The New England Patriots survived a month of football without Tom Brady winning three of four games played behind Garoppolo and Brissett. Few wins will be more impressive than shutting out the Texans on a Thursday night with a third-round rookie starting quarterback.
PASSING OFFENSE: A -- Even while considering the team had to resort to injured third-string, third-round rookie Jacoby Brissett for a two-week span, New England's passing attack has been stellar through the first half of the season. With Tom Brady suspended to open the year, third-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo started two games with passer ratings of 106.1 and 130.8 while completing 70 percent of his passes in wins at Arizona and against Miami prior to a shoulder injury. Brissett then tried his best to hold things together, closing out the Dolphins game and guiding New England to a shutout win over Houston at home before being shut out by the Bills while dealing with a thumb injury that landed the rookie on injured reserve. But the true story is Brady's return and the run he's making at an MVP award after missing the first month. Brady leads the NFL with a 133.9 passer rating as well as a 73.1 completion percentage. He's piled up 12 touchdowns without an interception in four games while throwing for 1,319 yards. Rob Gronkowski is averaging 22 yards per catch after a slow start due to a hamstring injury. Martellus Bennett is nursing an ankle injury now after opening his career in New England with a pair of 100-yard efforts and four touchdowns in the first five weeks. Julian Edelman leads the team with 41 catches, James White has three scores as a productive pass-catching running back and newcomer Chris Hogan is averaging nearly 21 yards per catch on his 391 receiving yards. Really, the only aspect of the Patriots' passing offense that's been suspect is the offensive line and its pass protection. New England has allowed a combined 17 sacks but the quarterbacks, including Brady the last three weeks, have been under much more pressure than that. Veteran LT Nate Solder has been too inconsistent, while three young interior blockers in rookie LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews and RG Shaq Mason have been beaten too often. Still, Brady, Gronkowski and the rest are carrying what is arguably the best passing attack in the game yet again.
PASS DEFENSE: C -- The Patriots own a middle-of-the-pack pass defense by most measures. That's come thanks to inconsistent coverage and, at times, a non-existent pass rush. Four of eight opposing passers notched a passer rating of 94 or better. New England logged just 13 sacks in eight games, ranking 27th in sacks per pass play. That's been most evident on third down, where the team needed to improve mightily in recent weeks to get to its No. 18 ranking. Malcolm Butler is solid as the No. 1 cornerback, matching up at times with the likes of Antonio Brown and others. The other side has been a bit unsettled, with Logan Ryan giving way at times to Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman and others. The strength of the pass defense is its ability to avoid big plays allowed, anchored by Pro-Bowl FS Devin McCourty. Overall, the unit has covered or pressured at a high enough level. It's gotten through at times thanks to the opposing competition -- suspect quarterback play and fortuitous drops -- as well as the leads the Brady-led offense can provide that greatly aid a defense. The offseason trade of Pro-Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks in 2015) has yet to be made up for, and the deadline deal of Jamie Collins may leave a similar hole in the middle of the front. Still, given its offense, the New England pass defense has been good enough through two months of work.
RUSH DEFENSE: B- -- While veteran DT Alan Branch and second-year DT Malcom Brown have been solid for the most part, the New England run defense has been up and down at times through the first half of the year. Setting the edge and tackling on the edges is an issue, dating back to opening night. Overall, opponents are averaging 4.1 yards per carry on the year. The opposition has run the ball with relative consistency in terms of attempts, and at times gave up the balance due to the score more than a lack of success. LB Dont'a Hightower remains a force in the middle against the run, even while missing two games to a knee injury. The fact that four of the team's five leading tacklers are defensive backs is related to the pass defense but also the way the group has had to factor into the run defense as well. Patrick Chung is a solid force from the safety position in the box. The run defense is better than the pass defense in New England, but the group can bring a lot more consistency to its performance over the second half.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- For a group that saw both its kicker and punter win AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, the Patriots' special teams has had its issues. K Stephen Gostkowski missed three field goals and two extra points in the first eight games a year after missing only three field goals overall and no extra points on the way to All-Pro honors. Gostkowski's slump was a major concern in the first half, though he made all his kicks in Week 8 in Buffalo, even if a 51-yarder deflected in off the upright. P Ryan Allen has been his usual middle-of-the-pack self, though he's always better in situational work and net punting than his gross average would suggest. Allen has 13 kicks downed inside the 20 compared to just two touchbacks on the way to a 41.0-yard net. New England's kickoff coverage has been superb, with Gostkowski putting high kicks short of the goal line to allow Pro-Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and others to get down and tackle many an opponent well short of the 25-yard line. Return-wise, Julian Edelman has been solid with an 11.3-yard average on punts, but the kickoff unit has been non-existent save for a 73-yard Danny Amendola return last Sunday in Buffalo. Beyond Gostkowski's issues, the Patriots are off to a solid start in the kicking game even if there is room to clean up a few areas.
COACHING: A -- Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves a lot of praise for dealing with the quarterback situation all the way back to the summer and preseason. He had Garoppolo cruising for six quarters, then shifted gears to more option, trick plays and running game with Brissett. Then, with Brady's return, the high-powered passing game is back in full gear. Defensively, coordinator Matt Patricia's work has been less impressive but still in line with the success of the team as a whole. He's dealt with his own personnel issues -- including DE Rob Ninkovich's own four-game suspension -- as well as injuries to Hightower and Collins. While the defense has its flaws, it does have one shutout on its resume and is top five in points allowed. Head Coach Bill Belichick avoided Brady-related distractions, worked through three quarterbacks, managed an injury to Rob Gronkowski and came out the other side with seven wins in eight tries. He continues to push all the right buttons and oversee impressive weekly game plans in New England.