It’s hard to believe that the New England Patriots were at a 3-3 record and in a four-way tie for the AFC East at one point this season. That’s because the Patriots have won all seven of their games since, and established themselves as the conference’s team to beat on Monday night with a 42-14 shellacking of the Houston Texans.
This was the Patriots’ most impressive performance of the season: Against a team that came into the game with the NFL’s best record, the Patriots looked like the far superior team, and looked like the many Patriots teams in recent years who have turned strong Decembers into Super Bowl runs.
The Patriots dominated in every facet of the game, and there’s very few players who Patriots fans should be disappointed with from the game. That said, every Patriots player of significance in the game has to get a grade when it’s all said and done, and that’s what we did with the following slides.
Tom Brady: B+
Tom Brady wasn’t always at his best in this game, but he certainly made some big plays on Monday night. Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns, including deep passes of 63 and 37 yards, to lead the Patriots to a blowout victory.
Many of Brady’s big plays were wide-open throws, wide receiver Donte Stallworth did the bulk of the work on the 63-yard touchdown, he missed some short passes, and completed just 60 percent of his passes, all of which keep his grade from being as high as one might expect in a dominant performance for the Patriots’ offense.
Overall though, Brady didn’t make any bad mistakes, did a great job orchestrating the Patriots’ offense and continued to make a case for himself to be NFL MVP.
Ryan Mallett: D
Ryan Mallett came in at quarterback for the Patriots’ final two series, and threw just one pass. That one pass was an interception.
The pass was certainly catchable for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, but Mallett made an aggressive and unnecessary decision to try to thread the ball into tight coverage, leading to the interception. If the Patriots ever need to call on Mallett to play in meaningful action, he will need to display better decision-making on his throws.
Stevan Ridley: C+
Stevan Ridley made a rare mistake on Monday night. For only the third time this season, Ridley fumbled a ball, and this one was nearly very costly, as it occurred just four yards out of the end zone.
Fortunately for Ridley, his fumble was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez, and the Patriots scored on the next play. Still, the nearly-costly mistake hurts Ridley’s grade.
Ridley was solid the rest of the way, carrying the ball 18 times for 72 yards, including six carries for 39 yards and a touchdown on the Patriots’ final scoring drive of the game. He wasn’t spectacular though, and needs to be more careful with ball security in goal-to-go situations.
Shane Vereen: B+
When the Patriots turned to Shane Vereen to carry the ball in this game, he looked good. Vereen did a great job of using his vision and moving his feet to find holes in between the tackles, and sprung some solid gains as a result.
Overall, Vereen gained 40 yards on eight carries, and was a reliable source of yardage once the power-running game got going in the second half.
Danny Woodhead: C+
Like Ridley, Danny Woodhead also fumbled in this game, but he got even more lucky than Ridley. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt made a great play to chase Woodhead down and strip the ball from behind, but the ball ended up rolling all the way into the end zone for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to fall on the ball for a Patriots touchdown.
Woodhead certainly doesn’t get credit for the touchdown, but that fumble did come at the end of one two productive receiving plays that gave him 34 yards through the air for the game. Woodhead only carried the ball once for four yards.
Brandon Bolden: N/A
In his first game back from a four-game suspension, Brandon Bolden only got on the field in garbage time when Ryan Mallett came in at quarterback.
Bolden gained 11 yards on two carries, and had another 15-yard run called back by a holding penalty, but those yards came against backups. Overall, there wasn’t any meaningful sample size to give Bolden a true grade.
Brandon Lloyd: A
Patriots fans have been waiting all year for Brandon Lloyd to become a big-play receiver in the passing game. That finally happened on Monday night, highlighted when Lloyd beat safety coverage on a 37-yard deep post over the middle for a touchdown.
Lloyd was the Patriots’ leading receiver in the game with seven receptions for 89 yards, continuing to be a reliable target in short and intermediate passing while also making some big plays downfield. Lloyd has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but he stepped up under the bright lights on Monday.
Donte Stallworth: A
There was little reason to set any considerable expectations for Donte Stallworth’s season debut on Monday night. Stallworth had previously been cut by the Patriots in the preseason, and having not been picked up anyone, it seemed signing him was a move out of sheer desperation for receiver depth.
But certainly, the Patriots turned to Stallworth for his speed, and he rewarded their faith in his big-play potential on Monday night with the biggest play of the game. On a deep ball from Tom Brady, Stallworth did an outstanding job of tracking the football, making a tough catch, then pushing through a tackle attempt by Brandon Harris and outrunning Quintin Demps to the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown.
This play wasn’t a matter of misplayed coverage or Brady throwing Stallworth open. This play was a matter of Stallworth making a big play happen, and for that, he may very well have earned himself a spot on the Patriots’ roster for the rest of the season.
Wes Welker: B
It is rare for Tom Brady and Wes Welker to be out of rhythm, but that was certainly the case on Monday night. Out of nine targets, Welker only caught three passes.
Many of those targets were missed throws by Brady, but nonetheless, there were numerous passes that Welker had a chance to catch but did not.
Welker’s subpar game in terms of reliability, however, can be forgiven for some of the big plays he made in this game.
Welker made the big plays to set up the Patriots’ first scoring drive. He took his first punt return of the game 33 yards up the middle to give the Patriots outstanding field position, then later made a beautiful 25-yard leaping grab to set the Patriots up at the 4-yard line. Welker finished the day with 52 receiving yards.
Matt Slater: B
Had it not been for an overthrow by Tom Brady in the first quarter, we may be talking about Matt Slater’s contribution in this game the same way we are about Stallworth’s. On the Patriots’ opening drive, Slater beat coverage on a deep post for what should have been a 34-yard touchdown, but Brady led him too far.
Slater also had one special teams tackle in this game.
Aaron Hernandez: A
After being in and out of the lineup for the majority of the season with a sprained ankle, it looks like tight end Aaron Hernandez is finally fully healthy. Hernandez had a terrific game on Monday night, getting open consistently for a team-high eight receptions for 58 yards.
Two of those receptions were for touchdowns, and one play prior to his first touchdown, Hernandez saved the drive by hustling from one side of the field to the other to dive on and recover what could have been a costly Stevan Ridley fumble inside the 10-yard line.
Hernandez went back to being the Patriots’ most reliable receiving target on Sunday, and made a big impact on a fantastic day for the team’s passing offense.
Michael Hoomanawanui: A-
Michael Hoomanawanui has worked his way up the Patriots’ depth chart this season because of his ability as a run blocker, and he showed why on Monday night.
On multiple occasions, Hoomanawanui did an exceptional job of moving inside from the end of the line to pick up an interior defensive lineman and spring running back Stevan Ridley to a big gain, including a 14-yard run for the Patriots’ final touchdown of the game.
Hoomanawanui did make an impact as a pass-receiver, although he did draw an illegal contact penalty with one streak route. He is on the Patriots’ roster for a reason, and he once again did his role very well on Monday night.
Visanthe Shiancoe: D
A disappointing season for Visanthe Shiancoe continued Monday night. He only played late in the game in garbage time, and on the one occasion he was targeted in this game, Ryan Mallett’s pass went off his hands and into the hands of Texans safety Shiloh Keo for an interception.
Shiancoe has not been of any benefit for the Patriots’ offense yet this season, and his gaffe in this game doesn’t help his chances of continuing to remain on their active roster.
Dan Connolly in pass protection
Nate Solder: B+
The Patriots had some issues with giving up pressure in this game, but considering they were going up against one of the most active defensive fronts in the NFL, that was to be expected. Overall, the Patriots had a solid game giving up only one sack, and left tackle Nate Solder was certainly steady on the left side.
Solder was beaten badly on one occasion by J.J. Watt, which forced an incompletion, but one bad pressure against the NFL’s best defensive end is certainly excused. Other than that, Solder was steady in pass protection, and did a solid job leading the run blocking effort on the left side.
Sebastian Vollmer: C+
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer had a tough day. Considering he took the majority of snaps against Watt, it’s hard to blame him, but he did give up a lot of pressure against Brady.
Vollmer was beaten often by Watt, and also gave up the game’s only sack to Whitney Mercilus. He was also called for a holding penalty in this game which nullified an 18-yard passing play.
Logan Mankins: B+
Left guard Logan Mankins has battled injuries all season, but he returned to the lineup on Monday night and played well. Mankins didn’t give up much interior pass-rush pressure on his side, and although he was not dominant in the power-running game, his play did pick up in that area over the course of the contest.
Ryan Wendell: B
Early in the game, the New England Patriots had a very tough time establishing the ground game up the middle. But as the game wore on, the Patriots started to win the power-running battle, and much of that running came behind center Ryan Wendell.
Wendell was blown up on the play that caused Stevan Ridley’s fumble at the 4-yard line, but he helped guide some big runs in the second half of the game.
Dan Connolly: B
On the right side of the formation, guard Dan Connolly also had to deal with defensive end J.J. Watt in this game. He mostly held his own and kept pressure off the quarterback, with the exception of one pass-rush of a spin move by Watt to hit Brady and force an incompletion.
As was the case for the rest of the interior line, Connolly’s performance picked up as the game wore on and the Patriots began establishing more holes in the ground game. He picked up a holding penalty in garbage time, but he had a very steady overall game.
Chandler Jones swatting a pass
Vince Wilfork: A
While J.J. Watt is the top candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season, the best defensive lineman on the field Monday was Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork has exceptional in the first half, making a great deal of plays that had a big impact on the Patriots’ defensive dominance.
Wilfork was credited with four tackles, but created even more stops than that. On many occasions, Wilfork beat one or two blockers to blow up an Arian Foster running attempt in the backfield. He also batted a pass at the line of scrimmage, and had an outstanding strip sack of Matt Schaub which forced a fumble unrecovered by the Patriots, but still forced a punt.
Wilfork is an absolute difference-maker at his best, and that is what he was at on Monday night.
Chandler Jones: B
In his first game back after missing two games due to an ankle injury, Chandler Jones did not play as many snaps as usual, but made an impact when he was in the game.
Jones swatted down one pass at the line, and helped force a fourth-down incompletion on another occasion by leaping up to force Matt Schaub to throw the ball at an off-axis angle. Jones was not a big difference-maker in the run game on Monday, but used his athleticism to make a couple key plays.
Rob Ninkovich: B+
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich had a terrific game against the run on Monday night. Working often against a very weak right side of the Texans’ offensive line, he took advantage of his matchup, penetrating often to shut down run plays at the line of scrimmage.
Ninkovich also had a solid game as a pass-rusher. He was able to beat his opponent for pressure on multiple occasions, and combined with Trevor Scott for a first-quarter sack. Ninkovich finished the game with five tackles in total.
Brandon Deaderick: A-
Brandon Deaderick received the majority of playing time over Kyle Love at defensive tackle on Monday night, and responded by having his best game of the season. Deaderick consistently shut down his gap on running plays, and ended up with five tackles as a result.
Deaderick, who was usually matched up against Texans left guard Wade Smith, often overpowered his opponent and used his strength well. Deaderick was a much more active presence in this game than Kyle Love has been at any point this season, and should have proved enough to continue earning the majority of snaps next to Wilfork inside.
Kyle Love: C+
Kyle Love did not play poorly when he was in the game at defensive tackle. He forced stops with good penetration on a couple of occasions. That said, he did not end up with a single credited tackle on the final stat sheet.
Trevor Scott: B-
Trevor Scott continued to make an impact as a pass-rusher on Monday. It was his initial pressure by beating Texans tackle-eligible Andrew Gardner that led to his combined sack with Rob Ninkovich, as he once again showed his ability to be disruptive off the edge.
Scott did not make much impact as a run defender, and did draw a costly neutral-zone infraction at one point, both of which hurt his grade. At least he is proving to be valuable as a situational pass-rusher.
Justin Francis: C-
Undrafted defensive end Justin Francis did not make much of a positive impact in this game. Although he was credited with two hits on Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, his most impactful game was an offsides penalty that gave Schaub a free play, on which he delivered for a 24-yard pass completion.
Jerod Mayo making a tackle
Jerod Mayo: A-
With the exception of a couple poor angles in space, steady outside linebacker Jerod Mayo had another fantastic game on Monday night.
Mayo was exceptionally good as a blitzer in this game. Coming up the middle, Mayo shut down a fourth-down conversion attempt by hitting quarterback Matt Schaub to force an incompletion, and later did the same to lay a huge shot on Ben Tate for a 2-yard tackle for loss.
Overall, Mayo was in the backfield often on Monday night. He was in on two tackles for loss, and created another with an edge rush that forced a screen pass into a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. He led the way for his team with seven tackles, and was extremely active throughout the game.
Dont’a Hightower: A
Since returning from a hamstring injury midseason, rookie Dont’a Hightower had been suffering from very disappointing play. But on the national spotlight, Hightower had his best NFL game yet and made a great impression Monday night.
Hightower was very active in this game, and ended up with six tackles. Hightower got a tackle for loss with a perfect blitz up the middle into the backfield, and later got another TFL by playing a screen pass perfectly.
Hightower did a much better job as well bringing pressure in this game, getting to the quarterback twice, and he took much better angles to make tackles in space than he has been earlier this season.
Monday night appeared to be a turning point in the rookie’s season, which would be great news for the linebacker-thin Patriots.
Brandon Spikes: C-
Although it was a great night for most of the Patriots’ defense, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes had an uncharacteristically quiet game. Spikes’ only credited tackle came after he was beaten for a 13-yard reception by Texans tight end Owen Daniels, and he missed multiple other tackles in space as well.
Spikes has been the Patriots’ best linebacker in most games this season, but that wasn’t the case Monday.
Steve Gregory up-ending Lestar Jean
Aqib Talib: A-
It’s unfortunate that Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib had to leave just before halftime with a hip injury, because he was outstanding in the first half. The Patriots had Talib matched up in man-to-man coverage with Andre Johnson throughout the half, and Talib did a great job of containing one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers.
Talib consistently kept himself in front of Johnson, and even when he did give up short receptions, he tackled Johnson immediately with the exception of one play where he gave too much cushion and was beaten on a quick in route. Talib played a pass perfectly over the middle for a breakup and near-interception near the end of the first half while covering Johnson, which forced a punt, but unfortunately was also the play that injured him.
Alfonzo Dennard: A
Alfonzo Dennard continued to look like an incredible steal as a seventh-round pick on Monday night. Dennard consistently shut down his opponents in pass coverage, including Andre Johnson once he took over for Talib in that one-on-one matchup.
Dennard twice made big tackles immediately after catches to prevent third-down conversions, and like Talib, Dennard had a pass breakup over the middle while defending Johnson. Dennard has quickly emerged as a lockdown cornerback for the Patriots who consistently covers his opponents and tackles well, and that was certainly the case on Monday.
Kyle Arrington: A-
It has been proven this season that Kyle Arrington has no business playing on the outside as an NFL cornerback, but also that he can play tremendously as a slot cornerback. Both of those were on display on Monday night.
Arrington made some huge plays in this game, including two huge pass breakups which shut down a third-down conversion attempt and a fourth-down conversion attempt.
On one series, however, the Patriots made the poor decision to isolate Arrington against Andre Johnson outside. The Patriots quickly changed their scheme up, as he was beaten on multiple occasions by Johnson.
As a slot cornerback, Arrington made some terrific plays in this game, and his grade is not affected too badly by his struggles when he was schemed out of position, because of the great plays he made over the course of the game.
Devin McCourty: A-
Devin McCourty continues to make the Patriots’ decision to move him to free safety look very good. McCourty made the game’s biggest defensive play in the first quarter, when he showed his range and ball skills by breaking perfectly on a pass thrown into double coverage over the middle and intercepting the ball.
His five tackles were not particularly impressive, as four of them came on the back end in clean-up duty. What those tackles do show, however, is that McCourty is a reliable last line of defense, which he needs to be as their deep coverage safety.
McCourty did make a play as a tackler as well, breaking beautifully on a fourth-quarter screen pass to shut down Texans receiver Keshawn Martin for a four-yard loss.
Steve Gregory: A-
As you can see, it was a great day for the Patriots’ secondary, and strong safety Steve Gregory was no exception. Gregory showed his ability as a tackler and an aggressive playmaker in this game, making a number of big plays in pass coverage.
Gregory made a terrific play in the second quarter to up-end Lester Jean when he leaped up to make a receiving attempt. On multiple occasions in the second half, Gregory made more plays by sprinting in from the back of the secondary to make immediate stops of short pass receptions.
Gregory is starting to establish himself as a playmaker in the secondary, and becoming a solid starter at strong safety.
Patrick Chung: D+
Patrick Chung didn’t play much in this game, and when he did, his only notable play was picking up a 15-yard facemask penalty. While the top five Patriots defensive backs have really blossomed over the past few weeks, former starter Chung has been left behind, and his disappointing play even when he is on the field displays why that has happened.
Marquice Cole: D+
When Marquice Cole checked into the game as the third cornerback following Aqib Talib’s injury, his play was subpar. Notably, he was beaten badly on a post over the middle by DeVier Posey for a 19-yard reception in garbage time that set up the Texans’ second touchdown.
Stephen Gostkowski: A-
Stephen Gostkowski did not get any opportunities to kick a field goal in this game, but he executed his job well on Monday night. On seven kickoffs, Gostkowski put six of them into the end zone, five of which were downed for touchbacks.
Zoltan Mesko: A
Zoltan Mesko had one of his best punting games of the season on Monday night. Mesko consistently kicked the ball well with great hangtime, and ended up with impressive averages of 48 yards per punt and 43.7 net yards per punt.
Coaching Staff: A
There is almost nothing bad to say about the Patriots’ dominant performance on Monday night, so the coaching staff gets a lot of credit. Head coach Bill Belichick certainly had his team prepared to not only play one of the AFC’s elite teams on the national spotlight, but also to embarrass them.
The offensive gameplan did not always work for the Patriots in this game, but by dialing up more downfield plays for Brandon Lloyd and getting Donte Stallworth in the mix, Josh McDaniels’ gameplan led to the Patriots’ biggest passing plays of the season to date.
Defensively, Matt Patricia’s squad was locked in and dominant on all three levels, and they made one of the NFL’s best offenses look to be far from it. Even when the Patriots lost one of their crucial defensive players in cornerback Aqib Talib before halftime, the defensive gameplan continued to work.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more coverage of the Patriots, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.