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New England Patriots Report Card: Week 17

Rob Gronkowski led all Patriot receivers with two touchdown catches Sunday against the Bills, and his 108 yards helped set an NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

All’s well that ends well. The New England Patriots overcame an early 21-point deficit Sunday, blowing out the Bills in the second half and cruising to home-field advantage for the playoffs. Final score: Patriots 49, Bills 21. A fitting revenge after the Bills came back from being down 21 to beat the Patriots in September.

Who finished the regular season on the high honor roll, and who’s spending Wild Card weekend with an outside tutor? Here’s the final report card before the playoffs.

Quarterbacks: A

Despite a rough start, Tom Brady still finished the game with 338 passing yards and three touchdowns. He refused to be cowed by the Bills’ lead, instead slowly chipping away until the Bills crumbled beneath his far-superior abilities. With a healthier Wes Welker and a year of development from his tight ends, Brady’s yardage skyrocketed this season to the tune of 5,235 yards – not the most in the NFL this season, but the most for Brady by over 400 yards. A combination of shoulder strength, pocket protection and down-field plays will determine Brady’s playoff success.

Running Backs: A-

Stevan Ridley did the grunt-work Sunday, picking up 81 yards on 15 carries. In the red zone, however, Bill Belichick chose the sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to bust it in. Green-Ellis delivered two rushing touchdowns, including the Patriots’ first. He also executed a flawless screen play, chewing up 53 yards on the second play of the second half. That drive ended in a field goal that cut the Bills’ lead to one point.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A

Aaron Hernandez has quietly become the Patriots’ go-to receiver for end-around runs. It’s not a big role – just four carries over the last three games – but it adds another dimension to Hernandez’s game. Still, Hernandez is first-and-foremost a receiver, and he led the rest of the Patriots’ receivers with 138 yards receiving (plus 26 rushing), catching seven passes. His nifty move at the line helped him get into the end zone on a 39-yard play-action pass from Brady in the second, cutting Buffalo’s lead to a touchdown.

Hernandez may have recorded the most receiving yards in Sunday’s game. But with Rob Gronkowski‘s 22-yard catch from Brian Hoyer late in the fourth, Gronkowski finished his 2011-12 season with more receiving yards than any tight end in NFL history. He also caught two more touchdown passes, bringing his record-setting total to 17. No tight end has ever posted the kind of season Gronkowski did. Thankfully, he plays for the Patriots.

Offensive Line: B+

Three sacks and one holding penalty against Brian Waters that led to Brady’s deflected interception. Not the best game possible from the offensive line, but definitely not their worst, either. Brady would probably take this level of protection during the playoffs – it’s the line breaking down further that would mean trouble.

Defensive Line: B+

The defensive sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick twice: once by Mark Anderson, once by Kyle Love. They also kept speedy running back C.J. Spiller out of the end zone, limiting him to just 60 yards. The defensive line’s performance on its own probably only merits a “B,” but because the entire defense held the Bills scoreless for three quarters Sunday, each unit’s grade goes up.

Linebackers: B+

No linebackers made any significantly positive plays Sunday. Jerod Mayo came closest, knocking down one pass from Fitzpatrick. Still, the linebackers shutdown the middle of the field, limiting tight ends Scott Chandler and Kevin Brock to four catches for 35 yards. Fitzpatrick had to throw either to the sidelines or deep, and the Patriots’ secondary made him pay throwing to those areas. The linebackers did nothing to hurt the team’s chances of winning, so their grade remains relatively high.

Defensive Backs: A

Fitzpatrick threw for 307 yards, but Patriot defensive backs picked him off four times, including an interception-touchdown from Sterling Moore. Patrick Chung didn’t magically fix the defense, but his return brought some stability, a lot of experience and an extra set of legs to the secondary. The secondary made all of the big plays they had to in the second half, killing Bills drives and even making up for their own errors.

Special Teams: A

Stephen Gostkowski nailed both field goals and five extra points. The return team committed no penalties. The Bills averaged a starting position three yards behind the Patriots’ following punts and kickoffs. The Patriots’ special team has submitted several error-free games this season. While this group might not kick in a game-changing play during the playoffs, they’re also unlikely to seriously cost the Patriots.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

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