New England Patriots: Path To The Top: 2014 Final Report Card
If we were grading the New England Patriots after four weeks, it would be very low. We could have used the word "abyssmal". There wasn't much going on that was indicative of a dynasty or a championship team.
Bill Bellichick and Tom Brady looked surprisingly mortal and the whole team lacked energy. But there were a few pieces missing that contributed to that appearance.
Rob Gronkowski was still knocking the rust off from a long recovery stretching back to 2012. Brandon Browner (acquired in the offseason to bolster a weak secondary) and Brian Tyms were serving suspensons for substance abuse violations. Alphonzo Dennard battling injuries, a new O-line coach, Vince Wilfork coming backfrom a major injury... the list was long.
Week five came like a breath of fresh air, or maybe a whirlwind. Things suddenly clicked; perhaps a disturbing loss to the Chiefs woke the beast. The remainder of the season would be like the difference between night and day.
Here is a quick report card on the team for 2014:
Tom Brady had to establish his receiving corps. Once that was nailed-down, he has been a straight A. At 37 years young, he is still the All-Pro who won three Super Bowls in four years.
The backfield took a huge hit when Stevan Ridley got injured, but Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have done well in his stead. This unit won't be mistaken for an unstoppable force, but grades out at a decent C.
Brady has a very good receiving corps. Including Rob Gronkowski, it is a case of pick your poison. The pretenders have been weeded-out and the stars have taken over. Their diversity and productivity earns an A.
The O-line performed well down the stretch, but started and finished the season with major struggles. Yet they only surrendered 21 sacks, the lowest total on Brady since 2009. But Brady got hit a lot more than that stat reveals and opening holes for the running backs wasn't a strong point; I give them a B-.
Overall, this unit was not spectacular. The defense ranked 13th in yards allowed, but eighth in points. However, Revis Island was mostly a no-fly zone, and this unit helped to make a +12 turnover ratio possible. Their 16 INTs, the most notable by Vince Wilfork, was very opportunistic. Devin McCourty has come into his own, as well. They set the tone for the Patriots and shut-down the opposition when push came to shove.
Special Teams: B
Considering that the return game wasn't explosive, and the punting wasn't spectacular, this might seem a little high. But look at what this team was able to do. Blocked field goals was huge; Chris Jones, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Air Wilfork? Yeah, these guys made an enormous difference. And of course, Stephen Gostkowski was the league-leader in points and ranked second in field goal percentage. He also kicked a lot of touchbacks.
I have to add that I admit to being critical of the coaching staff a times, especially Josh McDaniels and the play-calling. I still have my reservations about McDaniels' decisions and vanilla attitude. Seeing Julian Edelman finally throw a pass in the NFL did my heart good, but I would have liked to see more of that during the season.
Bringing in Revis and Browner and having Blount fall back into their laps was genius, and finding Tim Wright, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, and Alan Branch mid-season reaped immediate results. It's hard to complain when they have assembled the talent we see on the field week in and week out despite some relative failure in drafting in recent years.
All of this means that the Patriots weren't the high-octane 2007 version that pooped in the big game. This team is well-balanced and has something that doesn't show-up on stat sheets. They may not look like champions, but here they are- back in the AFC Championship game with a chance for Lombardi 4.0 on the line.