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Ben Volin | On football

Patriots’ first-half report card looks solid

The Patriots under Robert Kraft have been one of the NFL’s more successful dynasties, with three Super Bowl championships, six AFC championship banners, the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history, and 224 regular-season wins in his 21 seasons as owner.

And Kraft was worried that the dynasty was finally about to crumble this year following the Patriots’ 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 4.

“I was definitely worried, because you don’t know. This isn’t a game of robots,” Kraft said last week on SiriusXM radio. “We got completely shellacked that Monday night out in Kansas City. It might be the worst beating that I’ve had as an owner. I know all the sages in the media were calling for us to trade Tommy [Brady] or sit him, or [Bill] Belichick had lost it. You know, maybe in a way it was a good thing because it just shook us up. And in moments of crisis, you either rise to great things or you crumble, and our guys came together.”

Yes, they certainly did. After a surprisingly mediocre 2-2 start to the season, Brady and the Patriots suddenly clicked after that Chiefs debacle. Not only have their won their last five games, but they doubled their scoring output (from 20 to 40 points per game), won those five games by an average margin of 18.6 points, and sent a message to the rest of the NFL with a 41-23 beatdown of the Broncos last week at Gillette Stadium.

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Now the Patriots are 7-2, have the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race, and as they come off their bye week and prepare for the final seven games of the season, they look like the early favorite to land home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Before we move ahead to the second half of the schedule, let’s break down the Patriots roster position-by-position and hand out our first-half grades:

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Quarterback: A-minus

If this grade were based solely on how Brady has played over the last five games, he’d get an A-plus. In this current streak he’s averaging 320.2 yards per game, completing 67.5 percent of his passes, averaging 8.13 yards per attempt, and has thrown 18 touchdowns against one interception. Most importantly, he’s sliding well around the pocket, avoiding the pass rush, and hitting the deep ball. After opening the season just 2 for 18 on passes of 20-plus yards in the air, he has been a respectable 9 of 19 since then, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. We still have to include his early season stats in the overall grade, when he was averaging just 197.75 yards per game, completing 59 percent of his passes, and averaging a paltry 5.77 yards per attempt through the first four games. But even when Brady was struggling, he at least avoided the devastating interception. He has only thrown three interceptions this year, two of which came against Kansas City and one against Denver. Then when he started feeling comfortable behind the line of scrimmage, and Rob Gronkowski got healthy? Bang. Brady’s level of play took off to heights we haven’t seen from him since 2010, his last MVP season.

Running backs: B-minus

The overall rushing stats haven’t been great this year — the Patriots are 19th in the NFL with 101 rushing yards per game, 27th with a 3.6-yard average, and have only three rushing touchdowns. But it’s not fair to put all of those numbers on the running backs – the early offensive line struggles had as much to do with it, as the unit couldn’t create holes, and opposing defenses stacked the line of scrimmage because they didn’t fear the Patriots’ downfield passing game. Stevan Ridley had two nice games early on, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota and 113 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6 after rushing for 340 yards for the season. Shane Vereen has done a really nice job in his role as the scatback, catching 31 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns and adding 310 yards and a rushing touchdown on a healthy 4.5 yards per carry. The Patriots may need to watch Vereen’s snaps down the stretch, as they can’t afford to lose him after losing Ridley. Jonas Gray has been a nice find in his three games since being called up from the practice squad, rushing for 131 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, and his role as the power back may increase as the weather turns colder. Brandon Bolden has 15 carries for 25 yards and has been used almost exclusively as a special teams contributor. Rookie James White has only been active for two games, has nine carries for 38 yards, and realistically is red-shirting this year and getting ready for a bigger role next year.

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Wide receivers: B-minus

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This unit has been top-heavy, getting solid production out of the top two guys and not much from anyone else. Julian Edelman once again has been steady and solid, with 54 catches for 556 yards and two touchdowns. He’s on pace for slightly lower numbers than last year – 96 catches, 988 yards, and four touchdowns – and has seven drops, but Edelman has been consistently solid overall, with five games of 80-plus yards receiving. Brandon LaFell has also shaken off a slow start (no catches in his first two games) to have an excellent first half of the season and prove to be one of the best value free agent signings of last offseason. LaFell has 36 catches for 514 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a healthy 14.3 yards per reception. He had 124 yards and a touchdown against Chicago, 119 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City, and 97 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo. Just as importantly, LaFell has been solid in the run game, and shown consistent catching ability, with just three drops on the season. But the unit has a sharp dropoff after the top two. Danny Amendola has been almost completely phased out of the passing game, with just nine catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. He has only played in 43 percent of snaps this year, and seemingly can’t get open unless the Patriots run a pick play for him (LaFell has been called for an illegal pick three times). Second-year receiver Aaron Dobson has been a major disappointment, being made inactive in six of nine games and compiling just three catches for 38 yards. Dobson didn’t participate in offseason practices or much of training camp following foot surgery, but he still should be producing more than this. He has been surpassed on the depth chart by Brian Tyms. Tyms has only played in 34 snaps but has one spectacular catch (a 43-yard touchdown against Buffalo), and defenses roll safety coverage his way when he enters the game. Kenbrell Thompkins was cut after four games (two inactive), six catches, and 53 yards. He just wasn’t consistent enough catching the ball, and fell to the ground too often after making the catch.

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Tight ends: A

Rob Gronkowski has been an A-plus-plus, and that he’s performing at elite levels just 10 months removed from major knee surgery is a true testament to his work ethic and athleticism. Gronk has 49 catches, 663 yards, and eight touchdowns. He, like the rest of the team, has exploded over the last five weeks. He played 50.7 percent of snaps in the first four games as he worked back from injury, catching 13 of 26 targets for 147 yards and three touchdowns. The last five games he has played in 79.8 percent of snaps, catching 36 of 49 targets for 516 yards and five touchdowns. Add in his excellent run-blocking skills, and Gronkowski has worked his way into the MVP discussion. Tim Wright, acquired in the Logan Mankins trade right before the season, isn’t putting up Aaron Hernandez numbers, but he’s been a nice find. He has caught 17 of 18 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns, has shown good catch-and-run ability, and gives Brady a good weapon down on the goal line. Fullback James Develin has been a solid lead blocker and chipped in six catches for 43 yards, but blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who has played in 47 percent of snaps, has struggled in run blocking this year.

Offensive line: C-plus

The unit has gotten a lot better over the last five weeks, and seems to have settled on the lineup of Nate Solder-Dan Connolly-Bryan Stork-Ryan Wendell-Sebastian Vollmer for the last two games. Still, this unit was a big reason for the slow start out of the gate, and still is struggling to create holes in the run game. But after allowing nine sacks in the first four games, Brady has only been sacked five times in the last five games. Solder has been solid in run blocking, which has always been his forte, but he has really struggled in pass protection — at 6 feet 8 inches, Solder has trouble getting low enough to handle speedy rushers. Solder has allowed a team-high four sacks and 10 pressures, while also committing a team-high eight penalties — four false starts, three holdings, and one illegal block above the waist. Vollmer has been the opposite – he’s been solid in pass protection, but below average in run blocking. Stork is a little rusty after missing most of camp and a couple of games with injuries, but surrounding him with Wendell and Connolly, two veterans with extensive center experience, has helped Stork’s development and comfort level. Marcus Cannon was an unmitigated disaster at left guard because of terrible footwork, but he is a solid backup at either tackle spot. Jordan Devey was also a disaster at right guard, and that grand experiment is probably over for the season. Josh Kline performed well enough in his starts against the Jets and Bills, and rookie Cameron Fleming hasn’t played since starting at guard in Week 4.

Where they rank: Offense

Through Week 4 Through Week 9
Total offense 29 10
Points per game 24 2
Passing offense 30 8
Touchdown passes 23 T-3
Pass yards/attempt 31 10
Sacks per pass play 24 9
Rushing offense 23 19
Rush yards/attempt 22 27
Third down conversions 27 16
Red Zone TDs T-18 13

Defensive line: B-minus

The good news is that two veteran leaders of this unit have been steady and reliable all season – tackle Vince Wilfork and end Rob Ninkovich. Wilfork doesn’t have gaudy stats – 15 tackles and that game-sealing interception against Oakland – but he has played in an impressive 76 percent of snaps so far, and still holds his own and then some in the middle of the trenches. Ninkovich, meanwhile, has been the most valuable player up front – shifting seamlessly from right defensive end to outside linebacker, rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, playing 92 percent of snaps, always being around the football, and compiling 24 tackles, four sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery touchdown this season. The bad news is that the unit is being stitched together with Scotch tape right now, especially with Chandler Jones out a while with a hip injury. This unit has had some good games (holding Minnesota, Oakland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Denver under 100 rushing yards) and some bad ones (Miami, Kansas City, and the Jets each rushing for at least 191 yards). The linemen have shown good versatility by shifting between a 3-4 base and 4-3 (without Jones they’re currently using the 4-3), but they don’t always get off blocks well enough to shut down the run game, and don’t have a natural pass rusher with good speed and length without Jones (4½ sacks). Newcomer Akeem Ayers has two sacks in two games in Jones’s role but hasn’t consistently gotten to the quarterback yet. Chris Jones has been serviceable at defensive tackle, and newcomer Casey Walker was effective as the nose tackle for a spell, but neither has made an impact play. Rookie first-round pick Dominique Easley is playing like someone coming off an ACL injury – he has five tackles, one sack and one interception but is not showing much burst on pass rush while playing 34 percent of snaps. Tackle Sealver Siliga will be back in Week 11 or 12.

Linebackers: B-plus

Tough to see Jerod Mayo go down again, this year with a patellar tendon injury. He had 53 tackles — still second on the team despite missing three-plus games — one sack, and a fumble recovery in six games, and was effective as an inside blitzer. This position is now only about two players – Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The Patriots occasionally will use Ayers, Ninkovich, or Patrick Chung as linebackers, but the Patriots play in their nickel defense a majority of the time, and Hightower and Collins played every snap against Denver as the only two linebackers on the field. Hightower slid into Mayo’s role as the middle linebacker and main signal caller, and after a tough two years to start his career, is really blossoming as a great player in his third. He has shown great sideline-to-sideline range in the run game with 49 tackles, and has been a valuable pass rusher up the middle, racking up 3½ sacks and about 10 pressures. The Patriots also don’t put him in one-on-one coverage as much anymore, and he is much better playing zone in Cover 2 and Cover 3. Collins is also a terrific pass rusher — he has no sacks but nine hurries this season, so his sacks will start coming soon — leads the team with 61 tackles, and has shown good athleticism in covering running backs in the passing game. But he’s still learning the position, and he needs to work on his instincts in the run game. Too often he is a step too late filling a hole, and he has a tendency to overpursue.

Cornerbacks: A-minus

Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner drew the big headlines this offseason, and both have delivered for the Patriots, who for a spell had the league’s No. 1 or 2 pass defense before sliding down to 14th after the Denver game. Revis may not be quite the same player he was in 2009, but overall he has been excellent and well worth the signing. Revis has two interceptions, a forced fumble, and seven passes defended in nine games, playing a team-high 94 percent of snaps. He has allowed 26 receptions, shown good versatility by playing man or zone, on the outside or in the slot, and has only allowed one touchdown this year, a fluke catch by Mike Wallace off a deflection. Browner has only played three games, and displayed good size and tenacity in solid performances against the Bears and Broncos, although Martellus Bennett had a few nice catches over him. The rotation behind Revis and Browner has been strange, but the Patriots have really solid depth at cornerback. Kyle Arrington has generally played very well, and had a great game against the Broncos, but he played only one snap against the Jets and nine against the Bears. Logan Ryan has played almost the entire game in six games, but he found himself playing fewer than five snaps against the Bengals, Bills, and Broncos. Alfonzo Dennard has been a bust so far this year, falling down the depth chart and earning a healthy scratch the last two weeks. Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler has been a nice find, and did an admirable job against Emmanuel Sanders last week. This unit really needs to cut down on penalties. Browner already has been flagged seven times in three games, including five for holding or pass interference. Ryan has seven penalties, Dennard and Revis have three, and Arrington has yet to be flagged.

Safeties: A

Devin McCourty continues to play at a high level as the center fielder and quarterback of the secondary. He has tremendous sideline-to-sideline range to patrol the deep part of the field, and the Patriots were the last team to allow a 40-yard pass this season (Week 9 against Denver). McCourty has 28 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and three passes defended this year, has played in 91 percent of snaps, and is lining himself up nicely for a big, fat contract this offseason. Equally as impressive, though, has been the play of Chung, who has been one of the team’s best finds of the offseason. Chung signed a one-year deal for only $60,000 guaranteed after being released by Philadelphia, and had to compete for a roster spot in camp. But he won the strong safety role away from Duron Harmon, and has been terrific as an in-the-box run defender, helping give the Patriots a physical presence without Jerod Mayo. Chung has played in an impressive 76 percent of snaps this season, and has 46 tackles and four passes defended, doing a nice job on Wes Welker last week. Harmon has been a bit disappointing in his second season, playing in only 22 percent of snaps, but he still gets work as a third safety in the big nickel package.

Where they rank: Defense

Through Week 4 Through Week 9
Total defense 4 15
Points per game allowed 14 12
Passing defense 1 14
Pass yards/attempt 3 10
Sacks per pass play 9 13
Rushing defense 23 23
Yards per attempt 20 23
Third down conversions 20 19
Red Zone TDs 6 19
Turnover margin T-7 1

Special teams: A

They have two spectacular touchdowns this year – Chandler Jones’s blocked field goal, scoop, and score from 58 yards out against Minnesota, and Edelman’s 84-yard punt return against Denver. Stephen Gostkowski has 101 points, is 24 of 25 on field goals, and has 30 touchbacks. Ryan Allen had a punt blocked against Miami in the opener but has settled in and is in the middle of the pack with a 46.0 average. Edelman and Amendola have combined to give the Patriots the No. 2 punt return unit, and Amendola averages 25.4 yards on kickoff returns. The coverage teams are No. 20 against the punt but No. 5 against the kickoff but have not allowed a touchdown. Matthew Slater is well on his way to earning another Pro Bowl appearance, and the addition of Don Jones from Miami gives New England two of the best punt gunners in the game. Bolden has also stood out on kickoff and punt coverage, and newcomer Jonathan Casillas had three kickoff tackles in his first game.

Coaching: A-minus

Bill Belichick probably should have had a more concrete plan to replace Mankins at the beginning of the season. The Patriots have 91 penalties, on pace to shatter the team record of 111 in 2003, and he’s 0 for 1 on challenges this season. But that feels like nitpicking. The Patriots are rolling along as usual at 7-2, the offense has two legitimate MVP candidates, and the offseason additions of Revis, Browner, and LaFell are paying off huge dividends. Tying it all together, of course, is Belichick, who not surprisingly has figured out his personnel after a shaky opening month and built the hottest team in the NFL. And yet again, Patriots haven’t really missed a beat without Ridley, Mayo, and Chandler Jones so far, plugging in guys such as Ayers, Deontae Skinner, and Gray and making it work. In Bill We Trust, yet again.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin