USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots looked hung over in what looked like a potential walkover against the Jaguars. In a game that came down to the last play, the visitors managed to escape with an ugly win.
That's OK. You're not alone. Chances are most of the players and coaches are as well, if they haven't forgotten this one already.
The Pats, looking tired, hung over and beat up from back-to-back, "game of the year" contests against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, fell into an early hole, recovered just enough to take a lead then sweated it out until the final play of the game before escaping what would have been a pretty ignominious loss to a team that's won just two games all season.
There was plenty of frustration, confusion and self-examination to go around in the aftermath, none more evident than from Tom Brady, who lit into his teammates both during and after this ugly game. A win is a win but to a man, Brady and several of his teammates who were quoted on the record know that this year's playoff run won't last very long should the Pats play anywhere near the way they played in Jacksonville.
It wasn't just the 436 total yards they allowed against an offense that came in ranked second to last in all of the NFL (including a franchise record 202 yards in the first quarter alone). It was the offense's struggles as well, from Brady, to Aaron Hernandez (who looks hurt again) to everyone on the offensive line, a unit that will get Brady killed sooner than later if it doesn't shore up some issues that have been hanging around since the Miami game in Week 13. This is a wounded team on both sides of the ball that looks like it could really use that first-round bye that's still potentially available should a few things fall its way come Week 17.
Plenty of important names were out due to injury. Not many folks played well. And in a lot of ways, the Pats were lucky to get out of northeast Florida with a win, as Brady so curtly noted following the game. But again, a win is a win, whether you play well or play like crap and there are plenty of other teams that lost on Sunday that would kill to be in the Pats' spot right now. Just because this one won't be included on any end of the year highlight reels doesn't mean it counts any less.
So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
Not Brady's best day by any stretch and while you could point to how much abuse he's taken in the past four games as a potential reason why, he hadn't been hit at all when he came out with a two-interception first quarter in which he was outplayed and maybe even outclassed by Chad Henne of all people. He started 3-of-9 with the two picks, both of which could have been big gainers with a little bit of help from his intended receivers (Stevan Ridley and Brandon Lloyd) but were lousy throws nonetheless. And while he did get into a rhythm later on mostly thanks to the continued excellence of Wes Welker, the slow start and the offense's inability to lead a drive to salt the game away in the fourth quarter (for which he shares blame with the O-line) loomed large until Henne's final pass floated into the arms of Patrick Chung in the end zone as time expired. Brady, who tied Johnny Unitas for second all-time with his 47th straight game with a TD pass, finished with 24-of-41 for 267 yards (6.5 YPA), two TDS, two INTs, and a pedestrian 73.9 passer rating. He has three TDs and four picks in his last two games and has now been sacked 10 times in the last four games. And, he's hit the deck 45 times in the Pats' last five games after going down just 37 in their first 10. Are those numbers related at all to his decrease in production the past two weeks? Probably. Obviously, both he and the line need to be much better against the Dolphins this week and in the playoffs.
Running Backs: 4
Very nice bounce back for Ridley, who was not punished for his recent spate of fumbles beyond sitting out most of the second half against the Niners and responded with a very good game. He carried 18 times for 84 yards (4.7 YPA) and had a couple of those really tough runs on which he absorbs contact and still manages to get loose for nice chunks of yardage that he's been putting up all year. The way the passing game struggled throughout the afternoon, it may have made sense to give him a bigger workload but perhaps the offensive staff didn't want to push its luck. Anyway, it was a comfort to see Ridley get through the game unscathed and without putting the ball on the ground, especially on a day when the O-line didn't play particularly well. Danny Woodhead once again rode in to pick up the offense when it was on its heels, catching a couple of passes and turning one, a flat route on which the force of the throw from Brady nearly knocked him over before he managed to regain his balance while palming the football and strolling into the end zone, into a TD. From a consistency standpoint, as ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss considered during the game, it's hard to find too many players on this team who have been as solid as Woodhead all year long. Some weeks, he barely plays. Others, like on Sunday and last week, he's either a big part of the game plan or gets sent in to clean up messes and always finds a way to do something positive. The Pats are lucky to have him.
Wide Receivers: 3.5
In case anyone forgot, there was Welker, once again reminding everyone how invaluable he is to this offense. Of all the guys on the roster who are banged up, Welker is near the top of the list but that hasn't stopped him from suiting up every week and making an impact. On Sunday, he led the offensive charge for the umpteenth time in his Pats' career, catching 10 passes for 88 yards and a TD and adding nine yards and a big first down on a well-executed reverse in the third quarter. The 10-catch game was his 18th, breaking Jerry Rice's all-time mark and considering that Rice is not only the greatest receiver in the history of the league but arguably the greatest player, period, it's a record definitely worth noting. Welker's TD, a two-yarder in the fourth quarter that ultimately provided the final margin, was a nicely executed out cut on which Brandon Lloyd set a natural pick by starting his route in the same direction from the same side of the formation, then cutting back inside as each of their defenders crossed each other. CBS's Solomon Wilcots (who can't be as bad every week as he was on Sunday) immediately remarked that a flag thrown on the play would be on Lloyd for that pick but it was actually a defensive pass interference likely caused by Lloyd's quick change of direction. At any rate, Welker was right in the middle of every stretch the Pats' offense played with any kind of rhythm, as he usually is. It's tough to imagine this offense, if not the entire team, without him. As for Lloyd, after a breakout game against the 49ers, he took somewhat of a step back in this one, failing to get on the same poage with Brady until the second half. Brady's second pick wasn't a very good throw (as well as a bad decision, as Aaron Hernandez was wide open in the flat on the play) but Lloyd's inability to make a stronger play on the throw, which was 50/50 thanks to Jags' corner Derek Cox undercutting the route, really hurt. He also didn't cut off a pattern that Brady expected him to on a first quarter end zone pass and couldn't come up with a couple of other throws. He did catch six passes for 62 yards. But 12 were thrown his way. Lloyd can be an electric talent capable of being a huge part of the Pats' offense. He just needs to be more consistent.
Tight Ends: 3.5
For the second week in a row, it was Michael Hoomanawanui stealing the spotlight among this group. The man referred to as "Ohmanawahoo" by Wilcots in the first quarter made the Pats' first big play of the game, hauling in a Gronk-pattern pass from Brady and turning up field to make a 32-yard gain out of it. He also made a cpuple of impact blocks in the running game, the best being on a direct snap to Ridley out if the shotgun on which he pulled and helped set the edge on the right side of the formation and get Ridley a first down. Hoomanawanui is clearly the No. 2 tight end as long as Gronk remains out as his snaps played the past three weeks (all in the 40s) will attest and he's rewarded the coaching staff for its faith in him. As for Hernandez, he's clearly hurt again if he was ever actually healed and it's a problem. There's just no other explanation for such a dynamic player looking so average or, in the case of Sunday, even less than that. Hernandez caught one pass for 13 yards, had another bad drop and looked more like he did against Seattle or in the first Jets' game than his normal self. He's yet another guy who could really use a playoff bye, or at the very least, a Gronk return so as to allow him less reps as he continues to deal with what could well be lingering issues with the ankle he injured back in Week 2.
Offensive Line: 1.5
This group's worst game of the season and it wasn't really close. Again, Brady isn't going to last much longer if opposing defenses keep getting to him the way they have the past four weeks and what adds to the alarm is that the Jaguars came into the game as one of the worst teams in the NFL in terms of getting pressure on opposing QBs. Brady took 12 hits in this one and once again, every member of the front five had something to do with each and every one of them. Dan Connolly had a particularly tough afternoon and he gave up the worst hit Brady took all day (maybe even all year) when he simply whiffed on Jags' defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who did nothing but run right up the middle and blasted Brady, leaving the QB sitting on the turf a little bit dazed. Brady also took a helmet-to-helmet from former Pats' draft pick Jeremy Mincey on a missed block by Sebastian Vollmer. And Nate Solder had a difficult time with Jason Babin which, to Solder's credit, many left tackles do. But it's worth noting that Solder hasn't had a clean game in quite some time and that needs to change. A lot needs to change up front for the Pats with the playoffs on the horizon. An offense is only as good as its O-line and these days, the Pats' just isn't good enough.
Defensive Line: 3
Before Chandler Jones got two important, extremely well-timed pressures on Henne late in the game, there was absolutely nothing of note from this group, which was being shifted around a lot more than usual for the majority of the game. Bill Belichick and his defensive staff substituted liberally throughout, starting usual end Rob Ninkovich at linebacker due to the injury to Brandon Spikes, but Ninkovich still saw some snaps at his regular spot, which was also manned by Brandon Deaderick. Deaderick had an active game, with one big batted down pass at the line of scrimmage. The Jags don't have much of a running game but when they did try to get it going, there was Vince Wilfork anchoring the middle albeit slightly more quietly than usual. The rotations allowed guys to stay fresher and it showed in the fourth quarter when the Pats got as much pressure on Henne as at any point in the game. And Justin Francis again made the most of his time and the coaches faith in him with another very active game in which he managed to be in on a handful of plays. Jones has looked slow since returning from the ankle injury he suffered against the Colts but the explosiveness he regularly featured prior to getting hurt came back on those two late near misses on Henne. Both times, Jones hit Henne as he was loading up to throw and both times the ball would be intercepted by Chung. Better late than never.
A good game from this group which missed Spikes. Jerod Mayo had a nice game highlighted by huge hit at the goal line which definitely left him a bit shaken but didn't cause him to miss any time. There were a couple of the usual pursuit/coverage issues, specifically on the 53-yard screen pass to Montell Owens to close out the first quarter. But overall, he mostly held up well without his running mate in the middle. Ninkovich never looks right when he has to line up with the backers and this game was no exception. Sure, his role is different and he's somewhat out of his comfort zone. And he only plays back there when an injury like the one to Spikes forces him to thanks to his versatility. But he's clearly better served as a down lineman. Dont'a Hightower continued to come on with another solid game in coverage and a huge sack on a 3rd and goal in the fourth quarter. And Tracy White, who has proven in the past that he's a capable coverage linebacker, saw a big workload with Spikes out and responded with six tackles, a pass breakup and a lot of energy. Spikes is the difference maker for this group but it was nice to see the linebackers mostly hold their own without him.
Defensive Backs: 2
With Alfonzo Dennard out and Aqib Talib really hobbled, the Pats were forced to roll out their pre-trade secondary and as would have been expected, were shredded. Devin McCourty moved back to corner and reminded us all once again why he's a much better safety. Kyle Arrington made a nice play down near the goal line on the same drive that featured Hightower's sack and was probably the best defensive back out there. And Marquice Cole got a lot of run with Dennard out and looked pretty good at times, making a nice pick of Henne on a perfect read of a slant in route and good support against the run. But bringing the whole operation down multiple levels was the one and only Chung, who is as helpless as ever. Don't be fooled by his two interceptions; both were right place at the right time situations and on the first, when he tried to weave his way up field from seven yards deep in the end zone instead of taking a knee or just knocking the pass down, he risked a turnover with his hot dogging. Chung still doesn't know how to play the ball as evidenced by how badly he bit on a first half play fake that led to a long completion. He still is incapable of taking the proper angle on a receiver when closing in, which cost the Pats 36 yards on a simple in cut pass to Jordan Shipley. And his helmet-to-helmet hit on Cecil Shorts in the fourth quarter that drew five, count 'em, five flags, was just plain stupidity. Chung fell out of the rotation at safety after his annual four-week injury earlier in the year but with all the injuries back there he's been forced to play more regularly the past couple of weeks and he has been positively Meriweather-esque. The sooner he's back playing the dime role as the sixth DB the better. His addition to the list of first or second round draft choices in the secondary to be jettisoned can't come soon enough.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 3
A much better game for the special teams after last week's fiasco. The highlight was Stephen Gostkowski's 49-yard field goal, which he drilled without looking at all like he lacked any confidence. Welker had a nice punt return and while it's a bit painful to watch him have to do that given how beat up he is, there probably isn't anyone better suited to do it at this point. And Matthew Slater returned a kickoff 20 yards which is better than most everything else that Pats have gotten from that spot.
As for the coaching, though it was fairly predictable that the Pats would have a hard time getting up for this one, their lethargy nearly costing them the game by allowing it to come down to the final snap is at least in part on the coaches. Belichick noted that the Jags came out doing some things offensively that the Pats hadn't seen on film and to their credit, they adjusted. But they really didn't adjust enough consistently which is why the Jags were able to stay close all afternoon. Offensively, the Pats never really were in rhythm and while you can blame injuries in part for that, the approach could have been better. Ridley was getting what he wanted on the ground but he only carried the ball 18 times. On a day the passing game wasn't as sharp as it normally is, the circumstances screamed for more of an emphasis on the run.
The letdown from the previous two games that was so apparent on the parts of the players may have affected the coaches as well. Going from two primetime home games against a pair of Super Bowl contenders to a road game against a 2-12 team can't be easy to prepare properly for and it really showed. Coaches have down weeks just like players. Luckily for the Pats, they were still able to emerge from this down week with a victory.