Hernandez had a strong year. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
I'm back from my vacation! Now to catch up with what I've missed:
1. C.J. Spiller - Spiller combined for 17 touches (on 21 attempts), 100 yards, and 1 touchdown on the day, or just a hair under 6 yards/touch (4.75 yards/attempt). Of course, 40 of those were on receptions, but it's not as if his yards came on one big play. Only 4 touches were for 3 or fewer yards. That means that he had 13 plays of 4+ yards, which is a fantastic success rate for the Bills.
The main reason for Spiller's lack of production? The Bills themselves. They were throwing the ball with such a high rate of success in the first quarter that Spiller was not called upon. The Bills continued to throw the ball under the Patriots caught up and then a couple quick turnovers put the Patriots well ahead of the Bills. The lead change forced the Bills to throw not because it was easy, but because of necessity. Still, whenever Spiller touched the ball, he was making plays and moving the chains. The Patriots couldn't stop him on the ground (they were simply average) or through the air (Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher were gassed).
Luckily, the Patriots did not put James Ihedigbo in coverage of Spiller (what they did against Reggie Bush and the Miami Dolphins) and, as a result, Spiller did not break for any huge gains. Of his touches, Spiller had 1 run and 3 receptions of 10+ yards and his longest play was his 15 yard touchdown reception. However, the Patriots were unable to stop Spiller when his number was called and they'll have to find a way to restructure their run defense without Andre Carter. Loss for the Patriots.
2. Tom Brady - No question here; Brady played until the game was wrapped up. He played well enough to win, although he still seemed a little off on his short throws. 66% of the yards were to his tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as Wes Welker was the only receiver to notch yards in the passing game. It's a little concerning that only 16% of passing yards were to wide receivers (where are you Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood?), but Brady managed to make it work.
From a pocket awareness standpoint, he seemed a little skittish and it seemed as if he was trying to accomplish too much when the team was down. He was getting antsy trying to make a play and it had a negative impact in the pocket and with the crispness of his passes. Once he settled down? He was money. Brady had a solid day to close the season and definitely rebounded from his performance against the Bills from earlier in the season. Win for the Patriots.
(note about the lack of production from the receivers: The Patriots played a third of the snaps with Marcus Cannon as an additional blocker. The Patriots opted to have a running back in the backfield for the majority of the game. With Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker staying on the field, that leaves only two thirds of the snaps for the second receiver to be on the field. As a result, the receivers only had 41 snaps [per Pro Football Focus. Other snaps were as a run blocker] to make a receiving play. While the receivers should have been able to get open and make a play at least a couple times in those 41 snaps, they were playing as the 4th/5th option behind Hernandez, Gronkowski, Welker, and, sometimes, the running back outlet. Brady was willing and able to find a receiver before reaching his last options. Brady was 21/31 with 3 dropped passes and an interception to his first three options, which is a 77% on-target rate. He threw only 4 passes to other options because he didn't need to.)
3. Good Note - Deion Branch was limited in his snaps. Logan Mankins didn't see the field and his replacement, Ryan Wendell, played lights out. Matt Light played the whole game. Dan Connolly was at center. Marcus Cannon saw 25 snaps as an additional blocker. Tiquan Underwood and Chad Ochocinco split the snaps that Branch left on the field. Devin McCourty spent time at safety and Sterling Moore flourished at cornerback. Antwaun Molden saw snaps for the first time since Philadelphia during Week 12 (but he wasn't very good). Pat Chung played and was a game changer at safety. Julian Edelman earned time as the nickelback on defense. Brandon Spikes saw plenty of time on the field.
The Patriots didn't sit players to protect anyone. All players that were healthy and supposed to be playing were playing. Mankins was able to have a few weeks to recover from his scary injury and Branch was kept safe when he saw the field, but the Patriots kept playing. Players were able to try new positions (Moore, McCourty) or were able to play again after missing time (Light, Chung, Spikes). While the game might not have been the prettiest, the team showed heart and played til the final whistle and left with a victory. This team has a never-quit attitude that hasn't been around for a few seasons. Win for the Patriots.
4. Offensive Line - The Patriots played with the following line-up:
LT: Matt Light - Played well and should be ready for the playoff stretch.
LG: Ryan Wendell - A little surprised he played over Donald Thomas, but Wendell played some fantastic ball.
C: Dan Connolly - His return to the line-up seems official and he was a gritty blocker.
RT: Nate Solder - Played one of his best games of the season and is getting into playoff form.
Heavy TE: Marcus Cannon - Helped as an additional blocker and was a solid contributor.
Interesting to note that Nick McDonald was the center who replaced Connolly in garbage time. That's not a point against Wendell- he played left guard the whole game, including garbage time. The Patriots seem to think that Connolly is ready for the playoffs and didn't need additional snaps as Connolly sat with Light and Waters. The Patriots make-shift offensive line wasn't as patchwork as I thought it might end up being, as Wendell was the only real back-up. Seems as if everyone's healthy at the right time. Win for the Patriots.
5. 60 Minutes - The Patriots disappeared for the first quarter, but played well for the final three quarters. Just like the Week 15 game against the Broncos, the Patriots only get 3/4 of a win.
In total, the Patriots notched 3.75/5 points. A solid win for the Patriots who seem to be edging closer to a complete game. Hopefully that takes place in the playoffs.
Over the season, the Patriots have tallied 44.5 points of a possible 80. That might seem hard for a team that finished first the AFC, but when the Patriots were bad, they were awful and that hurt their scores. The performance of the defense, while not worst in the league, still hampered the team's overall score for the season.
Worst Game of the Season:
Week 8 Pittsburgh Steelers - The Patriots lost all five categories. The Patriots secondary and linebackers couldn't slow the Steelers' attack and the Patriots offensive line were merely "average" in blocking for Tom Brady. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez were unproductive in the slot. The Patriots couldn't get off the field in third down situations on defense. Clean sweep.
Mention: Week 3 Buffalo Bills - The Patriots finished with half a point. 0.5/5. The Patriots couldn't overcome early season injuries and no receiver was able to produce at a consistent level for the whole game. On defense, the Patriots couldn't stop Fred Jackson or anyone in the secondary. Bad day for a team that lost on a last minute field goal.
Best Game of the Season:
Week 15 Denver Broncos - The Patriots won with a score of 4.25/5. The Patriots were able to force turnovers on defense and spread the ball on offense. They didn't commit penalties and played a very clean game. While the Patriots struggled against the run early on, they settled down and stopped the run towards the end of the game, while running the ball well for themselves. After a bad first quarter, the Patriots rocked for the rest of the game.
Mention: Week 12 Philadelphia Eagles - The Patriots won with a score of 4/5. The Patriots were unable to protect Brady in the pocket. Beyond that, the Patriots were able to force turnovers and stop LeSean McCoy. Patriots receivers stepped up and contributed in the passing game. The Patriots were without Chad Ochocinco, Dan Connolly, Brandon Spikes, Pat Chung, and Devin McCourty and were able to overcome those injuries and win.
With these grades on the season, I'd give the Patriots the following grades:
Offense: A-; The offensive unit was fairly reliable all season. Some fantastic games were balanced with a couple questionable games to lower the grade.
Defense: C-; The defensive unit was definitely below average on the season. Still, they were a tale of two halves at the end of the season and showed plenty of promise.
Special Teams: A-; Special teams was very successful for the majority of the season. Some average games were sprinkled throughout the season to lower the grade.
Coaches: A-; The team was hampered by some extreme injuries during the regular season and the team was able to adapt. There were some questionable calls, but the coaches were successful for the majority of the season.
Overall: B; The team had a successful year and finished at the top of the AFC. Still, they are not without questions and were not as dominant as they could have been, which led to the B grade.
On to the playoffs!