By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
No more controversy, angry words following a win or bad feelings, class. It’s all sunshine and puppies on the heels of Sunday’s outstanding, 28-18 win by the Patriots over the Loony Bin Escapee Vikings. And if you think that’s a harsh assessment of the Minnesota NFL franchise, one of their own beat writers from the St. Paul Pioneer Press said himself following the game that their locker room has become just that this season (another Vikings writer, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, also chimed in, calling them the “theatre of the absurd,” but that’s another column). The Vikings, desperately in need of a win in order to potentially save their rapidly imploding season, moved the ball up and down the field on the Pats throughout the first half while Tom Brady and the offense ran a total of just 22 plays over five drives, making only five first downs in the process. But the ever-improving defense, which had by far it’s best collective game of the year on Sunday, threw out a stirring goal line stand to close out the first half which, along with a couple other moments, completely changed the complexion of the game in favor of the home team. The Pats, who got big time games from nearly everyone who suited up, won their fifth straight game, running away with it in the second half. They are now 6-1, which gives them the best record in the league, all by themselves. Of course, you’re forgiven if you didn’t know this, or even that they won, since everyone in the media outside of these parts (and when I say everyone, I mostly mean ESPN and FOX) practically neglected to mention it so as to devote as much time as possible to sucking their hero, St. BrettFavre, checking in on him every so often to see if his “lacerated chin” was gonna be OK, FOX broadcaster Thom Brennaman, one of the worst play-by-play men in any sport anywhere, actually said, “all our thoughts are with BrettFavre,” as if he was offering best wishes to a cameraman’s dying cousin or something, barely a second after mumbling the final score on the telecast. Thankfully, the Minnesota circus and it’s ringleaders – Favre, coach Brad Childress, now ex-Viking Randy Moss – has come and gone. So with that, let’s get at this week’s report card, now featuring rainbows and shooting stars to go with all that sunshine and puppy stuff.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
Once again, there was a major discrepancy between the first and second halves for the Pats offense. But unlike last season, when they built lead after lead before halftime only to piss them away down the stretch, the positive work gets done in the second half more often than not and Sunday was no exception. They scored three TDs in the second half, two by the Law Firm himself, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who encapsulated the differences from one half to the next nearly all by himself. BJGE had four carries for four yards in the first half but exploded in the second to the tune of 13 for 108, carrying the team during it’s 13-play, 84-yard scoring march in the fourth quarter that effectively ended the game. Brady came to life in the second half too and the offensive line, which looked like it might be in for another long day after getting pushed around a bit on the Pats first couple drives, took the game over after halftime. Down the line, everyone pitched in from BJGE to Brady to Brandon Tate to the invaluable Wes Welker to the more-immortal-every-week Danny Woodhead (and huge ups to quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien for running that direct snap play for Rudy 2 not once, but twice). Who needs Moss when you get huge contributions from those guys? Not the Pats. And, it would seem, not the Vikings either.
It took Brady a little while to get going but once he did, he was nails as usual. The Pats only ran nine plays in the first quarter, which may have had something to do with it but even in the second, when things started to even out a bit, time of possession wise, he looked not quite all there. The fake double reverse throw to Tate was flat and underthrown and lucky not to have been picked off, while a sideline bomb to Deion Branch, who had beaten his man by at least two and a half steps, was wide and overthrown. But boy did he pick it up in the third quarter. It started with the 65-yard TD pass to Tate, a broken play that surely required a lot of luck to succeed. But if Brady doesn’t know exactly where he is, where the pressure is coming from and where Tate will be, it doesn’t happen. On the play, after seeing his initial target Welker not come free, he spun back from the pressure, caught maybe a split second glance at Tate freeing up down the near sideline as he was turning his back then launched an absolutely perfect pass, leading Tate to an open area near the middle of the field. It really was an astonishing play and proved for the umpteenth time in his career that Brady, even when he may not look his best, is still capable of making any throw at any time, flawlessly. After that play, he mostly let BJGE take over but still found time to convert two giant third downs to Welker and Woodhead on the Pats final TD drive after the Vikings had closed to three points in the fourth quarter. The passing game isn’t quite where it needs to be yet; things still have a tendency to get too cluttered underneath a lot of the time. But there’s Brady, still making plays, still winning games, still leading his team the way so few other QBs can.
Running Backs: A
So, Law Firm – how does it feel to outplay Adrian Peterson, arguably the best back in the league? I’ll bet it feels pretty damn good. BJGE’s grip on the role of featured back may have become a bit tenuous after his past couple of games prior to Sunday (21 carries, 44 yards combined). But he bought himself an ample supply of extra time by being The Man against the Vikings. He ran with strength and purpose whether it was up the middle, off tackle or guard or to the outside. In the third quarter, two plays before the TD pass to Tate, he took a delayed handoff and burst through the line for 10 yards and from that point, it was a cakewalk. Later in the quarter, with a spring in his step not seen since the Miami game in Week 4, he joined his linemen in taking over, piling up 27 yards on three plays of the Pats four-play, 37-yard scoring drive following a Devin McCourty INT, finishing it off with a nifty, 13-yard dash around left tackle for his first TD and a 21-10 Pats lead. Then in the fourth, he dropped the hammer. He started the final scoring drive with back-to-back, bruising runs of 14 and nine yards. Eight plays later, he got outside again and steamrolled all the way to the 1 before cashing in his second TD to salt away the game a couple of snaps afterward. He was immense, as big a reason for the win as any and he should be given the keys to the running game car again this Sunday in Cleveland. As for Rudy 2, it was another week to pen more lyrics to his ballad, and did he ever. He ran that direct snap play to Faulk-like perfection, scoring the Pats first TD from the Minnesota 3 in the second quarter. And with the Pats facing third-and-12 from their own 44 on that late TD march, he took a check down throw from a scrambling Brady, shook a would-be tackler out of his jock and burst forward for the biggest first down of the game. It was awesome, though not quite as much as when FOX’s Troy Aikman said, “I like this Danny Woodhead,” as if Rudy 2 had been summoned from the upper deck to play a couple snaps as part of some reality show giveaway. Oh, and I hear he’s a hit with the ladies, too. Must be that old-fashioned, Midwestern charm.
Wide Receivers: B+
Took a little flak for getting on Tate’s case after last week’s game but it was just some tough love, I’m telling you. He’s clearly got a boatload of ability, as evidenced by his skills in the open field. He got a chance to show it off on Sunday, not just in the kicking game but on offense. The TD catch was a textbook example of what a receiver learns to do in a scramble drill. He stayed alive long enough to give Brady an outlet and when he caught the ball there was no way anyone in purple was going to catch him. He also saved Brady and the Pats by staying with that fake double reverse pass; his focus on not letting the ball hit the ground after Vikings safety Madieu Williams failed to pick it off was remarkable (as were his juggling skills). Overall, Tate had a career day with three catches for 101 yards and the TD and from the looks of it, Brady has more confidence in him as a downfield threat than at any previous point. Welker was quiet until it really mattered, handling a Brady rocket in traffic on one of those key, late third downs, then doing what he’s best at which is moving the chains. And Branch, though clearly hobbled by his hamstring malady, gutted out a few plays and still made some hay with a nice sideline catch and run on the Pats second quarter scoring drive. This group’s identity changed dramatically with the departure of Moss and the arrival of Branch. They are growing into their roles on a weekly basis and Sunday was proof that the transition is getting smoother and smoother.
Tight Ends: B
Not much to go on in the way of stats from these guys but that’s OK. The contributions to the run game and the stellar pass protection spoke volumes. For a long stretch, it looked like Aaron Hernandez had burned out; he didn’t have a catch for the first three quarters. But on the Pats first possession of the fourth, he sparked it up, running a wheel route from a pro set out of the backfield, turning just in time to see a perfect Brady pass right on his hip and taking it for a 27-yard gain. Gronk only caught one of the three passes thrown his way but he was open consistently when he needed to be and was a factor in the running game. And Alge Crumpler, the old man of the Pats tight end mountain, continues to lead the world in blocking ability, whether he’s lined up as an extra tackle or as the lead back in an I-formation. Crumpler was not surprisingly out in front of BJGE on a handful of Law Firm’s big runs including the first TD jaunt, and while he may not catch many passes, he’s so good in his role as a blocker, it’s no wonder Bill Belichick made him a captain. He proves every week that what he contributes may not show up on paper, but is invaluable nonetheless.
Offensive Line: A-
Huge, enormous, tremendous props to No. 72 in your program, Mr. Matt Light. After looking borderline washed up the past two weeks, Light single-handedly shut down Vikings pass rushing demon Jared Allen all game long. He was probably the biggest reason Brady wasn’t sacked once, the first time that’s happened since Week 1. Better still, on BJGE’s first score and on the 26-yarder in the fourth quarter that led to his second, Light cleaned out not just Allen but the entire left side of the formation, enabling Law Firm to get outside untouched. A great, bounce back performance for Light, who really needed it. The returns were mostly the same elsewhere on the line. Stephen Neal played his best game of the year, pulling left and combining with Crumpler to carve out enough room for BJGE to get behind Light’s block on the first TD and just generally closing off any seams Viking pass rushers might have run through on the right side of the line. Dan Connolly rebounded nicely from getting benched in San Diego last week to put up another strong game the highlight of which was his lead work as the fullback on BJGE’s second TD. Sebastian Vollmer had an ill-timed penalty late but didn’t let anything even approach getting past him at right tackle and Dan Koppen was a rock up the middle. Brady had all day to throw pretty much from the second quarter on, a fact pointed out hilariously by the awful Brennaman, who at one point said that “Brady is pitching a tent back there.” Uh, good one there, Thom. You sure that wasn’t you watching BrettFavre?
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
Wait, am I hallucinating? Having hot flashes? On the moon? Did I really just give the Pats defense… ahem, a B+? It seems I did. And they deserve the praise. It appears from watching the past three or four games that the philosophy with all these young guys as they continue to learn and grow up, is to simply not allow the big play, period. If that means players on opposing offenses put up huge statistical days, that quarterbacks as mediocre as BrettFavre have their best numbers of the season, that huge swaths of the field will be left wide open throughout the game, then so be it. Bending but not breaking has worked out just fine the past four games with the Pats giving up huge yardage totals but just 14, 20, 20 and 18 points over that stretch (the Vikings had 410 yards on Sunday, a number that obviously stands in stark contrast to their point total). When teams get close, the Pats tighten up, the goal line stand on which they stuffed the great Peterson being the perfect example. That sequence, even though it came just before halftime and preceded a long Minnesota drive to open the second half (which resulted in just a field goal, naturally), changed the game, gave the Pats a huge jolt of momentum and infused more confidence in a group that is gaining it exponentially from week to week. McCourty had another big game as did everyone from stalwarts like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, to rookies like Brandon Spikes (who had his best game of the season) and Jermaine Cunningham, to presumed busts like Ron Brace, who was instrumental in that hold at the goal line. It wouldn’t be a Pats game if guys like Gary Guyton and Jonathan Wilhite weren’t noticed for their now patented incompetence at least once (and in Wilhite’s case, twice). But even those moments are becoming fewer and further between. This defense is going places. And if you had Week 8 in the pool for when I’d finally bite the bullet and admit it, you’re the big winner.
Defensive Line: A-
An alarm must have sounded in the heads of the Pats D-linemen after the first quarter because they went from being dominated to doing the dominating themselves. Peterson ran over, around and through this group in the early going, rolling for 60 yards and a TD on 13 carries in the first quarter plus first play of the second. After that? 12 carries for 32 yards. Part of it was Childress, the Vikings coach, who went away from AP after those early, big yards. But much credit has to go to the D-line, which adjusted to the Vikings blocking schemes as well as Peterson’s fast, shifty, hard-charging style for the remainder of the game, the most telling example of which came on the goal line stand. On fourth-and-1, Peterson ran off right guard only to see Brace, last year’s second rounder out of BC who has been a healthy scratch more often than not throughout his 23-game career, push back the entire right side of the Minnesota line with some support under the middle from Wilfork. Before he could change direction, both Cunningham and Spikes were on him. The two rookie linebackers from Florida buried Peterson, who was pretty much not heard from again. It was a signature moment for the defense, the kind of play that will be looked back on come January when the playoffs are in season. And it all happened because of Brace. Wilfork was back on the nose for the most part and responded with four tackles, one for a loss, though his biggest play was the extra push he got on the goal line play. Mike Wright was a demon, registering his fourth sack in as many games and just being a general annoyance to the Vikings passing game all night. And Myron Pryor, seldom used as he is, didn’t do much except deliver the smash to BrettFavre’s chest and chin that No. 4 reacted to as if his jaw was broken, he was concussed and the world had just been firebombed by aliens when in reality, he’d merely suffered a boo boo (yep, that’s all it was despite the award-worthy curling up in the fetal position while being carted off the field). There were a slew of noteworthy performances across the defense on Sunday, but none seemed as satisfying as the D-line’s thanks to its steady improvement as the game wore on.
Again, without the work done by Spikes and Cunningham, the Pats may not win this game. Spikes did a decent impression of Mayo (14 more tackles in yet another monster performance), racking up seven more stops and, like the D-line, getting better as the game progressed. Spikes is a focal point of the Pats run defense and in the final three quarters on Sunday, particularly on the goal line stand, he was a force. Cunningham factored in against both the pass and the run, doing good work against Vikings All-Pro left tackle Bryant McKinnie. He finished off Peterson on the goal line play, one of the finest plays of his season. Rob Ninkovich plays hard all the time and really seems to get the most out of his ability and he came back nicely after having some issues with the Vikings running game early especially on the goal line play. And Tully Banta-Cain emerged from relative obscurity to put up his most productive game of the year, even pitching in on covering Moss a couple times. Only Gary Guyton, who can’t seem to get a full game in without doing something that makes one wonder why he’s even on the team, brought the grade down. This week, it was a helmet-first late hit on BrettFavre that nullified a great end zone pass breakup by Brandon Meriweather (yes, you read that correctly). Guyton, who was undrafted and is somewhat lacking in the size and instinctual ability required of inside linebackers, can’t afford to play stupid. He’s not done a very good job of that lately. Still, another important week in the development of this young, talented group.
Defensive Backs: B+
McCourty is a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. That’s how good he’s been the past three games. His interception came because he recovered fast enough to not only catch Vikings receiver after losing a step, but literally slap the ball out of Harvin’s hands and into his own, then have the wherewithal to turn and sprint 37 yards up the sideline. In all, he made plays on three passes in addition to the pick, which was the second one he’s made in the last two weeks. It’s unhealthy to think about where this secondary would be without McCourty, who keeps getting better and better. Kyle Arrington continues to not suck, a big deal when you consider the alternatives. James Sanders, the wily veteran of this outfit, took advantage of all the extra playing time that came his way thanks to the injuries to Patrick Chung and Jarrad Page, directing traffic in the middle of the secondary and making a few solid plays. And yes, Meriweather had a pretty good game. He played 40 yards off the line of scrimmage almost all night to provide extra cover in the event of any deep throws to Moss (oddly enough, the only time such a throw came was when BrettFavre was heaving the ball down the field out of desperation and poor Meriweather was left one-on-one with Moss and was forced to commit pass interference to prevent a TD). Sure he had his couple of requisite missed tackles but all in all, he did his job well. with the end zone play as the highlight, even though it didn’t actually count. Once again, though, the whole group is brought down slightly thanks to the actions of one. Wilhite gave the Vikings a first-and-goal after blatantly holding Harvin in the end zone on the play that knocked out BrettFavre (the next play was a TD), then defended the 2-point conversion pass by wildly flailing his arms in the air without actually turning back to look at the ball before Harvin caught it. I choose to think that Wilhite only plays because the Pats have absolutely no one else, and that includes Darius Butler, who may as well be chained up in the Gillette Stadium basement at this point. That isn’t his fault, it’s the Pats. What is his fault is that now in his third season, he still can’t play. Luckily, the secondary as a whole continues to become more dependable, Wilhite or no Wilhite. They’ve come miles from where they were as recently as Week 3 against the Bills.
Special Teams: B
Another couple of penalties here and a Stephen Gostkowski kickoff going out of bounds hurt this group. But excellent coverage in kicks and a banner day for your favorite Romanian punter and mine, Zoltan Mesko (47.4 yards per punt), balance things out a bit. No field goal attempts for Gostkowski. A mostly standard, by-the-book kind of game for the special teams and that’s just fine.
There was so much talk about halftime adjustments last season and for the first two weeks of this one, and why? Because the Pats were getting smoked in those second halves. They lost five times in games they led at the half last year and did it again in Week 2 this year, but since Week 4, they are outscoring opponents 82-45 after halftime (try to erase the fourth quarter from last week in San Diego from your minds – I did, and it’s nice). That’s coaching. Belichick and his defensive staff saw something in the Vikings running game that they needed to adjust to, so they did and it worked. He and the offensive coaches saw something in their own run game, whether it was the blocking scheme, the play calls, what have you, that needed to be fixed, so they fixed it and subsequently, the offense took off. Look, it helps immensely that Belichick’s last two counterparts, Childress and San Diego’s Norv Turner, are fools. But it’s no accident that he is presiding over yet another division leader with the best record in the league. And what’s even more impressive is that this year’s team is so young. The mean age on defense is 24.8 with four rookie starters and another three in just their second years. And further, the Vikings feature one big name, star player after another on both sides of the ball while the Pats feature one – Tom Brady. A case can be made that Welker, Mayo and Wilfork are in that category too, but while they are all excellent, widely praised players, they aren’t names the way the Vikings seem to collect them. Yet one team is 6-1 while the other is 2-5. It couldn’t be any more clear – it’s all about the team. And Belichick knows this better than anyone.