By Jeremy Gottleib, Patriots Daily Staff
Is there really such a thing as an ugly win? Does it really matter how the W is procured, as long as it is, especially in the NFL, a competitive entity in which there are but 16 games?
It’s the whole Tim Tebow argument. Some are disgusted and appalled both at the way he plays and how the Denver Broncos have time-traveled their offensive approach back decades so as to get the most out of Tebow’s limited skills as a quarterback. Others look at his 6-1 record as a starter, five straight wins, first place in his division and say, “who cares?”
These thoughts come to mind on the heels of the Patriots 31-24 win over the once formidable, now hideous Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The Colts have not won a game all year and are destined for 0-16. The Pats, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, needed to win the game 100-0 to appease their critics (and let me just tell you, that still wouldn’t have been enough, but that’s another column). They didn’t win 100-0, though. They bobbed and weaved their way to a 3-3, second quarter tie, taking their time both to wake up and to assess how best to take on their opponent, each now weekly staples of their games, before scoring 28 straight points to open up a 31-3 lead with 4:13 left to play in the third quarter. Then, the defense packed it in while the offense struggled to make any positive yardage for the remainder of the afternoon. What should have been a blowout became an escape, an onside kick away from being a complete, unmitigated disaster. The concept of finishing games playing a full 60 minutes has been in play since the game ended (Tom Brady even said on the radio yesterday that he would, “really love to see what happens if we play a full 60”) as well it should. There’s no reason a JV outfit like the Colts should score three TDs on you in barely a quarter and a QB like Dan Orlovsky should go 30-of-37 for 353 yards while looking like the man he’s replaced (hint: it’s Peyton Manning) regardless of how statistically bad your pass defense is (note: the Pats are still on pace to allow the most passing yards in a single season in NFL history). Sure, most of the damage inflicted by the Colts was pure, unadulterated garbage time, but Bill Belichick (who seemed to coach this game as if working in a laboratory, which we’ll get to later) still sounded like he does after a loss in his post-game remarks while several of the players echoed his sentiments. And as well they should have. Because even though a win is a win, how you do it at least kind of matters, especially with the playoffs looming. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, brimming with style points as always.
Brady started out a little slow and in the fourth quarter, while the Pats were still in no-huddle and throwing, he, like his defensive teammates, seemed to peter out a bit. But in the middle of that, he was spectacular. After the Colts tied the game at three less than a minute into the second quarter, the Pats got the ball back and punted. Following a three-and-out forced by the D, Brady took over and led four consecutive TD drives. The Colts, in addition to everything else, are mostly incompetent on defense, even though several of the players who have starred for them in their glory years (Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Jerraud Powers, Antoine Bethea) are still there. Anyway, Brady exploded the minute the Pats started to hurry things up, making his usual wide array of throws while also taking advantage of everything the Colts gave him, and that was a lot. He finished 29-of-38 for 293 yards and a pair of TDs and it should be noted that four or five of those incompletions came in the fourth quarter and a third TD pass was changed to rushing TD as it was ruled to have come on a lateral. Brady now has the most yards of any QB through 12 games in NFL history and is on pace to break Dan Marino’s all-time single-season yardage mark. More importantly, he has now thrown 30 TD passes again and hasn’t thrown a single pick over the course of the team’s four-game winning streak. And he has done all of this both having been relieved in the fourth quarter of the Pats last two games due to lopsided scores and without the benefit of a consistent running game. And he even threw two passes to Chad Ochocinco and Chad even caught one of them. It’s hard to get much better than Brady right now unless your name is Aaron Rodgers. He’s still what makes the engine run smoother than silk.
Running Backs: C-
24 carries for 73 yards for this group and the Colts came in ranked 31st in the league against the run. Not good. Maybe all the shuffling of personnel is to blame; the Pats came out with Kevin Faulk getting carries before turning to BenJarvus Green-Ellis before giving Danny Woodhead a couple reps before going back to Benny (who scored another TD despite only managing 14 yards on a measly six attempts) before giving Stevan Ridley the bulk of the run in the second half (which amounted to eight carries). The Pats were still throwing in the fourth quarter up big, which would have been a perfect time to run clock and give Ridley a chance to really do something for the first time in weeks (as it’s been with Shane Vereen the past couple weeks). It will be interesting to see whether or not the Pats try to get the running game going again in the final four weeks of the year; it could come in very handy for them in the playoffs and as we’ve seen throughout the season, even when the passing game is firing on all cylinders, as it’s been over the course of this winning streak, the offense is best when it’s balanced. It wasn’t at all on Sunday but that’s OK, they got away with it thanks to their weak opposition. Still, it will be nice to see more production out of this area moving forward.
Wide Receivers: A-
Brady threw 11 passes to Wes Welker. Welker had 11 catches. If that’s not completely a byproduct of the two of them again virtually sharing the same brain, then it can at least in part be attributed to the Colts playing their defensive backs 10-12 yards off the ball all day. Welker is most dangerous catching the ball underneath so the Colts simply sat back and let him do it all day long (and you wonder why they’re 0-12). At one point, CBS analyst Rich Gannon pointed out that Welker was simply sprinting off the line of scrimmage at the snap, stopping after eight yards and turning around. It was like a 7-on-7 practice drill. It doesn’t get any easier than it was for Brady and Welker on Sunday and now Welker has 11 more catches and 110 more yards to add to his season totals (now clocking in at 93 grabs and 1,253 yards with four more whole games left to play). Deion Branch caught three passes for 37 yards, one of which was his patented comeback route and netted the Pats a big gainer. Even Tiquan Underwood got in the act, actually catching the one pass that came his way, instantly making him more productive than the complete and total bust that was Taylor Price (yet another relatively high pick misfire). And again, it would be a huge mistake not to mention Ochocinco, who got the biggest ovation of the day when he hauled in that 12-yarder. Of course, when Brady went back to him on nearly the same play a few snaps later, Chad dropped the nearly perfect pass despite being wider than wide open and then was not seen or heard from again all day. But hey, baby steps are always necessary when you’re making $6 million, or way more than Welker, right? Right.
Tight Ends: A
It’s not getting boring doling out all these A’s to the tight ends, believe me. Not when it means we can discuss Rob Gronkowski even more than we already do. Cyborg Gronk tied the all-time record for TD receptions by a tight end, then set a new one before it was determined that it was indeed that lateral discussed earlier. No matter, he’ll just have to do it next week and given the pace he’s on, whatever number he finishes with will be so high, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever break it. Except maybe him. Because he’s a cyborg. Gronk caught five passes for 64 yards and the two scores as well as running the third one in and what was most striking about all of the was that the Colts didn’t even bother to cover him. Didn’t they watch any film leading up to the game? They did fire their defensive coordinator last week and his replacement last called a game in the Canadian League in 1983. But honestly, haven’t they been paying even the slightest bit of attention? Guys weren’t just not covering Gronk in the red zone, they were running away from him, even as practically every route he ran was his bread and butter seam pattern. Gannon exclaimed at one point, “If you don’t cover Rob Gronkowski in the red zone, you’re out of your mind!” The Colts are out of their mind. And Gronk is soon to be in NFL record books. And, in the week’s edition of “The Forgotten Man,” Aaron Hernandez had his usual solid, productive day, catching seven more passes. A-Herb may be wondering why he doesn’t get to score any TDs at this point. After all, he only has a paltry five on the year. Why does Gronk get to score all the time? Is it because he spikes the ball so furiously? Is it because he’s a cyborg? Don’t be surprised if A-Herb gets his one of these weeks. He’s been nothing but the good soldier all this time, doing so much dirty work while his running mate gets all the glory. Don’t worry, A-Herb. It will all sort of come close to evening out someday. Just keep plugging, you little bugger!
Offensive Line: B+
A bit of a downgrade given the lack of any push in the running game against such a soft defense but on a day like Sunday, that’s mostly nitpicking. Moving on, the conversation can’t go any further without mentioning center Nick McDonald. McDonald, on the practice squad until Saturday, made his first career NFL appearance while becoming the fourth center employed by the Pats this season. With Dan Koppen on IR since Week 1 and both of his fill-ins – Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell – ailing, the Pats had to send someone out there to snap the ball to Brady and McDonald acquitted himself brilliantly. With some family and friends watching from the stands (as of just a couple weeks ago, he figured he’d be up there with them), McDonald played a clean game, had no issues with getting the ball to Brady either from the shotgun or when the QB was under center and fit in seamlessly to all of the protections and alignments. It probably helped to have a cagey veteran like Brian Waters (another excellent performance) on one side of him and a superstar (Logan Mankins) on the other but make no mistake; McDonald deserves a truckload of credit for his game on Sunday, a fact that was not lost on either Brady or Belichick in the aftermath. Elsewhere, it was business as usual. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon filled in for Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle and neither of the two rookies missed a beat. Colts pass rushing demon Robert Mathis, who, to be fair, is having a down year like all the rest of his teammates, has terrorized Pats right tackles in the past (hello, Nick Kazcur!) but barely got near Brady all day. And on the other side, Mathis’s partner in sacks Dwight Freeney, didn’t get that close, failing to even appear on the stat sheet. It was great work on those two by the Solder/Cannon combo and Matt Light, in addition to any other help they got from Gronk, et al. Any time Brady can exit the game looking as clean as he did when he entered it, especially with the post-season on the horizon is a good one. And cheers to Mankins for getting through his second straight game without a penalty. Here’s hoping he keeps the streak alive in Washington this Sunday.
Defensive Line: B
Make no mistake; nearly all of this grade goes to Vince Wilfork. Big Vince was more immense than usual on Sunday, leading the team in tackles with 10, one of them for a loss, and also getting in on the pass rush, sacking Orlovsky in the first half and getting a good hit on the Colts QB on another occasion. Belichick called it a “tremendous game,” for Wilfork, later expounding on that by calling him “outstanding.” Wilfork is enjoying arguably his best season, showing talent and ability in certain aspects of the game we didn’t know he could. He’s roaming more, not just playing in the middle of the D-line, which has freed him up to get to the opposing QB on occasion as well as snaring a couple of INTs. Sunday may have been his best game of the year. Otherwise, it was kind of a quiet day for this bunch. Andre Carter was held in check for most of the afternoon as was his counterpart in pass rushing, Mark Anderson, who didn’t play as much as he’s been playing (25 defensive snaps). And it was slightly alarming that the Colts, who came in ranked 26th in rushing offense, seemed to be able to run it on the Pats front four (99 total yards on the ground) even though the Pats were ahead most of the afternoon. The Pats started the game in a nickel and played that way for a good chunk of the day, perhaps aiding in the Colts running success. Kyle Love had another strong game and has firmly entrenched himself as a stalwart in the middle of the defense (he played just five fewer snaps than Wilfork), so that’s a positive. Overall, there needs to be more pressure from these guys. The games in which the defense has played its best have been the ones in which Carter and Anderson have been able to get after the QB, thus taking some of the onus off the defensive backfield. They’d be well served to get back to that sort of play soon.
How about Jerod Mayo? Sure, the majority of his seven tackles were well up the field. But how about that INT, the first of his career? He read Orlovsky perfectly, broke off from his assignment, doubled back and made a full out dive to pick the ball out midair. It was a super athletic play and a reminder that Mayo, for all of the criticisms leveled against him (hello, self!) is a very good player who’s lack of impact plays throughout his career is more a product of the Pats general defensive scheme and his role within it. He also tipped a shoulda been TD pass in the end zone on the Colts long first and second quarter drive, a big factor in them having to settle for a field goal. It was Mayo’s best game since his return from knee injury suffered in Week 4 and arguably his best of the season. Rob Ninkovich was his usual solid self again too, registering another sack (his third straight game with one), managing another hit on Orlovsky and making a nice play on Colts back Donald Brown for a loss of yardage. ESPN’s Mike Reiss made note yesterday of Belichick calling Ninkovich over for some strategy talk on the sideline at one point, a true testament to how important he has become. Brandon Spikes’s role was filled in a rotation by Gary Guyton, Tracy White and Niko Koutouvides, who started and played significant time on defense for the first time since he played for Seattle in 2006. He held up well, making the third most tackles of anyone on the defense (seven) and even doing some covering thanks to his good speed. The Pats are developing depth on defense as they go forward with all of these free agents and castoffs and the linebacker spot is proof positive of that. When Spikes gets back, Belichick will have evidence that guys like White and Koutouvides can play in sub packages and fill in at important times if he needs them.
Defensive Backs: F
It was like a nightmare you thought you’d never have again. The secondary, so much improved over the past three or four weeks, suddenly looked like it had reverted to Pittsburgh week or even the first three weeks of the season. Orlovsky’s numbers for the day are listed above; in the fourth quarter he was 18-of-20 for 240 yards and two TDs. No one in this group played well; many of them played like shit and you can put season-long whipping boy Devin McCourty at the top of the list. Playing in his first game since the Jets game from three weeks ago, McCourty looked as bad as he has all season. If he’d been any good at all before his shoulder injury, perhaps his struggles could be attributed to rust. But since McCourty, for whatever reason, has followed up his excellent rookie year with one of the worst sophomore slumps known to man, it was just another link in a chain of hideous games. Not only was he burned repeatedly by Orlovsky and Pierre Garcon (nine catches, 150 yards, two TDs) but in run support, the only area of the game in which he’s played semi-decently all year, he was brutal too. Brown scored a TD on a five-yard run in the fourth and on the play, McCourty came up to set the edge, was late, took a bad angle, wound up waving at Brown and hit the deck. It may not be a coincidence that the defense’s best games of the season were the ones in which McCourty did not play. Going forward, given the way all teams throw at him time after time after time (when you can’t even handle getting picked on by Dan Orlovsky for god’s sake, you know you suck), the Pats are going to be at a big disadvantage unless they give him a lot of help. Matthew Slater, receiver and special teams ace, played all but three snaps at safety. Yep, safety. Remember when it was mentioned that Belichick seemingly coached this game as if he was in a laboratory? Well, here’s example No. 1. Slater actually played pretty well but there’s no reason to believe this will be a regular thing. The brightest spot of all was Nate Jones, signed off the street this past week, playing 69 snaps and looking pretty good in doing so both playing safety and slot corner. He had nine tackles and broke up a pass and made more of an impression in one afternoon than Phillip Adams, the man he replaced, made in several weeks. And that’s about it. Belichick confessed that the Pats weren’t strictly in a prevent look in the fourth quarter which makes the end result even worse. This group, so much improved since Week 9 (the Giants game), took a huge step back on Sunday, reverting to the form that made scrubs like Chad Henne and Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Hall of Famers back in September. On Sunday, they made Orlovsky look like Peyton Manning. Next up, Rex Grossman and the Redskins. It’s tough to make him look good. But if anyone can do it, it’s the Pats, particularly the way they looked on Sunday.
Special Teams: B
Yawn. Except for yet another All-Pro worthy game from our man Zoltan (four punts, 47 yards per), there was nothing really of note here. Stephen Gostkowski made this week’s 39-yard attempt and had a few touchbacks. Julian Edelman, absent from the defense this week, returned kickoffs as well as punts and did fine in both areas. There were two onside kick recoveries late in the game (surprise! one was by Gronk) and those were probably the highlight of the day for the Pats in this phase of the game.
Dr. Belichick looked at this game, told anyone who would listen that the Colts are just as good as they always have been, then started Slater and Jones, two guys who hadn’t played with this defense once all year, and played them each the entire game. He had Koutouvides, purely a special teamer the past six years, starting at inside linebacker. He played James Ihedigbo, also primarily a special teamer before becoming the Pats No. 1 safety this year, playing a hybrid, safety/linebacker role in all of his nickel looks. And he kept Edelman and Sterling Moore, both of whom had played significant snaps the past three weeks, in mothballs until Moore emerged to get spun around and made to look foolish on one of the Colts fourth quarter scores. It was all very interesting and curious and seemed as though he was holding somewhat of a tryout against a team he figured he could beat with his eyes closed. He’ll never, ever admit anything like that, to be sure. But with truth serum? Maybe. The bottom line is that his decisions, however odd or inspired both or neither they were, didn’t cost the team a win, although it was close. What should be getting more publicity this week than his defensive personnel moves for the week is the fact that the Pats, even when they win convincingly, can’t seem to put a complete game together. 60 minutes. He talks about it all the time. Brady talks about it. Other players talk about it. So why can’t they do it? And if they don’t figure it out soon, will it come back to haunt them come playoff time? Again, the team is on a four-game winning streak and the fact that Belichick has cobbled together a mostly competent defensive unit with some of the guys he’s used speaks volumes about his coaching ability. Getting on him and his staff too much in the aftermath of Sunday’s fourth quarter is at the very least, a little nitpicky. But you can be certain the players will hear about it all week. And come this Sunday in Washington, we’ll see if he got his message across.