I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. So here is the fourth installment of what we're calling the Unconventional Preview. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I have putting it together.
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY THAT I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. Mario Williams: He was high on the wish-list of a lot Patriots fans this offseason when he entered free agency, and given his age (27), football pedigree (No. 1 overall pick in 2006) and production (53 career sacks entering this season), coveting him as the player who would finally replace Willie McGinest all these years later made sense. Instead, he signed with Buffalo on a six-year deal with $50 million guaranteed, and while he has just 1.5 sacks, watching him battle Nate Solder at left tackle will be an interesting sidelight to the game. He's a great player, but I'm still left with a question, Patriots fans: Would you rather have Williams for the next six years, or Chandler Jones?
2. Wes Welker: For all of the drama about his role this season, the Patriots' slot receiver has still been very productive, with 16 receptions for 251 yards. (He still awaiting his first TD.) Of course, the Bills could be excused if those numbers don't look particularly impressive to them, since Welker's output thus far through three games essentially mirrors what he put up in a single game against the Bills last year. Welker went 16-217-2 in Buffalo's Week 3 victory, then had six catches in limited time in the Patriots' Week 17 win. The Bills couldn't stop him last year. Josh McDaniels would be wise to make a note of that Sunday.
3. Jairus Byrd: Why Jairus Byrd? Well, because he's a ballhawk at safety for the Bills, but mostly because he's the son of former defensive back Gill Byrd, and that tidbit gives me a semi-justifiable reason to shoehorn the wildly entertaining 1980s San Diego Chargers into this column for the third week in a row. OK, I'll stop.*
*-- At least until next week.
WILL THE REAL DEVIN McCOURTY PLEASE STAND UP? (AND MAYBE CATCH THE DAMN BALL WHILE YOU'RE AT IT?)
I honestly don't know what to make of the third-year defensive back at this point. Do you? He had a superb rookie season, probably the best any rookie Patriots cornerback has had save for Mike Haynes in '76, proving steady in coverage, tackling well for his position, and repeatedly demonstrating a knack for coming away with the ball. (The interception he ripped out of Percy Harvin's hands might have been his definitive play of the season.) McCourty second season was whatever the opposite of superb is. He was a mess, and the bright, introspective McCourty admitted as much. So here we are in the pivotal Year 3, the rubber-match in determining exactly what he is as a player. He appeared to have the goat horns attached to his helmet after the 31-30 loss to the Ravens committing a crucial pass interference penalty, dropping a pair of potential picks, and drawing such constant attention from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter that he might as well have aimed a laser pointer at him before throwing the ball. Yet my colleague Greg Bedard, whose work I respect endlessly, wrote after watching the film that "this was [McCourty's] best game in some time with four pass breakups, a pass defensed, and another good pass coverage." And you have to admit that had he held on to just one of the potential picks, the perception of his performance would be completely different. McCourty had his issues with the Bills' Stevie Johnson last year. I'm not sure what to make of him right now because of the contradictions of his play. I guess we'll just wait for more evidence one way or the other to be compiled Sunday.
BOOKS WRITTEN 1, BOOKS READ 0
You know, I'd actually read this. I like Carucci, who I presume made sure there were punctuation marks at the end of sentences and that there actually were sentences, and Smerlas, who was one hell of a football player, does have his fleeting moments of genuine humor and insight. Also: I'll bet you the cover price that he still wears that shirt today. The pants he gave to Ordway.
PAT SUMMERALL REFERRING TO STEVE GROGAN'S ALL-PRO-CALIBER SEASON? YEAH, YOU'RE GONNA WATCH THAT
Did you see that little lollipop Grogan threw to Russ Francis with four guys around him? That was Grogan in a nutshell, but it was also a reminder that Francis was ahead of his time. He was an extraordinarily talented football player -- All-World, some might say -- and yet he never had more than 41 receptions in a season with the Pats. Imagine the numbers he'd put up in this offense and era. My dad always insisted he was better than Kellen Winslow Sr. Francis is just 59. Maybe TE-hoarder Bill Belichick can bring him in to replace Kellen Winslow Jr.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK Know what? I don't have one, at least relative to the current state of the game. The real officials are back on the job, and it's such a universally joyous occasion after that Monday night clown show in Seattle that Walt Coleman would probably get a standing ovation in Oakland right now. All is well right up until the moment when they remind us that they too have sporadic fits of incompetence on any given Sunday. (By the way, have all the preening, "oh-I'll-just-casually-flex-here-while-I-explain-this-call-in-unnecessary-detail" gun shows jacked up Ed Hochuli's Q-rating or what? I don't know if I heard another official mentioned by name during the lockout. He's the face of the zebras.)
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: OK, I guess this is kind of a grievance, at least an ongoing or recurring one. Former Bills receiver Andre Reed is nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the seventh time, joining 127 other candidates, among them ex-Patriots Smerlas, Drew Bledsoe, Ben Coates, and Stanley Morgan, none of whom seems likely to be a finalist, let alone an inductee. Reed has been a finalist for the past six years, but he's been caught in that backlog at the position that includes Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter. Reed, who was essential to the K-Gun offense on the Bills' four Super Bowl teams, finished his 16-year career with 951 receptions, 13,198 yards, and 87 touchdowns. While he doesn't have a 100-reception season -- it was a different era, folks -- and wasn't the flashiest player, I think of him as the Tim Raines to Jerry Rice's Rickey Henderson, a truly great player who was overshadowed and unsung because his career overlapped with the greatest ever. Here's hoping seven proves his lucky number, because Andre Reed belongs in Canton.
DURING A WEEK IN WHICH A HAIL MARY DECIDED A GAME, IT'S ONLY RIGHT TO DISCUSS DOUG FLUTIE
I've always figured the mutual admiration between Flutie, who spent his 20th professional season as a Patriot, and Bill Belichick came down to two things: 1, Belichick's appreciation of NFL history and unconventional, successful players, and 2, Flutie's mastery of the obvious in knowing that Tom Brady was one quarterback behind whom he deserved to sit. I'll always wonder against whom Flutie holds the biggest grudge. Mike Ditka? Raymond Berry? Wade Phillips? Bum Phillips for siring Wade? Mrs. Phillips for not feigning a headache that fateful night? Rob Johnson? Rob Johnson's bandanna? This is my roundabout way of saying that "Doug Flutie: A Football Life" is long overdue.
PREDICTION, ALSO KNOWN AS "I THOUGHT BRIAN MOORMAN HAD A LIFETIME CONTRACT."
The Bills' defensive line is fierce, Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson (who may or may not be healthy enough to be effective) are well-established as Patriots pests, and it would be foolish to count this victory before it has hatched given Buffalo's 34-31 win in Week 3 last year. Buffalo is the second-best team in the AFC East. Unfortunately for them, they're playing the best Sunday, and Tom Brady and the Patriots aren't about to fall to 1-3. Patriots 30, Bills 20
(Last week's prediction: Patriots 20, Ravens 17. Final score: Ravens 31, Patriots 30. Season record: 1-2. And suddenly, I'm realizing that my final record will probably be identical the Patriots' record. I'm cool with that.)
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.