Welcome to the 11th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon ... except for when it runs the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. This week, the 7-3 Gronk-less Patriots host
Richard Todd Browning Nagle Glenn Foley Ray Lucas Mark Sanchez and those annual AFC leaders in melodrama, the New York Jets. Let's get to the details.
THREE PLAYERS I'LL BE WATCHING OTHER THAN TOM BRADY
1. Aqib Talib: Yeah, he was minus-1 in his debut against the Colts -- gave up two touchdowns, and returned an interception for a score. In context, though, I was very impressed. He hadn't played a meaningful game in more than a month, he had great coverage on the first TD he allowed (just a perfect throw from Andrew Luck), and his presence freed up Devin McCourty to roam the field as a safety. Really interested to see what he does in Game 2.
2. The committee to replace Gronk: Small consolation, I know, but there may not be another team in the NFL more suited to temporarily replacing such an integral player than the Patriots are with Gronk. Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker will all be even more prominent in the passing game. Daniel Fells and/or Michael Hoomanawanui will take on his blocking duties. Visanthe Shiancoe (18 touchdowns in 2007-08 with the Vikings) will be the red-zone threat. Of course Gronkowski will be missed -- he really does already rate among the greatest at his position in NFL history, with 36 touchdowns in 42 regular-season games. But his absence can be overcome because of the Patriots' uncommon quality of depth.
3. Tim Tebow: Well, if offensive mastermind Tony Sparano doesn't find a way to utilize the NFL's version of the spork -- semi-useful in two different ways! -- in this season-in-the-balance matchup with their chief rival ... oh, never mind, who am I kidding. Tebow is the most hyped roster afterthought in sports history, and if they use him for anything beyond one trick play, it's too much. It's just that the one trick play, destined to end in disaster for the Jets, will be more interesting than what most of the other 52 Jets are capable of mustering, at least on the field.
ONE PLAYER WE WERE WATCHING WHEN TOM BRADY DEBUTED
I don't know if it's symmetry, coincidence, irony, or just one of those goofy random things that happen. Hell, probably this is a reach to connect some dots. But it is kind of cool that Charlie Batch, who was the best quarterback on the field when rookie Tom Brady made his NFL debut, will be making a rare start (just his eighth since 2001) during a week in which Brady is again playing on the holiday.
Now that I read it again, that connection definitely is a reach. But it does provide us a segue into the details of a notable day in Patriots history, even if it hardly felt notable at time.
The date was November 23, 2000, Brady's rookie season, Bill Belichick's first as coach, and one of recovery and transition for the Patriots, who were beginning to dig out from the pathetic drafting and salary-cap mismanagement from the Bobby Grier/Pete Carroll era. Their problems were never more evident than on that thanks-for-nothing Thanksgiving, when the Lions dropped the Patriots to 3-9 with a 34-9 pasting. Drew Bledsoe, playing with an injured thumb, threw a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Batch, then just 46 years old and having finally beaten out Greg Landry for the starting job, at least as I recall, had his way with the Patriots defense, completing 16 of 24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown while running for another score.
It was embarrassing, as emphasized by the headline on the Patriots notebook in the Globe the next day: Sickening Losses Are Getting Harder To Stomach. But there was hope to be found, though we didn't have a clue then. Down in the last segment of notes in that same column was a single line about the rookie quarterback who relieved Bledsoe long after it was out of hand:
Tom Brady, who attended Michigan, was the quarterback for the Patriots' final series, completing 1 of 3 attempts for 6 yards.
If you knew his first completion was to Rod Rutledge, well, you either have an extraordinary memory for Patriots trivia, watched the clip above, or you're Rod Rutledge. But perhaps you don't recall the circumstances of why Brady, whose hagiographic lore reminds us that he was a fourth stringer as a rookie, got into the game. Backup John Friesz was injured, and Michael Bishop was in the midst of a controversy because it was whispered that he didn't know the playbook. In fact, leading up to game day, there was a possibility that because of Bledsoe's thumb injury, Brady would actually start. Here's what he told Nick Cafardo the day before about the possibility:
"[Bledsoe] goes out and gives it all he's got every game," Brady said. "It can be tough gripping the ball, especially as the weather gets colder. He will play as long and as hard as he can. It's obvious he wants to be out there because he could have turned it in a long time ago. He has the respect of his teammates and that is important because everyone gets hurt out there."
Everyone gets hurt out there. Little did any of us know another Bledsoe injury less than a year later would lead to that first Brady start and a sea change in Patriots history.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Man, for an All-Pro he sure does look contemplative, even forlorn. It's as if his AFC-leading 107 points and the 22 field goals he made during that '78 season have been booted to the deep recesses of his mind, and he's tormented, again, by one he missed.
It occurred in the final seconds of the Patriots' 19-17 victory over the Jets on November 19, 1978. Surely you've seen the replay through the years -- it's the one in which Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson whispered words of, um, wisdom to Leahy as the kicker crumpled in disappointment.
Here's how Will McDonough wrote it up in the next's day's Globe:
"I don't want to say what I said to him," said Nelson, the Patriots' defensive captain, avoiding comment on his "talk" with Jets kicker Pat Leahy seconds after Leahy missed the field goal that would have beaten the Patriots ...
"I shouldn't have said what I said to him," said Nelson. "Sometimes you become irrational out there, and that was one of them."
After he missed the kick, Leahy slumped to both knees in obvious mental anguish. Nelson walked over, put his hands on Leahy's shoulder pads, and was obviously delivering some kind of message.
"I didn't hear what he said," Leahy said later. "I was thinking about what happened on the kick. I wasn't paying attention to him."
"I think Nellie just told him he was glad he missed," said linebacker Steve King, with a wink.
You bet I looked for that video. Anyone with superior internet sleuthing skills to mine who can find it -- and who has a similar lack of sympathy for the lonesome kicker -- is saluted in advance for sending it along.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
It's a bummer Gronk won't be around the next four weeks or so, and it does strike me as tempting disaster to have a player of his magnitude on the field at all with a few minutes remaining in a blowout. But the social media, tabloid and sports radio overreaction without context in the aftermath of his injury was way over the top. I mean, it was karma? C'mon now. Aaron Schatz wrote a tremendous piece on Deadspin explaining why star players are still on the field when the outcome is settled, noting that Robert Griffin III and Drew Brees were among those who remained in the game with a huge lead just the past Sunday. Everyone does it, in part because they don't want status issues in the locker room, in part because the depth chart doesn't allow for everyone to be replaced, and it part because football players want to play football no matter the score. The reasoning was explained and supported by the likes of Matt Chatham, Tedy Bruschi, Ron Jaworski, and Bill Parcells among others this week. It stinks that Gronk got hurt when the game was out of reach. But those who know the game best aren't caterwauling about it. We shouldn't either.
PREDICTION, OR WHY REX RYAN ACTUALLY DESERVES RESPECT. NO, REALLY.
The common perception of the Jets coach around here is that he's one part sweater vest, one part caricature, and many parts foot-in-his-mouth buffoon. And there's some accuracy in all of that. But he's also a heck of a defensive coach, one who dials up some pretty effective defenses against Brady from time to time, and the Jets would be making a mistake to fire him after this season. They don't have a quarterback who deserves to start. They don't have a running back worth featuring. Their offensive coordinator is a fist-pumping goof. But they do have a good head coach, and he'll help his team keep it closer than it should be against a Patriots squad on three days' rest. Take the hard-earned win, eat some late-night turkey, and let the tryptophan do its thing. Patriots 27, Jets 17.
(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 37, Colts 24. Final score: Patriots 59, Colts 24. Season record: 7-3. Well, I got the Colts score on the nose. Never thought that putting the Patriots down for 37 points would come up 22 short.)
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.