By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
20-16. Multiple turnovers. The worst game collectively for the offense since last season’s debacle in Cleveland. Yet the end result is still a win. Outstanding.
The Patriots came out on the high end of that 20-16 final on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Gillette Stadium to move to 5-1 on the year, and they did it ugly. That just might be the best thing about the game, though, the ugliness factor. The Pats were lousy in the area they’re supposed to be best and looked positively doomed right up until the final handful of seconds before the two-minute warning, when Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in the NFL, shook one of his worst performances in a long time and displayed the kind of mental toughness that has separated him from so many other signal callers throughout his career. Trailing 16-13 with 2:31 remaining, in possession of the ball at his own 20 and shouldering the load of a wholly mediocre, 19-of-32, 211 yard, one TD, two INT performance up to that point, Brady led his team on yet another game-winning march, completing 8-of-9 passes for 78 yards and the clinching score. It helped immensely that the Cowboys are a poorly coached, undisciplined, incredibly dumb team that not only seemed to abandon everything that had worked for them on defense for the entire game on that final drive, but completely botched their final two offensive possessions, thus allowing the Pats enough room to operate and subsequently emerge victorious. And it should be noted ASAP that the Pats defense, despite some glaring problems tackling and still more cushy-soft play from the secondary, played by far its best game of the season as a whole, partnering with Dallas and its inability to get out of its own way to surrender a season low 16 points while holding a second straight opponent under 400 total yards and look as stout as ever in the red zone. Yep, it wasn’t pretty. But the good teams, the truly good ones, find ways to win when things aren’t remotely aesthetically pleasing, while the frauds, like the Dallas Cowboys, never do. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card,
It’s sort of hard to justify giving Brady this kind of grade given his late-game heroics but he was positively lost up til that point. Watching him operate, with all the audibles and checkoffs and long snap counts and so forth was fun to observe. But he only really finished one drive prior to the game-winner and both of his interceptions were throws anyone would like to have back (though in his defense, the first one, an in cut over the middle that was behind a well-covered Deion Branch, was tipped at the line). He seemed a bit perplexed all day; he was under a good deal of pressure from the Cowboys front seven (sacked three times, hit eight more) and Dallas’s secondary played well, taking Wes Welker out of a lot of the game while doing a good job on Brady’s other favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, as well. There were even times it appeared Brady saw things that weren’t really there, like on the second pick, an across-the-body heave that wound up in an area populated by four times as many defenders as Pats. But in the end, it didn’t even matter. To say Brady was surgical on that final drive would be an understatement. Read it again: 8-of-9, 78 yards. Pretty much every throw was more perfect than perfect. The TD pass to Aaron Hernandez was threaded right onto A-Herb’s hands, barely an inch outside the defender’s fingertips. It was as vintage as vintage gets and again was further proof that there aren’t many like Brady. To have played the way he did up to that point yet still not only manage that final drive but do it as precisely as he did was amazing yet entirely familiar. We’ve seen it before and you know what? We’ll see it again.
Running Backs: B
Ho-hum. 25 carries for 101 yards total, some of them very well timed. But not nearly the dominant ground effort of last week’s win over the Jets. Again, the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the big man on campus, rolling up a tidy 58 yards on 14 attempts and one catch for 11 yards. BJGE did his usual thing, running with strength and purpose, hitting holes with power and making himself hard to tackle; as if we didn’t already know this but he’s made himself into a true, No. 1 power back and considering where he came from, that’s a pleasure to type. Stevan Ridley took the handoff on the Pats first offensive snap 16 yards, ran two more times for three more yards and didn’t see the field on O again. Ridley is a real talent, something he proved both in Buffalo and in Oakland. It would be nice to see him get a few more opportunities but with BJGE running so well of late, it’s understandable that he’s been more of a spectator these last two weeks. And Danny Woodhead returned from his week off to play a huge role on the final drive, catching two passes for 22 yards and proving again that he’s a more than capable replacement for Kevin Faulk out of the backfield. Not a banner day for this group but considering the Cowboys entered the game allowing just under 70 yards per game on the ground, the Pats will take it.
Wide Receivers: B-
Less a commentary on the play of Welker and Branch than a commendation of how well they were covered by the Dallas defensive backs. Welker had a TD but caught just six passes all day and three of them were on the final drive (and while we’re here, did anyone else notice how open he was on a couple of those late game grabs? This is what I mean when I say the Cowboys are poorly coached; the fact that they seemed to change the way they were successfully playing the Pats best receiver at the worst possible time and it in part cost them the game is stunning). Naturally, he made plays when it mattered most, looked positively effortless on his TD (another of those in-then-out option routes on which he had to beat a man to the edge and stretch out as far as he could to get the ball inside and around the pylon) and ultimately rendered his final stat line meaningless. Branch caught three passes for 69 yards including a nifty, 45-yard catch and run on which he recognized his man, already playing him soft, leaning the wrong way and took off. He was his usual solid self. This grade feels like it should be higher but it can’t be because of the completely overmatched Chad Ochocinco, who played just seven snaps all day, blew his only targeted thrown because he cut the wrong way (seriously, Chad – it’s been like 10 weeks since training camp started. You still don’t know which way to go?). The Pats brass lined up to defend their $6 million man on Monday. He may only have nine catches in six games but they’ll be damned if they don’t talk up how great he is in practice and how valuable he’ll be down the road. That being said, don’t be surprised if he gets cut during the bye week. What a waste.
Tight Ends: B
You’ve gotta hand it to A-Herb – he sure does have a flair for the dramatic. Last week it’s his slippery fingers that cost the Pats a late first half TD and could have drastically changed the complexion of the win over the Jets. This week, he has a brutal fumble deep in Dallas territory in the third quarter after a 15-play drive but bounces back to catch the game winning score with 22 seconds left on the clock. He finished the game with eight catches for 68 yards including that TD and it’s certainly worth imagining what kind of player A-Herb will be a couple years down the road when he’s a little older and wiser. He’s such a weapon already thanks to his combo of size and wide receiver skill (on one play, FOX analyst Troy Aikman appeared in awe when diagramming a replay on which A-Herb was covered by Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys best corner yet beat his thoroughly and made an excellent catch). Think about how much better he’ll be with time and maturity. All of the drama that’s followed him from time to time over his first year-plus with the Pats will likely be a memory. And on the other side, there’s Gronk, catching seven more passes (or, all the passes Brady threw his way) for 74 yards, blocking stoutly in the running game and even playing safety on the Cowboys desperation final heave of the game. The Pats had at least two tight ends on the field for 68 of their 74 offensive snaps (Gronk played 73, A-Herb played 70) and why shouldn’t they? No one uses the position better.
Offensive Line: C-
Not the best day for this group as evidenced by all the trouble Brady had staying upright. Logan Mankins was even off his game, getting beaten a handful of times by multiple Cowboys, once for a sack, so you know there were issues up front. No one played particularly well on the O-line, with rookie Nate Solder having a particularly rough day. Matt Light did OK with the Cowboys pass rushing demon DeMarcus Ware (Ware had two sacks but only one was on Light and Ware didn’t get too close to Brady too many other times). The protection was flawless on the final drive (as was everything) but even though that’s especially important, this game marked the second in a row in which Brady was running for his life more often than is comfortable. This bye week will be crucial for the O-line to shore some things up, especially with the Pittsburgh Steelers looming in Week 8.
Defensive Line: B+
Can you believe it? The D-line played really well, bordering on great. Someone please hose me down. And it all starts with Andre Carter, who was immense on Sunday. Never mind the two sacks (though it’s hard to given that it feels like no one on the entire team has had a sack all year up until Sunday) or the five tackles. He also played the run, busted up a screen pass and just basically made things happen. He was in the backfield a lot, racking two tackles for a loss and a couple of more hits on Tony Romo. It was his best game of the year thus far and even though the Cowboys have one of the weaker offensive lines in the league, it’s massively encouraging that a guy like Carter can play such a solid, borderline dominant game. Elsewhere, the Pats got a bit of an impact performance from Albert Haynesworth, who just missed Romo on one pass play and handled some double teams as a pass rusher and opened up some space for guys like Carter to operate. Vince Wilfork just missed another interception and again played almost every down on defense, doing a little bit of pass rushing in addition to his usual role as a plugger/run stopper. Veteran Gerard warren played his best game in his couple of seasons as a Patriot with a couple of big stops a fumble recovery and drawing a holding penalty that wiped out a sizable Dallas gain in the first half. Even Shaun Ellis made a nice play (perhaps his first of the year), hauling down Dallas back Demarco Murray for a loss on one occasion. There were issues with tackling on defense on Sunday but the D-line didn’t have a problem with it. This group hasn’t looked better all year.
Before we go any further, that makes two straight weeks without Jerod Mayo and two straight weeks of the Pats defense playing its best game of the season. Just saying… Anyway, how about Gary Guyton? The guy is the de facto Mayo, playing every snap in the middle of everything and even though he can’t tackle or play the run, he is presiding over the awakening of this defense. Guyton must have missed five tackles by himself and was faked out so badly by Dallas receiver Dez Bryant on one play that he literally sat down as if he was skiing and realized he was about to fall. But hey, it’s working with him doing the Mayo thing so why complain, right? Instead, let’s look at Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, each of whom played a spectacular game on Sunday. Spikes is still something of a liability in pass coverage but he was allowed to blitz a few times in this game (yes, the Pats actually took some chances on defense in this one, you read that right) and got in Romo’s face a couple of times. He also snuffed out a third down shovel pass attempt with the Cowboys inside the Pats 10 in the fourth quarter and caused a loss, forcing a field goal in the process. That play went a long way toward giving the Pats enough breathing room to make Brady’s heroics possible. Good for Spikes, who is looking better the past two weeks than he has since arriving here last year as a big name rookie out of Florida. And Ninkovich, who played every down but one, had the unenviable task of shadowing Dallas star tight end Jason Witten all day and did a more than admirable job. Witten caught four passes for 48 yards and a TD but one of those catches was a 20-yarder with 10 seconds left in the game and on the TD, he motioned all the way across the formation and managed to lose Ninkovich in the process. But for the most part, there he was, No. 50, chipping and hitting Witten at the line of scrimmage on nearly every pass play, looking like an All-Pro. The Pats have to be thrilled for the most part with what they got from this group. Maybe they should just put Mayo on IR.
Defensive Backs: C
It’s getting really depressing with Devin McCourty, not just watching him suck but writing about how bad he sucks. The Pats are playing so much of that deep, soft zone stuff that allows them to give up between seven and 15 yards per pass play as opposed to all the 30, 40 and 50+ yarders they were giving up through the first three weeks but even that isn’t helping McCourty. Someone named Laurent Robinson, who is fourth on the Cowboys receiver depth chart, toasted McCourty on multiple occasions in this game, once shaking off a feeble, sideline tackle attempt for a 32 yard gain. And on another play, he was beaten so badly in the end zone, all he could do was commit an egregious interference penalty but was bailed out due to one of the many costly infractions that went against Dallas, this one a holding call that offset McCourty’s blunder. He clearly has no confidence; all of the swagger and substance that made him such a revelation last season is so far gone, it’s fair to wonder if it will ever return. It’s too soon to say that McCourty is the latest in the string of misfires by Bill Belichick in drafting DBs over the past few years (Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Brandon Meriweather, etc.) but he’s looking a lot closer to that status than not through this season’s first six games. The Cowboys tandem of star receivers, Bryant and Miles Austin, caught 11 passes for 152 yards on the day but neither of them scored, Bryant didn’t have a catch after halftime and Austin had two huge drops, one on the Cowboys penultimate drive of the game. So credit to this group for that, and credit to Kyle Arrington, who tied for the league lead with his fourth INT on a classic forced, back foot throw by Romo in the first quarter, overcame a couple of little nicks and managed to make a few more plays not only against the pass but against the run too. With McCourty struggling so badly, Leigh Bodden a shell of his former self and rookie Ras-I Dowling unable to get healthy, the play of Arrington for the most part thus far has been a nice surprise. No one else did much noteworthy here, though James Ihedigbo had another very solid game (every snap but one, seven tackles, one for a loss) and Patrick Chung didn’t hurt himself again. This level of the defense is still the furthest away of any. But like the rest of them, it’s getting better.
Special Teams: C
A fumble by Matthew Slater on a kick return and another penalty on Dane Fletcher really gummed this one up, especially given the improved kick coverage and the otherworldly punting of our man Zoltan (48 yards per punt, one down perfectly at the Dallas 1). And Stephen Gostkowski made a couple more field goals, running his tally of consecutive makes to 10 since Week 1 at Miami. All in all, the Pats special teams are pretty boring. Surely, Belichick and friends are OK with that description. But wouldn’t it be great to see someone break a return for more than 15 yards? Or see a guy absolutely lay someone out in coverage? Come on, is this really asking that much???!!!
For starters, it should be pointed out that if this grade was based on a comparison between coaches, Belichick would get an A if for no other reason than that his opposite number is Jason Garrett, who is probably still deluding himself into believing that he will ever have a chance to be successful in Dallas between now and when Jerry Jones fires him five games into next season with the Cowboys are coming off yet another non-playoff campaign and are 2-3. Jones is the coach of the Cowboys, not anyone else. And if you ever forget that, it will probably take him no more than 10 minutes to remind you. But I digress. This section is about Belichick and the coaching and while he and his staff have had better games, they’ve definitely had worse. It was a little bit alarming to see it take so long for the offense to make any real adjustments to what Ryan and the Cowboys D were throwing at them but by the same token, it was impressive to see the defense turned loose a little bit more than in recent weeks and respond to that in the opposite way it did in Buffalo which is to say positively. Those maddening, eight yard cushions given by the corners to the opposing receivers were still there enough to make a few chunks rise in the old gullet but there was surprisingly also some more risk taken than usual. The Pats blitzed, played man and were aggressive in ways we haven’t seen in weeks and at least for this week, it paid off. There’s no telling whether it will happen again though, we’ll have to wait two weeks until the Pittsburgh game to find out. There will need to be tackling drills aplenty in the coming days but all in all, the progress of the D in the last two weeks has been encouraging and all the credit there has to go to Belichick and the defensive staff. After allowing in excess of 25 points per game through the first three weeks, the defense is allowing less than 20 in its last three, the play in the red zone being a major reason why. That progress showed big time on Sunday. Along with Brady and his timeless, supernatural ability in the clutch, it’s why the Pats are 5-1 and alone in first place in the AFC East, not 4-2 and tied for it.