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New England Patriots Report Card: Week 13

With two more touchdown catches Sunday, Rob Gronkowski needs just one more this season to break the NFL record for most by a tight end. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Indianapolis Colts gave the New England Patriots a late-game scare Sunday afternoon, but ultimately all the Colts could do was lose with dignity. The Patriots beat the Colts, 31-24, continuing the Colts’ winless season and for now moving the Patriots into first place in the AFC.

Who’s using this game for college credit, and who needs to repeat Calculus 101? Here are this week’s grades.

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady has shown more mobility in the last few games than he ever has before. Given his line’s vulnerabilities, he’s pretty much had to. But whatever the reason, Brady’s agility has become his best pass-protection, helping him elude tackle after tackle while he waits for his receivers to inevitably get open.

Brady completed over 75 percent of his passes Sunday, hitting seven different receivers for 289 yards. One one drive alone he went 7-for-7 for 77 yards. That drive ended in a touchdown pass, the first of two for Brady. Brady passed Johnny Unitas and is now tied with Warren Moon for sixth-most career regular-season touchdown passes.

Running Backs: B+

Stevan Ridley led the team with eight rushes for 33 numbers – paltry numbers that reflect just how ineffective the Patriots’ running game was Sunday. Ridley’s agility and flash isn’t so useful when he’s just trying to run up the middle, and his performance suffered because he tried to dance when he should have just barreled. BenJarvus Green-Ellis knows how to barrel, taking advantage Donald Thomas‘s bulk at fullback to force his way into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown run in the second.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A

Once again Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski were Brady’s go-to receivers. Welker caught all 11 passes thrown to him (his most since Week 3) for 110 yards, while Gronkowski added five catches for 64 yards and two touchdown receptions. He easily slipped behind linebacker Kavell Conner for an 11-yard TD catch in the second, then just as easily got past linebacker Philip Wheeler, capping the Patriots’ first drive of the second half with a 21-yard touchdown catch.

Gronkowski also rushed for a 2-yard touchdown later in the third, his first ever. His two touchdown catches tied the single-season record for tight ends, a record which he will almost certainly break.

Other Patriot wide receivers contributed less on offense but found other ways to make themselves known. Matthew Slater forced a third-quarter fumble that Kyle Arrington recovered. Deion Branch and Gronkowski each recovered an onside kick.

Offensive Line: A-

Matt Light drew a holding penalty, and the offensive line allowed one sack. Both are forgivable, but the offensive line getting dominated by the Colts at the line of scrimmage is far less so. The Patriots’ running backs averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, and much of that was because the line couldn’t open up lanes. The offensive line didn’t really hurt the Patriots, but they didn’t help either. More successful running early on might have helped the Patriots avoid three three-and-outs in the fourth quarter.

Defensive Line: B+

Vince Wilfork led the team with 10 tackles and a sack, but the defensive line has shown it can be so much more. New England is probably stuck with what the secondary gives them, but the defensive line has shown it can get to the quarterback repeatedly each game. The linemen aren’t living up to to their potential, and that’s having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense. The easiest way to bail out the beat-up and beaten-down defensive backs is to get much better pressure up front.

Still, the defensive line on its own merit played better than the secondary, so its grade is higher.

Linebackers: A

Considering the Colts finished one possession short of overcoming a 28-point deficit, Jerod Mayo‘s acrobatic, diving interception midway through the fourth might very well have saved the game. That interception highlighted a solid night from Mayo, who finished with two defensed passes and two quarterback hits. Rob Ninkovich kicked in a sack as well. The linebackers also held tight end Jacob Tamme to five catches for 49 yards and no touchdowns – fourth behind three Colts wide receivers.

Defensive Backs: B

Indianapolis’ 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter aren’t by themselves concerning. When Bill Belichick has a big lead, he usually opts to play “prevent” defense, happily giving up numerous 8-yard catches over the middle that might lead to a touchdown but chew up the clock in the process.

Had the defense done that, the game would likely have ended far less nervously. But the defensive backs couldn’t keep their marks in front of them, and that’s absolutely concerning. Pierre Garcon completely fooled Sterling Moore on his 33-yard touchdown reception, then did the very same thing to Devin McCourty on the final two plays of their next drive, picking up 52 yards for an easy touchdown.

When Dan Orlovsky is setting career-bests in yardage, accuracy and QB rating, your secondary is doing something very, very wrong. Only Nate Jones, with his nine tackles and one defensed pass, gets credit for a good game.

Special Teams: A

Stephen Gostkowski played perfectly (field goal, four extra points), and Zoltan Mesko and he combined to pin the Colts behind their 19 for average starting position – 8 yards deeper than the Patriots usually started following punts or normal kickoffs. While receivers recovered both of the Colts’ fourth-quarter onside kicks, the regular special teams players made those recoveries. They also played penalty-free on punts.

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