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Patriots at the halfway point: Time for a report card

James White has become Tom Brady’s most trusted weapon this season. Chris Cecere/AP

The 2018 NFL season feels like it just got started a few weeks ago. But believe it or not, the Patriots are halfway done with their regular season — eight games down, eight to go.

The Patriots are 6-2 and sitting pretty in the AFC. They currently hold the No. 2 playoff seed, one game behind the Chiefs, but they hold the head-to-head advantage. They are right on schedule for another 12-win season and deep playoff run.

As the Patriots prepare for Sunday night’s showdown against the Packers, let’s review the first half of their season, sorting items into five categories: Great, Good, Fair, Needs Improvement, and Poor (all statistics courtesy of STATS LLC):



■  Running back James White: He has become Tom Brady’s most trusted weapon and No. 1 receiving option. White is seventh in the NFL in catches (55), leads the Patriots with 459 yards, is third in the NFL in yards after catch (403), and tied for fourth in the NFL in receiving touchdowns (six).

White has the Patriots’ only two games of 10 catches. He leads the team in third-down receptions (13, tied for 12th in the NFL) and has become a deadly red-zone weapon — tied for third in the NFL in catches (nine), and leading the league in touchdowns (six). And when the Patriots needed to close out the Bears, White took a handoff on eight straight snaps and forced the Bears to burn all of their timeouts.

The Patriots’ first-half MVP comes down to two players, and White is one.

■  Cornerback Stephon Gilmore: And he is the other one. Gilmore has been phenomenal in coverage, allowing just 14 catches on 41 targets (34.1 completion percentage). He has allowed three touchdowns, but Gilmore’s 11 passes defended are second most in the NFL. The Patriots have often left him on an island, and Gilmore consistently comes through with lock-down coverage. He also has been a great tackler in the run game.


■  The offensive line: Brady has been sacked just 11 times in eight games (tied for seventh fewest), and for minus-67 yards (fourth fewest). The Patriots are ranked No. 1 in protection index (tracking hurries, knockdowns, and sacks), have the fewest combination of false starts and holding penalties in the league (nine), and have allowed just 13 negative rushes (fourth fewest).

Trent Brown has been fantastic in his first real stint playing left tackle in the NFL. He has allowed two sacks, committed one holding penalty, and most impressively, has played all 552 offensive snaps. Shaq Mason has been nearly perfect — no sacks, no false starts, no holds, and one tripping penalty. Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon have not allowed a sack, and Thuney has played all 552 snaps. David Andrews has allowed one sack, one hold, and one false start. LaAdrian Waddle has been the weak link, and even he has been OK: one false start, one holding, and two sacks.

■  Penalties: In general, the Patriots have done a great job of avoiding penalties. They have committed the seventh-fewest penalties (51) for the third-fewest yards (303). They have the lowest per-snap penalty rate on offense, and the third-lowest rate on defense. They have only been busted for two defensive pass interference calls, they have not had an accepted offside penalty, and they are one of six teams without a roughing the passer call.


■  Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: The AFC special teams player of the month for October is as reliable as ever. He leads the league with 77 points and is 16 for 16 in field goals under 50 yards (though just 1 of 3 from 50-plus).

■  Forcing turnovers: The Patriots have forced a turnover in each of their eight games, the first time they have done so since 2013. Their 16 turnovers are tied for third most in the NFL, and are just two shy of their total from last year. The Patriots have also scored 69 points off turnovers, the most in the NFL.

■  Avoiding negative plays: The Patriots have had the second-fewest negative yards (minus-114 yards on sacks, stuffed runs, and negative passes).

■  Two-minute defense: The Patriots have not allowed a point in the two-minute defense, in 10 possessions (end of first half and second half).

■  Kickoff returns: They have the third-best starting field position after a kickoff (27.1-yard line).


Julian Edelman has performed well since returning from an ACL injury.Adrian Kraus/AP

■  The offense: The Patriots are sixth in scoring efficiency (scoring touchdowns on 45.1 percent of their drives). They’re 10th on third down (43 percent), but only 16th in yards per play (5.73). The Patriots’ points scored stat has also been skewed by three defense/special teams touchdowns. The offense is seventh in the NFL in points per game (27.5).

■  The pass defense: Believe it or not, the pass defense has been very good. The Patriots have allowed the fourth-lowest passer rating (85.8, league average is 93.9). They have the second-most interceptions (11), the fifth-lowest completion percentage (61.0), and the eighth-lowest yards per attempt (7.09). They also have been terrific in defending the deep ball, allowing a league-low 24.4 completion percentage on passes 21-plus yards in the air, with five touchdowns and three interceptions.


■  Wide receiver Josh Gordon: No offense is tougher to learn than the Patriots’, but Gordon has done a nice job of integrating himself. He has taken over the No. 2 receiver role, playing 86 percent of snaps the last three weeks. Gordon has 17 catches for 266 yards (averaging a healthy 15.6 yards per catch), caught an acrobatic touchdown over two defenders, and has shown great yards after the catch ability. Gordon also has gained Brady’s trust already, with just one drop and six targets on third and fourth down (three catches and conversions).

■  Wide receiver Julian Edelman: Coming off a torn ACL, Edelman has shown impressive durability, playing 88.9 percent of snaps in his four games. His receiving numbers don’t exactly pop — 25 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns, plus two drops — but Edelman showed impressive strength on his TD catch in Chicago, barreling through three defenders and dragging them into the end zone. That extra four games of rest looked like it helped his knee recovery.

■  Red-zone offense: The Patriots lead the NFL in percentage of red-zone scores (28 out of 29, 96.6 percent) and are ninth in red-zone touchdowns (65.5 percent).

■  Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson: Only playing between six and 13 snaps for the past four games, Patterson is really just a kick returner and a gadget player. But he has chipped in nicely. He has two touchdown catches, has been effective on jet sweeps, showed good versatility by playing some running back against the Bills, and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against the Bears. That’s exactly what the Patriots expected out of him.


■  Linebacker Kyle Van Noy: The team’s leading tackler (43), third in snaps (86.2 percent), has a forced fumble, an interception, two sacks, a blocked punt return touchdown, and is tied for fifth in the NFL with 21.5 QB hurries.

■  Coaching: In addition to the great job on penalties this year, the Patriots are also fourth in scoring differential (plus-54), 3-0 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, and have not allowed a defensive or special teams touchdown.


Rob Gronkowski has just one touchdown reception this season.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

■  Brady: He has played well overall, his pocket mobility has been fantastic, and he’s not showing signs of slowing down. But it’s a tougher grading curve when it comes to Brady, and most of his stats are pedestrian by his standards.

Brady is 12th in the NFL in passing yards per game (275). He’s 14th in passer rating (97.6). His seven interceptions are tied for eighth most in the NFL, and he’s throwing interceptions at his highest rate (2.4 percent of passes) since 2005. Usually deadly against the blitz, Brady’s 101.6 passer rating ranks only 18th. And STATS credits him with 48 “poor throws,” third most in the NFL. But Brady has been deadly in the red zone (12 touchdowns, no interceptions, 109.3 passer rating).

■  Tight end Rob Gronkowski: The big fella has had a tough season. His 15.6 reception average is nice, and Gronk has played in 90.7 percent of the snaps of the games he has played (seven of eight). But otherwise his numbers are down. Gronk is averaging his fewest yards per game (64) since his rookie year. He has just one touchdown, and none in his last six games. Most shockingly, Gronk has just two red-zone targets, and no catches. He’s seeing a lot of double teams, but Gronk isn’t creating separation, is being used as a blocking decoy far too often, and now is dealing with a back injury. He just doesn’t look like himself.

■  The defense: There were some ugly performances against Jacksonville, Detroit, and Kansas City. And there are some stats below that will make you shake your head. But all things considered, the defense has been OK. The Patriots are 12th in scoring average (23.1 per game). They’re 20th in yards per play (5.79). And they’re 16th in the NFL with 36.1 percent of drives ending in scores.

■  Running back Sony Michel — When healthy, Michel has been solid. He’s 16th in the NFL with 422 yards, has a couple of 100-yard games, and is averaging a healthy 4.4 yards per carry, running with surprising power. But that knee injury has already hampered him twice — it caused him to start the season slowly, then knocked him out of the Chicago and Buffalo games. Michel is just 7 of 10 on third/fourth and 1, which could be improved.

■  Drops: The Patriots are a bit below average in drops — 5.2 percent of their pass attempts are dropped, 19th in the NFL — but individually, the Patriots are doing well. No one on the team has more than two drops (Edelman and Phillip Dorsett), and all of the other main receivers have one each.

■  Safety Devin McCourty: He has taken a lot of heat for the five touchdowns he has allowed. But on a per-snap basis, McCourty has still been solid. He has allowed just 21 catches (in 32 targets) for 211 yards all season, and catch stats for safeties can be misleading, anyway. He’s also as durable as ever, leading the defense with 545 out of 551 snaps.

Needs improvement

Adrian Clayborn, center, and the Patriots defense rank 29th in the NFL in sacks.Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

■  Blitzing: The Patriots are sending the heat on defense but not getting home. They are ranked 23rd in the NFL with a 105.6 passer rating against their blitz. Opposing quarterbacks are 46 of 82 passing (56 percent) for 478 yards, 8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and 4 sacks. The Patriots’ sack percentage of 4.65 percent on the blitz is third worst in the NFL.

■ Creating negative plays on defense: The Patriots are 29th with only 12 sacks, and 29th with 36 negative plays created (sacks, stuffed runs, and negative passes). The Patriots are also ranked 30th in sack percentage (a sack on 3.6 percent of pass attempts).

■  Creating chunk plays on offense: They haven’t pushed the ball downfield well, as the Patriots are tied for 22nd with 28 plays of 20-plus yards. They only have two completions of 50-plus yards, and both were catch-and-runs (Patterson, Gordon).

■  Wide receiver Chris Hogan: Not exactly how he wanted to perform in his contract year. Hogan is starting to pick up his production, and he has 23 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns. But Hogan is running a clear third behind Edelman and Gordon among receivers. His 41.6 yards per game are his fewest in his three years with the Patriots.

■  Third-down defense: The Patriots are ranked 26th in the NFL, allowing conversions on 42.9 percent. They’re ranked 25th on third downs in the red zone (47.1 percent).

■  Defensive end Adrian Clayborn: He signed a two-year contract that pays him $6 million this year, but Clayborn isn’t living up to his deal. He has just seven tackles and two sacks, and at least twice as many whiffs on the quarterback. Clayborn does lead the Patriots with eight knockdowns, and his 12 QB hurries are tied for 48th in the NFL, but they need more production from him.


The Patriots’ 13 turnovers are tied for seventh most in the NFL.Steven Senne/AP

■  Ball security: The Patriots have been incredibly sloppy. Their 13 turnovers are tied for seventh most in the NFL, and are one more than they had all of last season.

■  Brady’s deep passing: On passes of 21-plus yards in the air, Brady is 5 for 25 for 169 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, and his 35.3 rating ranks 33rd out of 35 passers. Woof.

■  Short-yardage defense: The Patriots are 30th in third/fourth and 1, allowing 8 of 9 conversions. They are also tied for worst in the NFL in third-and-short situations (less than 4 yards), allowing 80 percent conversions (20 of 25).

■  Special teams: Gostkowski and Patterson have been good. But elsewhere on special teams, the Patriots are unusually poor. They are 31st in starting field position allowed after kickoffs (27.4-yard line), and 31st in punt return defense (12.9-yard average). They are 22nd in punt return average. And they’re tied for the fourth most special teams penalties (13). Special teams coach Joe Judge is one of the best in the business, but he needs to get that stuff cleaned up.

Extra points

Sunday’s Patriots-Packers game is just the second time that Aaron Rodgers will square off against Tom Brady, and got us thinking about other great QB battles that rarely happened. Peyton Manning played Brett Favre just twice (2000, 2004). Manning and Rodgers only battled twice as well (2008 and 2015). John Elway and Dan Marino only played each other three times despite playing in the same conference, and went 13 years between matchups. Joe Montana, in the NFC, played Elway five times, including a Super Bowl. And Montana and Marino, the two preeminent quarterbacks of the 1980s, played just twice, but not after the 1984 Super Bowl . . . To get more premier matchups, the NFL should consider reducing the number of division games from six to three each year. I’ve seen more than enough Dolphins, Jets, and Bills games, thank you very much . . . In Thursday’s win over the Raiders, the 49ers’ Nick Mullens became just the third quarterback since 1950 to throw for 250 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in his NFL debut, joining Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly . . . C’mon, Matt Patricia. You’ve got to know better than to chew out a reporter for a petty reason like slouching while the cameras are rolling (especially from a coach whose appearance is a bit, let’s say, unkempt). Patricia has had a strained relationship with the Detroit media since the story of his mid-’90s sexual assault allegation came out this spring. But take your grievances out in private, not during a news conference. Lions fans and players are looking for reasons to not like Patricia, and acting like a jerk on the podium gives them one.

Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, now an analyst for CBS, will be in the booth for next week’s Cardinals-Chiefs game . . . Louisiana is the epicenter of the football universe this weekend: Alabama-LSU on Saturday, Rams-Saints on Sunday . . . The Browns are the perfect example why it’s foolhardy to hire an “all-star” coaching staff with no experience working together. Hue Jackson, Todd Haley, and Gregg Williams are all fine X’s and O’s coaches, but they’re all stabbing each other in the back and blaming each other for the team’s failures. Williams is the only one to survive, but he should start getting his résumé in order . . . From the You Learn Something New Every Day File: Demaryius Thomas couldn’t keep his No. 88 jersey when he was traded to the Texans this past week. Tight end Jordan Akins already has that number, and the NFL has a rule that players who have played more than 30 percent of snaps in a season cannot change their jersey number. So Thomas is now No. 87.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.