PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus
Consistency has been the problem in the passing game, but the approach has certainly expanded and that should help the Patriots over the second half of the season. It has evolved from a dink-and-dunk attack into more of a downfield threat. Quarterback Tom Brady's completion percentage has dipped as result and at 60 percent is lower than in either of his first two seasons, but his 7.17 yards per attempt is a career high and his three 50-plus-yard completions are three more than he had last season. Through nine games, he has thrown for 2,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions with two fourth quarter comebacks to his credit. Seven of his eight picks came in the Patriots two losses and only one came in the seven wins. His passer rating has steadily improved after an uneven opening month and sits at a season high 83.0. But the Patriots have had trouble on third down (33.3 percent) and in the red area (38.5 percent), and inconsistencies in the passing game have contributed to that. The receiving corps has been banged up all season with David Givens, Bethel Johnson, Troy Brown, Deion Branch and David Patten all playing at times with an ailment that could easily have kept them out. Only Brown and Johnson have played in every game. Patten is now on IR. Kevin Faulk continues to be a valuable receiver out of the backfield and the emergence of tight end Daniel Graham could be the biggest difference for the offense over the final seven games. He already has five more receptions for 153 more yards than he had last season. In the last two games, he has 11 receptions for 149 yards. For this grade to improve, the Patriots need to punch the ball in the end zone more and improve on third down. But Brady is steadily expanding his game and his downfield touch has been impressive. He is coming off one of his best career games, one in which he threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a last-minute Monday night win at Denver.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus
Once again, the Patriots rushing attack is below average. It is better than it was a year ago, however, having rushed for 100 or more yards in five of the first nine games after doing so just five times last season. The offense rushed for 161 yards against a Titans run defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL, yet mustered just 59, 94 and 69 yards in its last three games. From Weeks 3-6, the offense produced nearly 136 rushing yards per game, but like the passing attack, it has been inconsistent and despite that impressive stretch, averages just 103.6 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush. Kevin Faulk leads the way with 104 attempts for 417 yards while Antowain Smith has added 287 yards on 81 runs. The offensive line lost two starters to injured reserve, but fill-ins Dan Koppen at center and Tom Ashworth at right tackle have been solid in place of Adrian Klemm and Mike Compton. Faulk has been productive, but this offense needs Smith's power to truly establish its physical presence. It hasn't done that beyond the Titans game, and short yardage and goal line work have also fallen into the inconsistent category.
PASS DEFENSE: A
The secondary has been the most improved area of the team. Ty Law is having a Pro Bowl caliber year, and while that's no surprise, what is surprising is that free agent pickup Tyrone Poole also is having that type of season. So is safety Rodney Harrison, who has been all over the field. The Patriots 13 interceptions as a defense represents one of the best totals in the league and the 21 sacks are slightly above average as well. Rookies Eugene Wilson (safety) and Asante Samuel (nickel back) have been steady and have yet to be exposed despite their inexperience. New England is preventing big plays and hawking the ball. They have three defensive touchdowns off interceptions - one each by Law, Samuel and linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Every regular in the secondary has at least two picks while Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour lead the pass rush with a combined 10.5 sacks. Opposing quarterbacks have completed just 53 percent of their throws against New England with four touchdowns against those 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 59.5.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus
The Patriots have greatly reduced the number of big running plays allowed since last year and it has been a major factor in limiting opponents' rushing attacks. Denver's Clinton Portis, in Week 9, became the first back to reach the 100-yard mark against New England this year when he ran for 111 on 26 attempts. But Miami's Ricky Williams was held to 94, the Giants Tiki Barber to 71, Tennessee's Eddie George to 35 and the Jet's Curtis Martin to 53 just to name a few. Richard Seymour is becoming dominant inside and rookie Ty Warren has developed into a solid run defender inside the 4-3 front and even on the nose at times in a 3-4. The Patriots lost Ted Washington and Ted Johnson to broken bones early in the season and performed quite well in their absence. Rodney Harrison and his team-high 71 tackles have helped, but Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer also have played well at linebacker. The Patriots have played with decent gap discipline after failing to do so last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
This has been no better than average despite the time the Patriots put into it and the personnel they dedicate to it. However, injuries to front line starters cut into some of the specialty work done by players like Matt Chatham, Larry Izzo and Chris Akins and forced more inexperience into the kicking game. They allowed their first punt return for a touchdown in 10 years when Denver's Deltha O'Neal returned one 57 yards. Kicker Adam Vinatieri's five misses through nine games are two more than he had last season. Punter Ken Walter is struggling with a net average of just 34 yards per punt. Troy Brown has been solid as a punt returner, averaging 10.2 yards per return while rookie Bethel Johnson has been explosive returning kickoffs, averaging 26 yards on 22 returns with a long of 71 and two others in the plus-50 category. They did block two kicks in the first half of the season, but while Vinatieri has made nine of last 10 kicks, Walter shows no signs of returning to his amazing 2001 form that was so critical in the Patriots winning the field position battle in close games down the stretch that year.
The Patriots have used 40 different starters and watched 11 opening day starters miss time with injuries. Four opening day starters are on injured reserve and done for the year, yet the coaches have plugged in inexperienced veterans and rookies and kept things moving forward. The game plans have been solid and the in-game strategy mostly impressive, especially the decision to take a safety late in the comeback Monday night win in Denver. The Patriots have generally managed the clock well under pressure and have made excellent in-game adjustments that have helped them outscore opponents 115-69 in the second half after being outscored 86-62 in the first half. But Bill Belichick and his staff have done an incredible job in working with an injury-decimated team to sit atop the AFC East with a 7-2 record despite the adversity. The Patriots overcame the injuries but also the release of captain Lawyer Milloy and the 31-0 loss to the Bills that ensued. It rebounded the following week after hearing ESPN's Tom Jackson say, "They hate their coach." They are 7-1 since those words were uttered and are raving about their coaches' performance. The staff has not been perfect and needs to stay on the team about its 8-plus penalties for 70-plus yards per game that will ultimately cost it down the stretch. Belichick and Romeo Crennel have put a lot on the shoulders of its secondary and it has responded. But getting so many rookies to contribute to winning is a tribute the year-round job done by the coaches, not just the in-season work.