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Patriots Progress Report Third Quarter

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What a difference a month makes.

Over the past four games, the New England Patriots have played at an incredibly high level. An argument could be made, in fact, that they have been the best team in football over the past four games. The offense has been as high-octane as ever, while the defense has made a significant turnaround. Add to that some high-quality special teams play and it's no wonder that the Pats have won their last four.

The team sits at 9-3. With their win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, they became the first team in the NFL this year to clinch a division title. That's right - with four more games yet to play, New England has already ensured itself a spot at the postseason table.

On to the Progress Report.

Offense A

The only thing keeping me from garnishing that grade with a large number of pluses is the comparatively lackluster showing they put up in the Miami game. Even so, New England has averaged 42 points a game over this recent stretch. This despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a broken arm. Tom Brady just keeps on doing what he does in going 4-0, he has thrown for over 1,100 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. Meanwhile, wide receiver Wes Welker and running back Stevan Ridley each went over 1,000 yards for the season (receiving and rushing respectively) both are among the league leaders, while Aaron Hernandez has helped alleviate the loss of Gronkowski.

Defense B

This unit has looked a whole lot better over the past few games, though part of that can likely be attributed to the efficiency of the offense leading to a lot of teams playing catch-up. Even so, this unit has made very real strides toward respectability recently. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a tackling machine; he's got over 100 for the season. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has become the leader of a defensive line that hasn't put up gaudy stats, but has proven solid with regards to what really counts the scoreboard. And while the secondary is still a bit porous, the pickup of cornerback Aqib Talib has improved matters somewhat. All in all, they've been bending but not breaking, which has proven more than sufficient in tandem with that dominant offense.

Special Teams B

This unit has seen some spectacular play over the past few weeks. Guys like special teamer extraordinaire Jackie Slater and kick returner Devin McCourty have done great work, while a number of players have contributed in a major way in terms of coverage. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been a bit shaky as of late, connecting on only seven of his last 10 field goal attempts. Punter Zoltan Mesko's numbers are middling, but it's not like he sees a lot of the field. He has minimized touchbacks and done his part to help the Patriots win the field position game.

Coaching A-

Bill Belichick has his team playing hard and strong in all facets of the game right now. The team's 4-0 record for this quarter of the season would warrant a solid 'A' grade under most circumstances, but Coach Belichick gets a slight downtick for the injury to Gronkowski (who was injured during an extra point attempt). While I personally agree that keeping the tight end on the extra point unit is a legitimate football decision and Gronk's injury was certainly a freak occurrence the perception of the general fan base counts for something. Not much of something but something.

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