Bill Belichick has no use for midseason report cards, but he doesn't have to worry about the guidance counselor sending home any notices about failing grades, either.
The Patriots are 8-0 at the midseason point, crushing their opponents and staking an early claim to home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
There's still a long way to go until the Super Bowl in February, and the team's fortunes can change in an instant with one untimely injury. But the Patriots have looked pretty darned impressive in their eight-game body of work, telling us a lot about coaching decisions, player performance, offseason moves, and how the Patriots stack up against the rest of the league.
For instance, we learned that . . .
■ The Patriots are efficient on offense.
They have the No. 1 scoring offense (34.5 points per game), but we can have a lot more fun quantifying just how good the offense has been. They lead the league with 38 trips, 26 touchdowns, and 215 points in the red zone, are third in red zone touchdown percentage (68.4), and Tom Brady's interception last week against Washington was the only time all season they haven't scored points in the red zone.
The Patriots are the No. 1 team on third down, converting 48.5 percent, almost 10 percent higher than league average (38.9). They are second in the NFL with a plus-7 turnover differential, and they have the fewest giveaways in the league (five). Detroit, by comparison, has 20.
■ The Patriots’ front seven is dominant and the defense is stingy.
The Patriots were supposed to struggle without Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Vince Wilfork, right? Instead, they are arguably better this year, currently ranked fifth in points allowed (17.9 per game), eighth in total defense, and third against the run.
Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Devin McCourty have taken over as Pro Bowl-caliber leaders, Jabaal Sheard has been a terrific addition when healthy, and Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have performed admirably in the secondary.
The Patriots are second in the NFL with 27 sacks, fourth in sacks per pass play, and have allowed opponents into the red zone only 21 times, eighth fewest in the league.
■ The Patriots pour it on early and often.
The Patriots have outscored opponents by an almost 2-to-1 margin (276-143). They have allowed just 17 touchdowns in eight games, but four have come in garbage time inside the final two minutes of victories, and three were scored by the Bills after the Patriots led, 37-13, in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots have allowed just two first-quarter touchdowns in eight games, and completely overwhelm opponents in the first half — outscoring them, 58-20, in the first quarter and 82-36 in the second quarter.
■ Brady’s mobility has never been better. Whether it’s the avocado ice cream or 9 p.m. bedtimes, Brady has never looked more agile and has never been better at avoiding the pass rush than he is at 38. Brady is no Olympic sprinter, but mobility is part of his game now — sliding and shuffling around the pocket to find the throwing lanes, getting outside the pocket and throwing accurately on the run when plays break down, and ducking and twirling away from pass rushers. Brady has two rushing touchdowns this season, has rushed for nine first downs, and is 8 of 9 on third- and fourth-down conversions.
■ The Patriots are going to miss Dion Lewis. The kid was pretty special, gaining 234 yards on the ground and 388 through the air, with four touchdowns and some of the shiftiest moves we’ve ever seen around here. Brandon Bolden and James White are capable players, but Lewis’s ability to take a screen pass the distance, run through defenders, catch passes like a wide receiver, and pick up the blitz will not be easy to replace.
■ Hightower and Collins might be the best LB duo in the NFL.
Jones gets a lot of the press with his league-high 9½ sacks, but Hightower, now in his fourth season, and Collins, in his third, have blossomed into the centerpieces of the Patriots' defense. Freakish athletes who have grown together in this defense, Collins and Hightower terrorize opposing offenses as they blitz up the "A" gaps, chase ballcarriers from sideline to sideline, and bottle up quarterbacks and running backs in the passing game. Collins has 4½ sacks and three forced fumbles to go with a team-high 51 tackles, while Hightower has 3½ sacks and 39 tackles.
■ Dave DeGuglielmo is a good OL coach — but the Patriots really need Marcus Cannon back.
The performance of the offensive line this year has been one of the more remarkable aspects of the Patriots, given how they utilized an unconventional seven-man rotation (with three rookies) through the first quarter of the season, and more recently have barely skipped a beat despite several key injuries that have depleted the depth and forced guys to play out of position.
DeGuglielmo, now in his second year, deserves a ton of credit for getting all of his guys ready to play multiple positions and for developing rookies such as David Andrews and Shaq Mason quickly, but this team probably can't survive long term with Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle and Cameron Fleming at right tackle. They need Cannon to come back from his toe injury and have the pieces slide back into place — Cannon at left tackle, Vollmer on the right side, and Bryan Stork, Andrews, and Mason on the inside.
■ The Patriots are fine in the secondary, as long as McCourty, Butler, and Ryan stay healthy.
Re-signing McCourty was the best move they made this offseason, and he has been a valuable player as a rangy center fielder, slot cornerback, and locker room leader. Butler, in his first full season as a starting cornerback, has emerged as the clear No. 1 corner, playing a team-high 98.4 percent of snaps. You have to love Butler's competitiveness, the way he makes receivers fight for every inch, and how he has great makeup speed if he gets beaten at the line of scrimmage. Where he needs to improve, ironically, is his ball skills. He has mistimed some jumps, whiffed on a few interceptions, and couldn't quite get a finger on four touchdown receptions.
Ryan, now in his third season, has been surprisingly steady this year, coming down with four interceptions and helping shut down the likes of Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson. Patrick Chung, too, has been surprisingly great in man-to-man coverage, doing a much better job lined up against tight ends than he did as a deep Cover-2 safety in his first go-around with the Patriots.
But the Patriots are pretty thin at cornerback behind Butler and Ryan, with rookie Justin Coleman and waiver pickup Rashaan Melvin. McCourty can play cornerback, but isn't as effective there.
The Patriots cut Bradley Fletcher and lost Tarell Brown to injured reserve, and really need Butler and Ryan to stay healthy.
■ TE Scott Chandler hasn’t really incorporated himself into the offense.
I thought Chandler, who stands 6 feet 7 inches, would have an instant impact after signing a two-year deal in the offseason, but he's been kind of a dud so far. Chandler only has 12 catches for 136 yards and one touchdown (in the season opener), and has played in only 33.2 percent of snaps, fewer than blocking tight end Mike Williams (36.9 percent).
■ The Patriots are deep at defensive tackle.
Dominique Easley, last year's first-round pick, is a player. He had a quiet rookie season as he returned from ACL surgery, and he has just a half-sack this year, but he is disruptive in the passing game with consistent pressure up the middle. This year's first-round pick, Malcom Brown, is showing solid improvement as he gets 25-35 snaps per game, and Alan Branch has been awesome in the run game, replacing Wilfork as the plug in the middle of the defense and logging a half-dozen run stuffs this year.
■ It took three years, but Danny Amendola is a key piece of the offense.
Amendola was a bust in his first two seasons with the Patriots, but he finally showed signs of life in the playoffs last year and has found a nice niche for himself this year. Amendola is fourth on the team with 30 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns, and was Brady's go-to guy in the fourth quarter of their only competitive game, against the Jets. The Patriots will need him to contribute even more on offense now that Lewis is out.
■ Stephen Gostkowski is perfect.
As if having the best offense and a top-five defense wasn't enough, the Patriots also are dominant on special teams. Gostkowski is perfect in every sense of the word — 19 for 19 on field goals (three from 50-plus yards, including a franchise-record 57), 31 for 31 on extra points, and even 1 for 1 on onside kicks. Gostkowski leads the league with 42 touchbacks on kickoffs, is fifth in touchback percentage (73.7) and leads the NFL with 88 points scored.