Welcome to Season 2, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The 10-4 Patriots, coming off a 24-20 loss to the Dolphins, visit
Elvis Grbac Jeff Blake Jim Harbaugh Tony Banks Trent Dilfer Kyle Boller Joe Flacco and the 8-6 Stolen Cleveland Browns Baltimore Ravens. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. Julian Edelman: With 11 catches for 86 or more yards Sunday, the fifth-year receiver will go over the 100-catch and the 1,000-yard threshold. Pretty remarkable for a player who in his four previous seasons totaled 69 catches for 714 yards and seemed an afterthought in free agency this past offseason. Both feats are attainable today -- he's had 13 receptions in a game twice this season, including last week at Miami, and he's had 100 or more receiving yards in three of the past four games. Edelman's targets dipped when Rob Gronkowski returned -- he had just six receptions total in Games 8-10. But with Gronk down for the year and beyond, Edelman has re-emerged as perhaps Tom Brady's most trusted target, and there's an argument to be made that he's more valuable this year than Wes Welker would have been.
2. Matt Elam: Never thought a rookie defensive back would get away with talking smack about Megatron, but Elam did. After suggesting that Lions superstar receiver could be dealt with physically because he is "pretty old" -- Johnson is all of 28 -- Elam went out and played the best game of his career, making 10 tackles and hauling in the game-clinching interception. He was nominated for AFC Defensive Player of the Week, while Johnson spent the week answering questions about his two drive-killing drops. Not exactly the outcome we expected there.
3. Dennis Pitta: Since returning from a career-threatening hip injury two weeks ago, the 28-year-old tight end has just eight catches for 72 yards, including 2 and 24 Monday night against the Lions. But Pitta has had his moments against the Patriots through the years -- he scored the go-ahead touchdown in last year's AFC Championship Game -- and Bill Belichick had high praise for him this week, calling him "an excellent player who does a really good job." Against the 18th-ranked Patriots pass defense, he could find himself with some chances to make plays, especially if Dont'a Hightower is matched up against him.
JUST TRY TO GET THROUGH THIS WITHOUT LAUGHING
Did I mention that this was from a preseason game? If you look closely, you can see that there's a flask of deer-antler spray on the ground right next to the pre-cut sod he likes to throw in the air. I swear the Ravens are better off without him ...
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD ... though that's not to suggest Ray Lewis wasn't a truly great player at one point in time -- a prolonged point in time, actually. I'd never dispute his Canton credentials despite his phony look-at-me showmanship. And I can't imagine an NFL team ever having a more successful, franchise-altering first round of a draft in which they had multiple No. 1 picks than the Ravens in 1996, their first year in Baltimore. With the No. 3 overall selection, they took tackled Jonathan Ogden, who is already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-three picks later, the Ravens chose Lewis out of the University of Miami. Between the two of them, they played in 24 Pro Bowls and made first-team All-Pro 17 times. And to think I thought the Patriots had a great draft in '96 with the Terry Glenn-Lawyer Milloy-Tedy Bruschi trio.
RAY RICE HAS HAD A BETTER CAREER THAN I REALIZED
My first reaction when Rice, the Ravens' 26-year-old running back who is having a subpar year by his usual standards, said this week that he might consider retiring at age 30:
Good luck with that. There's a decent chance the decision will have already been made for him.
That's not to suggest that Rice a career-threatening injury is coming his way. It's just that a running back's NFL career typically lasts less than three years, the position being perhaps the most physically punishing of all. Yes, that estimate does include journeymen and other roster fodder -- an accomplished back such as a Rice has a longer run, so to speak. But playing four more years is no sure thing for any ball carrier. And Rice is averaging just 3.1 yards per pop this season.
However, if you look at Rice's top career comparables according profootballreference.com, it's possible that he will sustain his health and high-level of play to the point that the decision to retire will be his alone.
Consider the five backs most similar to Rice through the first five years of their careers:
1. Marcus Allen: Sort of unique case. He buried on the Raiders' bench by a spiteful Al Davis for a couple of seasons, which probably ended up prolonging his career. He played until age 37, scoring 11 touchdowns in his final season.
2. Marshall Faulk: Last great season came at age 29, retired at 32, will be bitter about Super Bowl loss to the Patriots for all eternity.
3. Billy Sims: Knee injuries and personal problems limited his career to five seasons, and he was done at 27. Still, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his final season, 1984.
4. Barry Sanders: He actually did do what Rice said he would consider doing -- he retired at the age of 30, still on top of his game. Ran for 1,491 yards in his final year, 1998.
5. Walter Payton: Ran for 1,333 yards at age 32, retired following the next season.
The next five on Rice's list are Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Ricky Watters, Wilbert Montgomery and William Andrews. Great -- and mostly durable -- company. Maybe the choice will be Rice's after all.
PREDICTION, OR IT'S GETTING HARD TO REMEMBER WHEN THE RAVENS WERE A PUSHOVER FOR THE PATRIOTS
As my colleague Chris Gasper detailed earlier this week, the Patriots and Ravens really have become genuine rivals. The Patriots beat them in the AFC Championship game two years ago. The Ravens turned the tables in Foxborough last year, then went on to win the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh is 3-3 against Bill Belichick, and the mutual admiration there is obvious. While the Patriots, as admirable and resilient as they are, are battered right now, Baltimore is coming off a huge win against the Lions that improved their record to 8-6. I'm convinced, because of the Patriots' injury situation and the serious one-and-done potential for Peyton Manning and the Broncos, that a lower seed is going to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl this year. I think that team will be the Ravens, who are no playoff lock yet but do have a fresh memory of what it takes to succeed this time of year. They're a bad matchup for the Patriots Sunday, and I can't help but think that will also be the case should they meet in January.
Ravens 27, Patriots 17
(Last week's prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 21. Final score: Dolphins 24, Patriots 20. Season record: 7-6.)
Be sure to join our always highly-rated Friday chat, during which we'll discuss whether Jonathan Herrera spells the end of Stephen Drew, the Patriots' chances against the rejuvenated Ravens, whether the Omer Asik trade would have made sense, and the usual media matters. Check in below to join the fun.
1. Would it be the craziest development in the baseball world for the Red Sox to jump in as serious bidders on Masahiro Tanaka, the well-regarded and coveted 25-year-old Japanese pitcher who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles? I don't think it would be. By all accounts he has an excellent chance to be a highly successful pitcher stateside, and while the Red Sox have pitching depth and are up against the $189 million luxury tax threshold already, it's a chance to acquire a real asset at a reasonable rate if and when he is posted. Maybe this is just conjecture brought on by the winter doldrums and the stagnation in the hot stove season at the moment, but such a stealth move by Ben Cherington doesn't seem to be out of the realm of possibility to me.
2. OK, about that little trade of the day, the Red Sox' swap of lefty Franklin Morales and minor-league righty Chris Martin to the Rockies for infielder Jonathan Herrera. It's a nice little depth pickup and fulfills Cherington's stated desire to add some infield versatility in the organization. Herrera just turned 29 and is a fine defender all over the infield. Here are a couple of clips from the same game that demonstrate his range:
The downside: He's not much with the bat, putting up a .265/.325/.332 line in a little over 1,100 plate appearances with the Rockies. On the somewhat positive side, there wasn't much of a home/road split. His OPS at Coors Field: .671. And on the road: .645. He's a nice depth piece for the Red Sox.
I'm not sure yet if there's more to it -- meaning that he's your designated late-inning defensive replacement for Xander Bogaerts and Stephen Drew isn't coming back. Here's hoping that's not the case, but Herrera is a worthwhile acquisition nonetheless.
3. As for Morales, it's funny he's headed back to where it all began, because if there's one team other than the Red Sox that knows the frustration of trying to turn his talent into production, it's the Rockies. Morales, who was once the seventh-ranked prospect in the game according to Baseball America, just hasn't been able to harness his stuff for any prolonged length of time. He averaged 5.3 walks per nine innings during his 4-plus seasons with the Rockies. He averaged 5.3 walks per nine innings with the Red Sox last year at age 27. I'll never forget watching him bounce pitch after pitch in the bullpen before coming in and walking in the go-ahead run in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays. In fact, that may be his weird legacy -- he's the one player who was on the Red Sox' roster all of the postseason who didn't contribute at all.
4. To a certain degree, I understand why David Ortiz is chirping about his contract again with one year remaining on his current deal. He's made $112 million in his career, obviously a filthy amount of money by almost any measure. But compared to peers with similar numbers and career paths, he's been fairly well underpaid, never making more than the $14.75 million he made this past season. Consider: His top three statistical comps are Carlos Delgado ($146 million in career earnings), Jason Giambi ($133 million, but just $8.5 million of that coming over the past five years) and Paul Konerko ($127.2 million). Manny Ramirez made more than $80 million more than Ortiz. Hell, Mike Hampton made about $12 million more. That said, while it's unfortunate for him that he never hit free agency at the right time, that doesn't mean the Red Sox are obligated to reward him now when he's 38 years old and already under contract. He's been their relative bargain, and it's their prerogative to keep it that way.
5. Loved this Baseball Prospectus hypothetical on what various teams would have to give up to get the Angels to consider trading Mike Trout. I'm not sure if this makes me a fanboy or not, but the only deal to me that look at all worthwhile for the Angels was the Red Sox' imaginary offer of Xander Bogaerts, Clay Buchholz, Jackie Bradley Jr., Henry Owens, and a couple of other prospects such as Ruby De La Rosa. Would you give up all of that for Trout, who won't become a free-agent until 2018? I don't think I would. Which is kind of crazy given that Trout is essentially the modern day Mickey Mantle.
6. If you're a Red Sox fan anxious to find out if the team's promising future will as fun as the most recent past, the feel-good story of the winter is this piece by Grantland's Rany Jazayerli on why the defending champions are set up for long-term success -- and more to the point, why the Yankees are not. I'm not close to writing off the Yankees as a contender this year -- Brian McCann gives them an enormous upgrade over the Chris Stewart black hole at catcher, and they will spend to add pitching, probably on Tanaka. But man, that farm system is barren, and McCann and Ellsbury are young players by the current roster's standards.
7. Read this line recently in a write-up of Josh Beckett: "If he took his gift for granted before, he probably won't now." Is that from a story about his progress in resuming his career after July surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, which was causing nerve problems in his neck? Nope. It's from the 2001 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, in which he was ranked the Marlins' No. 1 prospect ahead of Miguel Cabrera (a shortstop then) and Adrian Gonzalez ("he has tremendous makeup"). Beckett had experienced shoulder soreness early in his minor league career, and questions were already arising regarding his work ethic. He was a heck of a pitcher at his best. The 2007 Red Sox wouldn't have been champions without him. But given his talent, he might be one of the great underachievers of his time.
8. Just because, here are the players who would be on my Hall of Fame ballot this year if I had a Hall of Fame ballot this year: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, and Curt Schilling. Wait, that's 11? Wait til next year, Schill. And fix the damn voting rules already so that 14 candidates can get in if 14 candidates are deserving.
9. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:
I'll tell you who the Sportsman of the Year ought to be: Milan Lucic, for not pounding that beer-muscled Vancouver moron all the way to Saskatchewan and beyond.
I say that facetiously, of course, while saluting Looch's discipline in turning the other cheek when he'd already apparently been punched in one a couple of times.
At the very least, we'll award him an honorable mention nod as Boston Athlete of the Year, which we'll get to right after we try one more time, in puzzled vain, to figure out why Sports Illustrated made such an uninspired choice for its annual Sportsman of the Year.
The write-up on the SI website began this way: It came as little surprise that Peyton Manning was named Sports Illustratedís 2013 Sportsman of the Year...
Um ... it did? I mean, sure, he's an all-time NFL legend, and he'll probably set a new passing record or two in the next couple of weeks, and he even almost won a playoff game back in January, and is he is a sportsman in the sense that he has been a gracious loser eight times in the first round of the playoffs during his career.
It's quite thoughtful that he lets so many others win the biggest games and trophies. Still, I don't know, I was kind of surprised. That doesn't sound like a Sportsman of the Year. It sounds like a guy who will probably start at quarterback for the AFC in the Pro Bowl.
Ubiquitous SI football writer Peter King made the announcement on NBC Sunday night, a perfectly suspicious bit of synergy. Here's how he explained it:
ďAt first, when I knew we were considering Manning, I thought: good choice. Lifetime-achievement-award choice,Ē explained King on his offshoot website TheMMQB.com. ďBut if you isolate this year, youíre looking at a player two years removed from four neck procedures that would have prompted many 35-year-old legends to choose retirement."
I suppose that's a reason, though that logic become tangled when you remember just who we're talking about. If Peyton Manning loves football, lives for football, to the degree that we've been told he does, he'd have signed off on becoming the recipient of the world's first full-neck transplant before ever considering retirement.
There's a hint of disingenuousness there to suggest he's worthy of this because others would have walked away. And if cynicism is your default mode, the website Kissing Suzy Kolber-- which hilariously and sometimes viciously skewers King weekly -- has the take that you might find most agreeable:
[Why was Manning the Sportsman of the Year?] Because it was done with PKís property in mind. If itís an NFL player on the cover, it gives SI a nice plug for their magazine on the most-watched show on television. Plus itís an opportunity to plug TheMMQB, a site SI has poured a bunch of money into over the past year. Itís a disgusting, cynical, business-driven decision and Peter King is a weaselly [expletive] to guilelessly try to distance himself from it.
Like I said ... hilarious and vicious. I'm not sure I agree with all of KSK's take, at least not to such a cynical degree, but conversely, I'm sure SI has no regrets about the small controversy it has caused and the buzz it has generated. In that sense, their choice of Manning served a valuable purpose for their brand.
If SI wanted to give a lifetime achievement award to an all-time great who had overcome serious injury to return to superb form, the honor should have gone not to Manning, but to Mariano Rivera.
The graceful, gracious Yankees closer concluded his singularly brilliant career at age 43 with another outstanding season, not to mention the most enjoyable and classy athlete's farewell tour I can recall.
And he did it after returning from a knee injury that -- how do we put this? -- would have prompted many 43-year-old legends to choose retirement.
Rivera would have been my choice. David Ortiz would have been New England's choice, perhaps unanimously, and based on the criteria, he probably should have been the choice. But I understand why he wasn't -- it was a matter of publishing logistics more than anything else, I suspect.
The definitive piece on Ortiz, accompanied by an extraordinary cover ...
... ran in the November 11 edition of SI after the Red Sox won the World Series. Tom Verducci's story was typically exceptional, and it would have been redundant to pay similar homage less than two months later. (Verducci did make the case for Ortiz as Sportsman of the Year just a couple of weeks ago on the SI website.)
Ortiz's pitch-perfect "this is our [expletive] city" speech mattered to a city trying to heal. And his performance on the field, particularly during the World Series, when the Cardinals finally realized they should just stop pitching to him, is one of the main reasons the Red Sox have their third World Series title in 10 years.
Sportsman of the Year? He would have been the perfect choice considering ... well, considering everything.
With due respect to Tom Brady, Zdeno Chara, roughly a dozen other Red Sox, and yes, The Peaceful Looch, our choice for Boston Athlete of the Year is David Ortiz, and it was so obvious that it was no choice at all.
We have no cover story to offer him, no cash prize, new car, or even a plaque. Just our endless gratitude for being so wonderful in the biggest moments, whether that meant hitting another home run during our jubilant October, or finding the perfect words for our aching city back in April.
Maybe there's too much of a what-might-have-been factor to what I'm about to say, too much pining for something that's probably not going to happen without an extraordinary level of cooperation-by-incompetence by any team figured to be superior to the Patriots at the moment.
But I do believe this to be true: If they had reasonable health right now -- if, if, if -- the New England Patriots would be the best team in the AFC this season without a rival.
All other things being equal, I'd give the nod to the Patriots in a hypothetical head-to-head showdown against the ferocious Seahawks in the Jersey snow in February, if primarily because Pete Carroll teams have this charming habit of melting into a puddle right when you fully believe in them.
Like I said, though -- we're dealing in a hypothetical rather than a reality. Excluding all injuries from the equation -- again, that's the game we're playing here -- I'll take their 45-man game day roster, their 53-man roster, heck, even their shadow roster that should probably include Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss at the moment, over that of any other team in the NFL.
Had the Patriots stayed reasonably healthy this season -- had they not lost Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork among others along the way -- I'm convinced the elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy would have been coming back to Foxborough with them in a little over a month.
I know, I know -- a lot of good that daydream does right now. The Patriots fell to the Dolphins Sunday, 24-20, with Tom Brady's bid for a fourth straight ridiculous comeback victory settling into the hands of little-known defensive back Michael Thomas for an interception on the game's final play. It was a reminder that every game here on out is going to be a grind, and not every one will deliver the conclusion Patriots fans desire. They're depleted, and Brady can't rescue them with a fourth-quarter miracle every week.
There's no shame in losing to the Dolphins in Miami. They're a resilient team with an improving quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, and they had plenty on the line Sunday. They're legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, and at 8-6, they're two games back of the Patriots in the division. Catching them is unlikely, but they did prevent the Patriots from having a hat-and-t-shirt party on their home turf.
It's not that the Patriots lost at Miami that was so troubling -- in a sense, the Patriots' short-circuited comeback was as impressive as any of the ones they've actually won.
They nearly pulled it off in the Miami heat with a makeshift offensive line (Nate Solder out, someone named Josh Kline in) and Brady having few options other than to throw to undersized Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (33 targets between them) before he got buried by the Dolphins' bloodthirsty pass rush.
Nothing is coming easy now. Every game against every opponent will be a brawl. As Tom Brady himself said on WEEI Monday morning, there's very little margin for error now.
Brady will need to be as perfect as the media portrays Peyton Manning as being. The defense, which has allowed more than 700 passing yards to Tannehill and Jason Campbell over the past two weeks, will somehow have to find a way to be opportunistic (it has gone two games without forcing a turnover ). The small receivers -- Austin Collie and Josh Boyce among them -- will have to find ways to make big plays. Shane Vereen (just 21 total yards Sunday) must be a consistent factor. Stevan Ridley must re-emerge, and when he does, he must hold on to the damn football.
It's an extraordinary credit to the Patriots that they're 10-4 despite all that they've endured. But that doesn't make it easier to take.
In fact, it stinks, because you can't help but think what would be possible this season if not for the injuries. I mean, that's how it goes in the NFL -- it's a league of attrition-aided parity, and no one in, say, Houston or Atlanta or any other football city with a decimated roster is going to offer much sympathy.
Those who like to scold us that injuries aren't an excuse are right. They're not an excuse. They're a reason. The Patriots have lost the fulcrum of their defense. Both cornerbacks are hobbled. And wouldn't you think the Patriots would have been better than 1 for 4 in the red zone Sunday had Gronkowski still had both knees intact?
We knew they'd miss Gronk. But did the reminder have to be so blatant? Did it have to be soon and so stark? He's one of the most fun players to watch in recent NFL history. He's also one of the most unstoppable. And now the Patriots are resigned to throwing fade patterns to sub-6-foot-tall receivers with the game on the line.
No wonder Brady was in no mood to elaborate during his postgame press conference, at least beyond this:
"Made some good plays, made a lot of [expletive] plays."
We can only imagine what he was saying as he peeled away with Gisele in the getaway car a moment later.
It's fulfilling to watch this Patriots team put up a fight week after week, especially since it usually emerges victorious. But it's frustrating to know that it's probably not going to be enough to get them where they want to go.
The next-man-up mind set is useful for maintaining focus when teammates are falling and there's a task at hand. Still, there's a point of diminishing returns that is occurring right now -- some players just cannot be replaced. The next man up just isn't good enough.
The Broncos are soft, and the Bengals are the Bengals, and no quarterback/coach combination matches Brady and Bill Belichick. For those reasons alone I'd never entirely give up on the Patriots winning the AFC.
But watching them now, with their reduced talent and still-admirable will, I can't help but think: Imagine how exceptional this team would be without so many cruel twists along the way.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.