First things first.
The replacement officials were not the reason why the Patriots lost 31-30 to the Baltimore Ravens, as wretched as they were. They were not the reason why the Pats offense, so dynamic for three-plus quarters, failed to close out the game twice in the final quarter. They were not the reason the Pats defense went into a time warp back to the past three seasons, allowing the Ravens to gain over 500 yards (482 in the final three quarters) and make a middling QB like Joe Flacco look like Dan Marino while not making a single play all night after Steve Gregory's early first quarter interception.
If you want to say that the replacement officials, as over matched, clueless and downright awful as they were, were at least in part complicit in the game's outcome, or blame the NFL for damaging the credibility and integrity of the game by allowing these guys out there, that's your prerogative. Twenty-four penalty flags for over 200 yards and an NFL record 14 penalties that resulted in first downs is pretty damning evidence. The Patriots were victimized by a number of these calls, a few of which wiped out third down stops or other impact defensive plays.
But neither the calls, the commissioner, nor the scab refs themselves, were why the Pats lost. They lost because they did not make enough plays on either side of the ball, particularly when the outcome was in the balance. And that is something worth worrying about, not a bunch of unqualified high school and college officials who shouldn't even be out there in the first place.
So with that, let's get into this week's report card.
The brightest spot of the game for the Pats, Tom Brady was as good, as precise and as effective as he's been in any game since last year's playoff win over the Broncos. Brady completed 28-of-41 passes for 335 yards and a TD, good for a passer rating of 101.2. The offense, which was stymied last week against Arizona as it tried to adjust to the Aaron Hernandez injury on the fly, looked more like what it was back in the mid to late aughts, with three or more receivers out there pretty much all game long and Brady in the shotgun, surveying then dissecting the defense. His direction of the Pats' scoring drive to close out the first half (nine plays, 81 yards, 1:45) was masterful. The Ravens gave Brady a lot of room to find pass catchers in the middle of the field and he took advantage of those zone looks, completing throws to eight different receivers. And when he was faced with a legit pass rush, he recognized it and escaped it almost every time. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get away from pressure on the Pats' last two offensive plays of the game, as big an example of bad timing as there is. But by and large, he was in complete control all night and his play not only warranted a win but should have resulted in one as well.
Running Backs: 2.5
Can you blame Danny Woodhead for gaining 34 yards on 15 carries? Again, 15 carries? Yes and no. It's not Woodhead's fault that his number was called about 10 times too many, or that a handful of those carries were runs more suited to a big, power back than the smallest guy on the team. He did score a TD on a three-yard burst in the third quarter which was one of those power type sets and was expertly blocked by a pulling Logan Mankins, and a healthy Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer. And his higher than normal snap count was undoubtedly a byproduct of the Pats game plan to play up tempo for most of the night. But when Danny Woodhead, as nice and tough a player as he is, is your leading ball carrier, something is not quite right. As for Stevan Ridley, whose carries and yards have decreased in a big way from Week 1 to Week 3, he broke a 14-yarder in the first half, and gained 23 yards on his other 12 attempts. Ridley also gave way to Brandon Bolden on a goal line play and while Bolden scored on it, it was tough to understand why Ridley wasn't out there for two short yardage, goal line sets. Overall, the Pats ran the ball 34 times and gained 77 yards, an average of 2.3 yards per attempt. Not good.
Wide Receivers: 4
Wes Welker played more snaps than any other Pats receiver and naturally delivered, catching eight passes for 145 yards. Brady found him for 59 yards early in the game and it set the tone for Brady finding a real, consistent rhythm in the passing game. Coincidence? Probably not. The real question is whether Josh McDaniels will stay with what was clearly working. The reason for that question is that in the first half, the ball was sent in Julian Edelman's direction with such frequency, it almost felt like McDaniels was trying to have Brady force the ball to him again and again just to justify all of his increased playing time. Edelman made a nice catch on his TD and is a decent, capable receiver. But he also should have caught another score and looked like an idiot when he was barking at Ravens corner Cary Williams on a play which resulted in an offensive pass interference flag (the fact that it was a bogus call or that a couple snaps later, Williams literally slapped Edelman in the face twice right in front of an official and wasn't flagged for it is entirely another discussion). Brandon Lloyd had his best game as a Patriot (nine catches, 108 yards) although his inability to gain any yards after the catch is a bit alarming. And Deion Branch returned to catch two passes for 11 yards and get absolutely crushed on both of them. Welcome back, Deion!
Tight Ends: 2.5
Where's Gronk? Could Hernandez's absence have affected how many times Gronk gets targeted? Is he just being well covered? Did McDaniels outsmart himself by choosing to feature Edelman and Lloyd that much more than a guy who was in the argument for Offensive Player of the Year last season? Or is he needed more in pass protection given the team's move to more multiple receiver sets? Whatever the reason, Gronk played every snap against the Ravens, was targeted just three times, caught two passes for 21 yards and had another costly holding penalty. It stands to reason that Gronk will have his fair share of big games as the season progresses. Still, it was somewhat startling to see him basically used as a decoy. Kellen Winslow made his Pats debut, played four snaps, had a brutal drop and caught one pass for 12 yards. And let's hear it for Michael Hoomanawanui. He caught a four yard pass that set up the Pats first TD. And writers everywhere sighed that they'd have to type out his name.
Offensive Line: 4
Was going to be a perfect 5 until the Pats last two offensive plays, when whatever was working so so well for over 56 minutes completely broke down and Brady was sacked then had to practically throw the ball away to avoid getting dropped again. Losing whatever advantage you had just in time for the two most important snaps of the game is pretty costly, don't you think? Anyway, up to that point, this group was almost perfect. Nate Solder played his best game as a left tackle and Dan Connolly came back from his concussion to not only solidify the right side of the line but keep the over matched Donald Thomas out of harm's way. Logan Mankins, questionable until game time with a hip problem, was a beast and Sebastian Vollmer looked as healthy and spry as he has in a couple years. The Ravens defense isn't what it used to be, especially against the pass (Ray Lewis, in particular, looks like an old, slow, should be retiree). But give the line credit for continuing to improve and posting its best all-around performance of the year.
Defensive Line: 1.5
You're forgiven if you don't remember the Ravens first three possessions of the game, which resulted in seven plays, 12 yards and a turnover. Because just when it looked like the Pats had forced another third three-and-out, Jerod Mayo was called for a phantom pass interference penalty two yards off the line of scrimmage, the Ravens were given their first first down and it was off to the races with those first three possessions feeling like they'd occurred in another century. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, who controlled the line on those first three series, were suddenly rendered rag dolls. Substitutes Ron Brace and Marcus Fortson were dominated at the point of attack. And the D-line, which had led the charge for one of the league's best run defenses over the first two weeks of the season, wound up shredded for the remainder of the game. The Pats had one tackle for a loss in the entire game. That's one, o-n-e. And the pass rush, led so prominently by Chandler Jones in Weeks 1 and 2, completely disappeared too. Flacco wasn't sacked or hit a single time. Not once. That's no sacks, no QB hits, no pressure, one tackle for a loss. The Ravens ran the ball 26 times for 121 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt. That, fans, is horrendous.
Beyond the requisite, empty tackle numbers for Jerod Mayo and one semi-nice read and play by Dont'a Hightower, there's nothing positive to point at for this group. Every member of the Pats defense should be ashamed of itself for the unit's overall performance but the linebackers were wiped out all night. Ray Rice averaging over five yards per attempt is mostly on the D-line but Brandon Spikes and Hightower have to be more visible and make more plays. Spikes was nowhere all night and if he hadn't been called for a non-hold on what should have been the Pats only sack of the game late in the fourth quarter or tweeted his disapproval of the replacement refs after the game, his name wouldn't have been heard at all. Rice also caught five passes for 49 yards and that's on the linebackers all the way around. This group made exactly zero positive impact on the game.
Defensive Backs: 1
The grading in this space is on a scale of 1-5 but there's a lot of temptation to give the Pats secondary a zero. Steve Gregory did have that early pick which almost went for a TD, but his pathetic attempt to tackle Ravens' tight end Dennis Pitta's cleats on Pitta's second quarter score cancels the INT out. Bear in mind that in addition to being scorched in coverage all night, the Pats also dropped or missed three interceptions, one of which required Kyle Arrington to simply not fall down. But instead, he tripped over the 15-yard line and the lollipop thrown by Flacco fell harmlessly to the turf. Arrington played pretty badly aside from that mistake, getting beaten routinely, including on one of Ravens receiver Torrey Smith's two TDs. But it was Devin McCourty who should wear the goat horns for this group for the mere fact that he was the worst of them all. McCourty looked better through the first two weeks after his miserable 2011. But Sunday night was a terrible regression for him and that includes a decent first three quarters. It would be a waste to recap all of McCourty's awful plays from this game. Just know that he was being targeted in the fourth quarter and he wilted. Getting beaten by three steps right off the line of scrimmage is bad enough. Having two potential interceptions clang off your stone hands is as well. And the bullfighter defense he showed in waving one arm at Pitta while trying to get out of the way on that second quarter score was inexcusable. But watching McCourty flail and tie himself in knots trying to play balls in the air is sad. Not only did he look like a lousy cover man, he displayed no ball skills either. And he's your top corner. His interference penalty on Baltimore's winning drive (one of the only calls all night that was legit) was actually a decent play; he was beaten so badly by Jacoby Jones (a career no. 3 or 4 receiver, by the way) that if he didn't practically tackle Jones, the play would have resulted in a sure TD. Every member of the Pats secondary needs to get a lot better in a real hurry. As has been the case more often than not in the past year-plus, you can put Devin McCourty at the top of that list.
Coaching/Special Teams/Intangibles: 2.5
Nothing noteworthy from the special teams. Stephen Gostkowski bounced back nicely from his Week 2 nightmare with three field goals, one a 49-yarder. And our man Zoltan Mesko looked more like himself with a solid 43 yard average on his punts. After such a bad day for these guys against Arizona, Sunday night represented a pretty good comeback. As far as the coaching is concerned, there's some things to be pleased with and some others that are real head-scratchers. The game plan on offense worked wonders. The Pats played fast, with three and four receivers spread out all night and tried to run the Ravens off the field. When McDaniels wasn't busy calling direct snap double reverses or trying to force Edelman and Woodhead into the action, the Pats carved up the Baltimore D, taking advantage of its age and lack of team speed.
But again, the play calling came into question, this time in the fourth quarter. With first and goal from the 4 early in the fourth, two runs netted negative four yards and the third down dump off to Welker wasn't designed to go to the end zone. A TD there would have made it a 13-point lead, instead the Pats seemed content to come away with a field goal. And then, with a first down at the Baltimore 45 and 18 seconds from the two-minute warning, the Pats couldn't even get to that official timeout without having to punt. A one-yard run, a sack and an incompletion gave the Ravens the ball with two minutes left and having used only one timeout. How that can happen to any team let alone one that prides itself so strongly on situational football like the Pats is astonishing.
Add to that the decision on defense to rush just three or four on every play, get absolutely no pressure and see your pass defense completely destroyed all night yet never once adjust to those circumstances or do anything visibly different and you have to wonder what in the world was going on. Bill Belichick, who has never seemed as consistently angry on the sideline as he was all night (and most of that was due to the scabs), always preaches that every decision made is what he thinks is best for the team, looked stubborn. Sure, the players are to blame more than anyone for not being able to make any plays. But they were put in a position on defense in which they could barely compete and not once did it appear that anything was done to change that. This was a great game played by two top level teams nearly hijacked by the replacement officials. But if the Patriots get out of their own way on either side of the ball at a some key junctures, they're not under .500 for the first time since Week 2 of 2003.