Vindication for being doubted, or the signs that the Patriots are not only back, but ready for another postseason charge? Saturday was a game that was supposed to be a test for the Patriots, and another challenge for the improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It turned into a one-sided affair that left every indication New England is ready while Tampa Bay has some work to do. Get inside for both team report cards.

PHOTO: Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Simeon Rice, center, grabs the face mask of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on a first half pass play during their NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday Dec. 17, 2005. At right is Patriots tackle Tom Ashworth. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)


PASS OFFENSE: A - Despite playing with a sore left leg, Tom Brady posted his second-highest passer rating of the season (122.8). David Givens was huge, with a tone-setting 32-yard catch on the game's third play. He later added receptions of 31 and 37 yards, picking up the slack on a quiet day for leading receiver Deion Branch (two catches, 27 yards). Nine players caught passes, including Corey Dillon, whose TD reception stemmed from a nice bit of improvisation by Brady.

RUSH OFFENSE: C-minus - The Patriots were committed to the run (32 attempts) even though they got little production there (83 yards and a 2.6-yard average). A late 14-yard gain by Dillon (19 carries for 48 yards) allowed him to bump his stats up a little, but he took a step back from his work against the Jets (16-65) and Bills (22-102). Tampa's fifth-ranked run defense probably had a lot to do with that.

PASS DEFENSE: A - Bucs QB Chris Simms was running for his life most of the day. The Patriots had seven sacks, their most since they dropped Donovan McNabb eight times in Week 2 of the 2003 season. Simms completed 21 of 34 passes but for only 155 yards, the third-lowest total against the Patriots this season. The Patriots did a terrific job of covering Joey Galloway. The Bucs' No. 1 receiver was averaging 16.6 yards per catch coming in but caught four passes for just 38 yards (a 9.5-yard average). Tampa's long gain through the air was only 22 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-plus - The Bucs ran 18 times for 30 yards with a long gain of 4 yards. NT Vince Wilfork continued his inspired play of late by effectively clogging up the middle, and ILBs Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were credited with a combined 19 tackles in the press box stats. Tampa RB Cadillac Williams (14 carries for 23 yards) had no more success than Curtis Martin of the Jets or Willis McGahee of the Bills had against the Patriots in the previous two games.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus - Coach Bill Belichick downgraded his punt coverage unit because Mark Jones' 81-yard return for a TD was nullified by a penalty. It was the second straight week a flag saved the Pats as Terrence McGee's 63-yard kick return the week before also was wiped off the books. Still, the Bucs didn't have a kickoff return of more than 24 yards, and three of P Josh Miller's six punts were fair-caught. Miller also gets credit for drawing a roughing-the-kicker penalty. Kicker Adam Vinatieri did not attempt a field goal for a second straight week.

COACHING: A-plus - An attack-style game plan on both sides of the ball helped fuel the Patriots' most impressive win of the season. With their tight ends limited by injury - usually that position is key in going against a Cover-2 defensive scheme such as Tampa Bay's - the Patriots spread the field with three receivers and took shots down the field. The Patriots often flooded one side of the field, forcing the Bucs' safeties to make either/or decisions on whom to cover. Givens said the coaches "outsmarted" the Bucs' defense.



RUSH OFFENSE: F - As Cadillac goes, so go the Bucs. Williams was held to 23 yards on 14 carries. It was his lowest output since he was held to 20 yards against Washington.

PASS OFFENSE: F - Pity poor QB Chris Simms. He was sacked seven times and knocked down 11 others. Simms sprained his thumb and is sore. The Bucs also hurt him with several dropped passes.

RUSH DEFENSE: C - The Bucs didn't do a bad job against the run, limiting New England's Corey Dillon to 48 yards on 19 carries and one touchdown. Tampa Bay also was playing without DT Anthony McFarland, who is out with a hamstring strain. Another solid game by nose tackle Chris Hovan.

PASS DEFENSE: D - The Patriots were smart, spreading the Bucs out with three and four receivers and attacking nickel back Juran Bolden. Patriots QB Tom Brady carved up the Bucs' zone coverage, forcing them to scrap it for more man-to-man.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D - The Bucs had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mark Jones called back by a holding penalty. But the biggest gaffe came when special teams captain Ryan Nece was flagged for roughing the kicker. The penalty led to a touchdown.

COACHING: D - Coach Jon Gruden had a short week to prepare for Patriots coach Bill Belichick and didn't accomplish much with the game plan. Defensively, the Bucs' Cover-2 scheme was picked apart by Tom Brady.

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