Patriots Midseason Report Card for Every Positional Unit
This game perfectly fell in line with the rest of New England's season, essentially qualifying as their latest head-scratcher in a long consecutive string of puzzling performances.
It's frustrating that New England's woes don't seem to be minimized or maximized by any particular opponent, good or bad. The Patriots seem genuinely stifled by themselves, by their own limitations and their own confusion, tormented by a lack of identity which has stripped them of any genuine blueprint for success.
They'll spend the second half of the season trying to get that blueprint back on track.
But for now, any way you slice it, the Patriots are 4-3. That's far from where they want to be.
Here are midseason report cards for every positional unit on the Patriots.
Last year, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez owned the Patriots' season. In fact, they owned the entire NFL season across the board, sharing ownership stock with Victor Cruz, Jimmy Graham, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Arian Foster.
But this year, New England's tight ends don't own anything.
That lack of ownership has hurt their game.
Right now, they're not dominating. Injuries, coupled with Gronkowski's coordination issues as a receiver, are dooming the duo's effect as a monstrous one-two punch.
What we saw last season is what we need to have and what we will have again.
But, we don't have it right now.
Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have 113 tackles between them. For seven straight games, they've unleashed total havoc and mayhem, establishing themselves as diamonds of the most brilliant cut.
Simply put, Mayo and Spikes are the best in the business. They leave their fingerprints on football games and make big plays which influence the outcomes.
Spikes, especially, has emerged as a critical player in crunch time. He's already forced three crucial fumbles this season. Also, he's arguably the hardest hitter in the league. Gotta love that.
Dont'a Hightower put together a nice game on Sunday with a few brutal hits of his own. If he can build on that by bulking up his field presence and laying down the gauntlet on a more consistent basis, this linebacker crew will be just fine.
The Patriots have five wide receivers on their roster. As of now, it's tough to envision any of them making "the helmet catch" or "the Mario Manningham catch."
The Giants have six wide receivers. Four of them could conceivably make that big catch.
In a potential Super Bowl rematch, this single difference could potentially swing the game (again).
Really, though, this will be an issue for the Patriots against any strong NFC team, not just the Giants. The Patriots must be able to make that championship catch.
Brandon Lloyd might end up being that guy. But as of now, all proof is to the contrary.
Tom Brady forces the ball to Brandon Lloyd on a regular basis. Sometimes, those throws are overthrown, sometimes they're underthrown, other times they're right-on-the-money but not caught. One of these guys is always at fault in seemingly huge ways. Could be a simple matter of nailing the timing. We'll see.
Wes Welker keeps up the overall grade here but not high enough.
New England's special teams got a major boost on Sunday. Devin McCourty returned a 104-yard kick for a score, Zoltan Mesko had a big day with four punts inside the 20 and Stephen Gostkowski nailed two pressure-packed field goals to help propel the Patriots to a crucial divisional victory.
McCourty's return touchdown was beautiful, but his return fumble was critically ill-timed and almost damaging to the point of defeat.
Gostkowski came through in the clutch but not before causing some trepidation in the hearts and minds of Patriots fans everywhere.
After three missed field goals this season (one of which was a potential game winner), there's been a shift in the perception of Gostkowski's prowess. Even the most unflappable fan out there must have done a little cringing before those kicks sailed through the uprights.
Bill Belichick and Ivan Fears have done a remarkable job of balancing the temperament of a young and competitive running back unit which easily could've spiraled out of control.
They've done the right thing by establishing Stevan Ridley as the No. 1 back, bringing his strength to the forefront of his game and guiding his profound evolution.
They've done a terrific job of using Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen in very cunning ways, crafting them into unique backs with unique skill sets.
Most impressively, they've done a great job in finding Danny Woodhead's niche as a late-option back with a peculiar specialty for pressure-packed situations.
Overall, great balance and great mastery of a talented group.
Against a mediocre team, these defensive backs will bend and probably break.
Against a good team, they'll definitely break.
That's just how it is. This unit gives up the big play.
There is, however, a silver lining.
While these safeties and cornerbacks have clear limitations, it certainly isn't for lack of trying.
Guys like Alfonzo Dennard, Tavon Wilson, Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty seem to be engaged in the flow of these games, week after week. They're energized and attentive.
They want to be better than they are.
There isn't a lack of heart here; there's just a lack of cohesive skill.
Not a great silver lining but it's tough to be overly critical of guys who are doing their best.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are owning New England's season. They have nine sacks between them. These are head's-up players who make big-time plays and win games.
Vince Wilfork continues to be the Tim Duncan of football, so consistent at such a high level, he makes exceptional genius seem mundane and routine.
I'd love to see Jermaine Cunningham capitalize on his performance last Sunday and increase his field presence throughout the second half of the season. He has the potential to be a hero down the road.
Overall, a tremendous group of guys.
The real story here is Nate Solder.
His evolution hasn't been tremendous, but it's been good enough to warrant a boost in the unit's overall grade. That's enough to take the offensive line woes off everyone's mind (at least, for now).
Solder is blocking at a high level and busting his butt to protect Tom Brady. The fruits of his labor are really showing.
This offensive line is far from elite, but they're overachieving and standing their ground. Brady doesn't have elite bodyguards, but he has some proud ones.
When someone stole Tom Brady's lunch money, he always made them pay it back with interest.
But now, that mentality feels like it's been replaced with a "whatever will be, will be" approach to the game. When he loses, there's a melancholy, "c'est la vie" reaction on his face.
Sometimes they steal your lunch money, sometimes they don't. That feels like the new mantra.
But, it's worse than that.
Even when Brady wins, he gets bogged down in fulfilling the rigors of the Patriot Way. He's always on his best behavior, always too quiet, always non-revealing, always a bit solemn, always a blank slate.
These elements add up to create the image of a guy who is vulnerable and beatable. His enemies use these perceptions to gain a psychological advantage over him, ridding them of fear and boosting their confidence.
But why should these perceptions exist at all? Brady made his reputation as a bloodthirsty winner who controlled his own destiny with an iron fist. Sure, he's older and wiser now, but I refuse to believe that his mean steak has been totally stamped out by the wisdom that age brings.
Brady is the only guy in history who can be mentioned in the same breath as Joe Montana. This man doesn't inspire confidence in his enemies; he inspires fear. This is the true reputation which should define Brady.
But this reputation has been taken from him.
He'll only win it back with force, not with diplomacy.
Right now, it feels like victories can be wrestled away from Brady. He needs to change that perception.
He already dipped his body in the fountain of youth. Now, he needs to dip his mean streak in it.