delivered again, shuttling between both the right and left tackle spots without missing a beat. He was in on the right side for both touchdown drives and handled underachieving Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers flawlessly. Belichick was effusive in his praise of Vollmer in the aftermath, detailing how unusual it is to have a tackle who can play both sides and be as versatile as Vollmer is. The Pats are lucky in this regard, especially considering the continued struggles of Nick Kaczur , who added another week of looking totally psyched out ever since being owned by Robert Mathis against the Colts (this is a recording) before leaving late with a shoulder injury. Matt Light looked a little more like his old self in his second game back from his knee injury and Connolly was very solid in place of Neal. As for the other two members of this unit, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins , each had a huge game, doing most of the dirty work that allowed for the gaudy rushing totals. Most of the damage on the ground was done up the middle and these two, along with some contributions from Connolly, especially on Faulk’s TD run, were as important to that aspect of the game as anyone. A really nice bounce back for the O-Line after some tough going over the past month.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B
Wasn’t it nice to see the Pats defense get well, at least sort of, on Sunday? Granted, except for a few runs by Carolina superstar DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers were mostly inept offensively (save for one, long TD pass in the second quarter which will be examined in a bit). But that may have been just what this beleaguered bunch needed in the aftermath of the past month. It seemed that they went back to basics a bit, starting with the re-insertion of veterans James Sanders and Shawn Springs into the secondary – where they’ve had the most problems – at the expense of Brandon McGowan and Jonathan Wilhite (finally put out of his misery), while clearly getting more energy out of the linebacking corps, thanks to the benching of the awful Adalius Thomas. The Panthers managed just 14 first downs, were only 3-of-13 on third down and their 305 total yards was nothing to write home about. And while there was still not much of a pass rush, they still managed a couple of sacks and benefited from Panthers quarterback Matt Moore’s indecision and ineffectiveness. Tully Banta-Cain, Jarvis Green, Leigh Bodden and yes, even Derrick Burgess stood out (perhaps Thomas could learn a thing or two from Burgess, the former biggest disappointment on this defense, now that he’s taken over that title for himself), each making a couple of important plays. Look, this bunch still has a long way to go and was lucky in several spots on Sunday thanks to how bad the Panthers are. But the numbers don’t lie and Sunday’s effort, combined with upcoming games against offensive creampuffs Buffalo and Jacksonville, could go a long way toward reinvigorating them and restoring some much-needed confidence.
Defensive Line: B
The Pats defensive front faced a few challenges on Sunday thanks to the injuries suffered by Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. The Panthers entered with the one of the league’s top-ranked running games and were able to pound out 126 yards on the ground and a 5.2YPA even though everyone in the stadium knew the only chance they had to win the game was by running it down the Pats throats. But that total is deceiving considering the for all of their success running, the Panthers didn’t manage to score any touchdowns by virtue of the run (their TD drive came off a turnover and lasted two plays, one of which was a seven-yard run by Jonathan Stewart) and also lost the time of possession battle by almost 10 minutes. Both Warren and Wilfork remained in the game following their initial injuries (Warren’s his troublesome ankle and Wilfork’s his foot) and Warren especially stayed sharp, leading the team with six solo tackles, including one for a loss. Wilfork wasn’t as fortunate, though he did manage to make a coupe of key stops in the first half before leaving. The key was Jarvis Green, who played his best game of the year, staying in the game in most every situation, making three tackles, one for a loss, and getting to Moore for a sack and another hit. These three seemed to be able to handle Carolina’s offensive line well; it was when rookie Titus Adams was in for Wilfork that the Panthers did most of their damage on the ground. And Mike Wright, who played on the end mostly while Adams manned the middle, has seen better days as well.
Is it a coincidence that the Pats linebacking corps had it’s most solid game in weeks with Thomas sitting in his living room with his toes up? Perhaps not. Thomas’ co-stars in the brutally monikered LateGate, Gary Guyton and Burgess, didn’t play as much as in past weeks, with Burgess only seeing the field only in obvious passing situations and Guyton sharing time with 64-year old Junior Seau (and managing just one tackle, as well as a nice, running pass deflection that he nearly intercepted). Burgess, as mentioned before, stepped up in his limited time, scoring a late sack of Moore when the Panthers were still alive, and adding a couple of tackles, one of which came after he nearly got to Moore, changed direction and ran down Williams from behind in the open field. It was easily his best game of the year, regardless of the fact that he played only 15 snaps (thanks again for your awesome ESPN snap count chart, Mike Reiss !) and proved that maybe his punishment last Wednesday was indeed the kick in the ass to get his nearly lost season on track. It feels good to praise him for a change. Jerod Mayo was better; he was only wiped out of a play on which he seemed in position to make a hit once by my count, down significantly from the past few weeks, and was mostly solid. And Tully Banta -Cain played the entire game, making a couple of nice plays but more importantly, proving himself again to be an integral, very valuable member of the defense.
Let’s be honest here. As bad as Moore is/was, he still passed for nearly 200 yards and a long TD against this group, leading to some questions regarding how well they really played. But with the exception of that 41-yard scoring pass, they didn’t give up any big plays and were able to get off the field on third downs, both major problems against the Saints and Dolphins. It has to start with Sanders, who replaced Brandon McGowan in the starting lineup and seemed to add a soothing presence to the defensive backfield while being in on seven tackles and breaking up a pass. Sanders might not be as explosive as McGowan, but he is steadier and that rubbed off on Brandon Meriweather. Meriweather , who was entirely to blame on the TD pass, biting on a head fake and running himself out of position while Springs, who let Steve Smith get a couple of steps in anticipation of the help over the top from Meriweather that never came, got toasted. But other than that, Meriweather was under control and even made a nice play on a third quarter deep ball on which he actually was where he was supposed to be. Small steps. Springs split time with Darius Butler right down the middle, giving Butler less chances to get burned to the great benefit of the team. Bodden submitted his usual solid game, pitching in a couple important tackles and just missing a diving interception at the end of the first half. And Wilhite, so terrible the past couple of weeks, didn’t start or see as much time as he has for most of the season and consequently, wasn’t picked on or exposed at all, which had to help his confidence. Like with the offense, there’s a way to go here. But maybe the DBs success on Sunday, however moderate, will be a precursor to better, more productive days.
Special Teams: A
Thank god for Gostkowski. His 47 and 48-yard field goals down the stretch with the weather at its worst, essentially saved the game for the Pats. Along with Welker , he was the MVP of Sunday’s game, putting any whispers of how healthy he may or may not be given his shorter kickoffs the past few weeks on the back burner. Chris Hanson’s punting was fine, the kick coverage was good and the kick and punt returns, handled by Maroney and Welker respectively, were solid. It was Gostkowski though, who came through as big as anyone in any aspect of the game. What a huge, clutch performance.
“Stats are for losers. The final score is for winners.” Thus spake Belichick in the aftermath and truer words have rarely been uttered, especially in light of what went down on Sunday. No one’s numbers were pretty except for Welker’s and especially Moss’s. But the Pats still won and given that they’d lost three of their previous four, that’s saying something. The decision to streamline the defensive scheme and game plan seemed to work, as did the addition of Sanders and Springs in more prominent roles. Offensively, leaning on the run and utilizing the tight ends more also paid off, although it took a while and even though those moves may have been more circumstantial given Brady’s health and the lack of depth in the receiving corps. And further, it would be hard not to look good when facing Carolina’s once impressive, now overmatched /soon-to-be-fired John Fox, who is clearly at the end of the line for the Panthers and made one boneheaded move/decision after another (the 53-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half, allowing Welker to be singled up on linebackers or safeties as many times as he was, being stuck without a legitimate quarterback or backup quarterback all year long while being into Peppers for $17 million, etc.). Something motivated the Pats from the later stages of the first half and through halftime on Sunday – they looked like a different team from one half to the next. And given the popping off of the Panther players who told the Boston Globe that Moss quit and Belichick’s subsequent response to them, he now has the “Everyone Doubts Us” card to play over the course of the season’s final three games. It hasn’t been Belichick’s best year by any stretch. But he may just be getting ready to round into form now that the games mean the most.