Anyone else still thrilled about the New England Patriots' last-second 30-27 victory against the New Orleans Saints? Yeah, me too. It's been two days and I still can't get over what a day Sunday was. However, despite the late game heroics by Tom Brady, you could argue that the Patriots never should've needed that final drive to win the game. The offense collapsed in the second half and the defense had a hard time containing the Saints four-headed monster at running back, yet they somehow came away with the win. There is a lot to like, but also some reason for concern going forward.
At halftime I thought Tom Brady was on his way to an incredible day. I was right...sort of. It took until there was less than a minute left in the game for him to meet my expectations. At half, Brady was 16-of-22 passing for an efficient 163 yards, as the Patriots led by 10 points. But up until the last 1:13 of the second half, Brady was terrible. Before then he was 4-of-14 and missed a lot of easy throws, including an overthrow to a wide open Danny Amendola on a play that would've went for a long 74 yard touchdown. On one of the Pats' final drives, he threw an interception straight into double coverage on a pass intended for Julian Edelman. Many fans left the game after that (shame on you) because they thought it was over, but oh, no, Tom Brady was only setting up one of his most thrilling comebacks in recent years. With 1:13 left on the clock and no timeouts, Brady led the offense down the field for one of the craziest wins of the season. On the game winning drive Brady was 5-of-7 for 70 yards and a touchdown. For performing exceptionally when it mattered most, Brady salvaged a lackluster second half, but he still only gets a B overall because it would've preferable to not be in that position in the first place.
Running Backs: B+
Stevan Ridley ran like a man that wants his starting job back. He carried the ball 20 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and even caught one pass for 14 yards. Ridley has had a frustrating season after being benched in week one and sustaining a knee injury two weeks ago, but he most certainly won his job back with this performance against the Saints. I believe Brandon Bolden was inconsistent in pass protection, though I would need to watch the film to know for sure. Bolden also had a horrible drop on a huge third down late in the fourth quarter. However, he ran fairly well, accumulating 19 yards on five carries. On the other hand, LeGarrette Blount struggled, rushing for a measly nine yards on seven carries. But it's worth pointing out that Blount got no run blocking on a few occasions. I won't be surprised if he plays even less in the coming weeks, which will only help the Patriots considering Ridley's emergence. Thanks to Ridley, the backs played very well on Sunday.
Wide Receivers: B-
Despite six drops from the wide receivers, I thought they actually played a solid game. Aaron Dobson was on the field for a season high 80 snaps and had an up-and-down game. Dobson caught six balls for 63 yards but would've had even more yards had it not been for an iffy offensive pass interference call. He also had a crucial drop on a fourth down play late in the game. How does he seem to catch the hard passes but not the easy ones? Fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins caught the game winning touchdown pass in the corner in the end zone, displaying good awareness by taking four steps to assure he was inbounds. Thompkins has improved each and every week and appears to be curving upwards, despite receiving fewer snaps against the Saints. It's a shame that Danny Amendola suffered a concussion, but the Patriots are fortunate to have Julian Edelman and Austin Collie behind him. Edelman was targeted 11 times and reeled in five catches for 57 yards, but it was Collie who came up on the Patriots' game winning drive. He caught two balls for 24 yards, including a fourth down conversion. I hate to drop this grade to a B-, but six drops can't be ignored. These guys can still get better, so a higher grade would be too generous.
Tight Ends: C+
Michael Hoomanawanui looked very good to start the game, catching four passes for 57 yards, but I believe it was only a product of how the defense was playing him. HooMan was wide open on each of those receptions, as if they decided that the Patriots would ignore their tight end after it was announced Rob Gronkowski was gone missing. Again. Unfortunately, HooMan was a non-factor late in the game. The Saints were able to generate a consistent pass rush even if the Patriots kept tight ends blocking on the line, so they get a significant down grade for that. The run blocking was quite good from Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, and James Develin, which prevents the grade from suffering too much.
Offensive Line: C-
It's unusual to see Tom Brady under pressure like he was against the Saints. The Patriots were unable to stop the blitz anytime the Saints sent one; they had ten hits, five knockdowns, and four sacks. Marcus Cannon appeared to struggle after replacing the injured Dan Connolly. Early in the second quarter, the Saints sent seven blitzers and Cannon whiffed on his block, allowing linebacker Curtin Lofton a free lane to sack Brady. Overall, it appeared that the line wasn't fully prepared for the creative blitz packages that the Saints sent. On the other hand, the line actually did quite a good job run blocking, which is the only thing that prevents this grade from being an F. They must step up in the coming weeks as they face two teams with strong pass rushes in the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
Defensive Line: C
The loss of Vince Wilfork has clearly created some problems for the Patriots and the Saints managed to exploit that on Sunday, as they ran all over the Pats for 131 yards on 26 carries. Whether it was inside or outside, the Patriots had a hard time generating a push up front to contain them. On a 20 yard run by rookie Khiry Robinson, the Saints' offensive line destroyed the DL, shoving them to the left side, setting up and easy cutback run. However, I thought the defensive line did an admirable job at snuffing out screens. Rookie Joe Vellano showed he is a highly intelligent player by reading a screen and going out to stop it multiple times. With the pass rush, I am still underwhelmed by the team's ability to consistently create pressure. Chandler Jones got one sack but must bring the pressure more frequently in order to take his game to the next level.
The loss of Vince Wilfork has impacted the linebackers just as much as it has the defensive line. Because of a need to stop the run, Brandon Spikes has been receiving snaps in sub packages over Dont'a Hightower. Put aside one play when Ben Watson beat him up the field for a long gain, I thought Spikes played a strong game. He clearly has improved his pass defense to the point that the Patriots can trust him out there on passing downs. However, Jerod Mayo was given the task of defending Darren Sproles. Outside of a few occasions, I thought he got shredded. Sproles caught six passes for 58 yards, and while Mayo wasn't in man-to-man coverage on two of them, Sproles still had too much room to work with. He's a load to handle, so I can't be too hard on Mayo, and neither should you. Unfortunately he went down with a shoulder injury late in the game and was replaced by a combination of Dane Fletcher and Dont'a Hightower. Much of what was said about the defensive line can be applied here when it comes to the run defense. There was far too much room for the Saints' running backs and it needs to improve soon.
Defensive Backs: A
Does it get any better than what we saw against the Saints? The fact Jimmy Graham was held to no catches on six targets continues to baffle me. Aqib Talib had one of the greatest games that I have seen a cornerback play, and Devin McCourty stepped in and did a wonderful job until Graham left the game with an injury. Don't allow their unbelievable play to detract from the job Alfonzo Dennard did, as he shut down Marques Colston, holding him to only one catch. Sure, he allowed a touchdown to Kenny Stills late in the game, but could he have played that ball any better? I don't think so. Brees threw a perfect pass, so Dennard couldn't have done anything about it. Assuming Talib comes back from his hip injury, the Patriots might have two shutdown corners for the rest of the year, all while being complimented by two good slot corners in Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan.
Special Teams: A-
Stephen Gostkowski had an incredible day, kicking three field goals, including a monstrous 54 yarder. He continues to answer the bell after fans questioned his reliability this offseason. Rookie Ryan Allen once again proved why he won the Ray Guy Award, with four booming punts that averaged 47.5 yards. Surprisingly, it is the return game that drags this grade down. LeGarrette Blount once again was a non-factor as a kick returner. Why can't Leon Washington get healthy? Julian Edelman struggled to find any space, averaging only six yards on three returns. On a trick play intended for Aqib Talib, Nate Ebner missed a block on Will Herring, but Edelman still attempted da lateral to Talib that ended in an 11-yard loss. Edelman clearly should've eaten the ball instead of putting his team at risk. No wonder why Tom Brady said he doesn't understand how Edelman played quarterback in college.
Bill Belichick and his defensive coaching staff put together a perfect game plan to stop the New Orleans Saints. Even though the Saints scored 27 points, I believe that is more a product of their high-powered offense than anything else. Sometimes you can only do so much. The decision to put the 6'1" Talib on the 6'7" Graham was a risky but perfect decision. Offensively, I thought the game plan was solid but not executed very well in the second half. Josh McDaniels finally had the offense play up-tempo in order to counter Rob Ryan's sub packages, but it didn't really work as the Saints still applied plenty of pressure on Tom Brady.
The Honor Roll:
Aqib Talib: Aqib holds Jimmy Graham to no catches. This is the most ecstatic I have been about a Patriots corner's performance since the days of Ty Law. Does anything else need to be said?
Alfonzo Dennard: Fonzie gave up a touchdown late in the game, but it was an absolutely perfect pass. Other than that, he shut down each wide receiver he was covering. He is quickly turning into a shutdown corner.
The Kickers: Are Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen the best kicker/punter combo in the NFL right now? I challenge you to name a better one.
Stevan Ridley: Bounces back after five rough weeks with a great game. Expect more of this for the rest of the year.