We'll see what the Colts can do in the RCA Dome on Sunday. Until then, let's take a look back at the first half of what is shaping up as a season for the ages. We'll ditch the report card for the Redskins game and instead hand out midterm grades.
Any predictions on the score of that Jets game here in December?
Seriously, if the Patriots have the determination and the talent to hang 52 points on a pretty good Redskins defense, what kind of damage might they capable of inflicting on the dastardly Eric Mangini and Gang Green?
After all, it was Mangini's Jets – not on Bill Belichick's Christmas card list to begin with – who sparked the SpyGate investigation after their Week 1 encounter.
The Jets, having absorbed a karmic two-by-four right between the eyes, are a 1-7 laughingstock. Meanwhile, the 8-0 Patriots – armed with self-righteous indignation to go along with their jaw-dropping talent – have gone all “Reservoir Dogs” on the rest of the NFL in a fit of a how-dare-you-slander-us rage.
With 331 points (including 30 touchdown passes from Tom Brady), the Patriots are halfway to obliterating the NFL record books. Asked how he would feel if he was on the other side of some of these beat-downs – 52-7 over the Redskins, 49-28 over the Dolphins, 48-27 over the Cowboys (and that's just over the last three weeks) - safety Rodney Harrison said he would be “pretty ticked off.”
We'll assume that opposing defenses are similarly miffed. But can they fight back? Or will the Patriots simply carve a path of destruction all the way through Super Bowl XLII?
Belichick – already despised nationally for a long litany of offenses, including his snub of Mangini last year, his sore-loser routine after the AFC championship game, the videotaping scandal, and the inevitable backlash that comes with winning – now has “running up the score” scrawled on his “Wanted” poster.
He doesn't care and neither do the Patriots, who seem determined to not let up for a single second as they chase the NFL's Holy Grail of 19-0.
Good for them. Bad for anybody charged with stopping them.
We'll see what the Colts can do in the RCA Dome on Sunday. Until then, let's take a look back at the first half of what is shaping up as a season for the ages. We'll ditch the report card for the Redskins game and instead hand out midterm grades:
You know all the gaudy stats. Here are two more that stand out to us. First, Brady is the league's third-rated passer on third down, completing 65.5 percent of his passes with a league-high nine TDs. For all his good work from 2004-06, he never finished higher than 13th in third-down rating in those seasons, which shows you how much the additions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker have elevated his game. Second, with all this gunslinging, he has been remarkably mistake free – only two interceptions. Remember, he's been good for either 12 or 14 picks a year as a starter.
The Pats are a pass-first team – with good reason – but they still are on pace to rush for more than 2,000 yards for just the second time since 1988. Despite losing Laurence Maroney (groin) and Sammy Morris (chest) to injuries, the Pats have rushed for 100-plus yards in six of eight games. Maroney (358 yards, 4.8-yard average for the season) showed some giddy-up in extended work against Washington, although the team still doesn't trust him down near the goal line. Even with all the new toys, third-down back Kevin Faulk rightfully remains a Brady favorite.
Is this the greatest offseason upgrade in NFL history? Moss (on pace to tie Jerry Rice's 1987 league record of 22 TD catches) and Welker (on pace to catch 112 passes and break Troy Brown's 2001 franchise record of 101) have been godsends for Brady. Just don't forget about the third newcomer – Donte' Stallworth, who has shown terrific run-after-the-catch ability. After seeing only eight snaps in Week 1, he's become a fixture as the Pats have moved to more three-receiver looks. Injuries at tight end have been a factor in that shift, but having Stallworth on the field is never a bad idea. Getting tight end Benjamin Watson (ankle) back on the field is a priority; he was having a marvelous season.
The Patriots have had their starting O-line intact for only four games thanks to now-healed injuries to Dan Koppen (ankle) and Stephen Neal (shoulder). Yet they are averaging 4.2 yards per carry (it would be their highest since 1984, if it holds) and have allowed just eight sacks. Left guard Logan Mankins should be a perennial Pro Bowler if anyone's paying attention, and left tackle Matt Light has blunted such stud pass-rushers as Miami's Jason Taylor and Buffalo's Aaron Schobel. Richard Seymour on Sunday called the offensive line the “best-coached group probably in football with Dante (Scarnecchia).” Who are we to argue?
This group started out very strong but dipped a little after Week 3 as Seymour's absence appeared to take its toll. Now he's back, and so is the depth at end with Jarvis Green and Mike Wright backing up Seymour and Ty Warren. Speaking of Warren, he played at a Pro Bowl level last year but was snubbed. He hasn't made nearly as many look-at-me plays this season – he won't get near his career-best tackle total (117) of 2006. Let's see if Seymour's presence gets him going. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork has trimmed down and played very well at times, although he seemed to abandon his two-gap responsibilities against Miami.
Keep your fingers crossed that Junior Seau stays healthy for the first time since 2003. Being able to use him in a three-man inside rotation with Tedy Bruschi and free agent Adalius Thomas has benefited the whole unit, especially Mike Vrabel, who has been unleashed again (7.5 sacks) on the perimeter. Rosevelt Colvin has had some tackling issues – everybody has at times – but any flaws have been balanced out by gobs of big plays. The linebackers have combined for 12 sacks, six forced fumbles and five INTs (three by Seau). Now, if Thomas can cover Colts tight end Dallas Clark on Sunday they'll be all set.
This group has been very steady week to week. The Pats already have allowed as many TD passes (10) as they did all of last season, but when opponents are desperately chasing points that's bound to happen. Safety Eugene Wilson (ankle) is hurt again; luckily they have his replacement/successor handy in James Sanders, who wins the Most Improved Player Award. Harrison seems to be rounding into ornery form after his NFL suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Stiff-arms have given Ellis Hobbs some trouble, and he's had a few lapses in coverage but generally he's played well opposite Asante Samuel, who has been worth the franchise tender. No need for Brown (still on PUP) to suit up as a DB this year.
A poor showing in Week 2 doesn't detract from the overall picture. In the seven other games, special teams have been a win for the Patriots or, at worst, a draw. Stephen Gostkowski has attempted 43 PATs, more than Adam Vinatieri had in the 2001 or 2003 Super Bowl seasons, and is consistently booming his kickoffs. The kickoff-return unit (2 TDs) is the best in the league. The punt-return, punt-coverage and kickoff-coverage groups all are ranked in the top 12 despite injuries that have taken away core special teamers Morris, Mel Mitchell, Eric Alexander and David Thomas, among others. Even seldom-used punter Chris Hanson (36.6-yard net average) has come on lately.
The danger in keeping your foot on the proverbial pedal until late in the fourth quarter of a blowout is that you risk exposing Brady to a vengeful defender or a fluke injury. Other than that, there's nothing to complain about. Belichick and his staff have pushed all the right buttons and maximized a very talented roster. There's no better illustration of how well the coaching staff prepares the players than the Pats' overwhelming edge (79-7) in first-quarter scoring. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels helped nudge last year's receiving corps to respectability, and he's in heaven with this group. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees' quality of life improves with Seymour back in the lineup.
-- The Patriot Ledger