Welcome to the 13th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the 9-3 Patriots, who clinched their ninth AFC title in 10 seasons last Sunday, prepare for their showdown of the season (so far) in a Monday night matchup against
David Carr Dave Ragone Tony Banks Matt Leinart Matt Schaub and the 11-1 Houston Texans. It has the potential to be a thriller, with added element of playoff positioning at stake. Let's get to the details.
THREE PLAYERS I'LL BE WATCHING OTHER THAN TOM BRADY
Jerod Mayo: He's second in the NFL in tackles, at least by the NFL's measure, and he's coming off what my colleague Greg Bedard called "his finest game this season'' that included a sack and a couple of other big plays in the running game. His unassuming manner and steady but not flashy play probably work against him, but should he contribute to stopping Arian Foster in the same manner he did in shutting down Reggie Bush last week, maybe he'll get his due attention.
Andre Johnson: Wasn't this guy supposed to have slowed down this season? Weren't the recurring hamstring issues supposed to have robbed him of a step? We should all age so gracefully. Johnson, 31, has 74 catches for 1,114 yards this season, his eighth in the NFL after being drafted third overall by the Texans in 2003. Johnson had 14 catches for 273 yards in Week 10 against Jacksonville, then followed that up with nine receptions for 188 yards on Thanksgiving against the Lions. I suspect we're going to find out a lot about Aqib Talib Monday night.
Patriots guards: Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Patriots' game-clinching 16-play drive late in the Miami game is that they ran the ball down the Dolphins' throats behind a line that was absent starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly. Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald were stellar on that drive, but Tom Brady also got belted a couple of times in that game, and the Patriots haven't faced an inside pass rush like the Texans' since last February. Mankins practiced Thursday, an encouraging sign, because his return may be essential this week.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Call it a pre-grievance, because I'm pretty sure I'll have one after ESPN's "Monday Night Football'' broadcast. Jon Gruden has already said this season that J.J. Watt is a future Hall of Famer -- he may be right, but the kid had played all of 21 NFL games at that point -- and is better at his position than any other player is at his particular position in the league. Now, don't get me wrong -- Watt is an absolute force, and as dependable as Nate Solder has been, you wish all those mock drafts that had the Patriots getting him with the 17th pick last year had become reality -- but you just know that Gruden is going to take his Watt-gushing to Favreian levels Monday night. I'm already annoyed by it. I'm pre-annoyed.
I recognize it's not the same franchise, the Texans' predecessor in Houston having packed up their fear-striking powder blue jerseys and bolted for Tennessee in 1997. But I'm old and incurably retro, and when I think of Houston and the NFL, I still think of the Oilers, and Earl Campbell, and the greatest prime-of-career running back I've ever seen, and then I inevitably end up watching the above clip a dozen times. I'll betcha Isiah Robertson, the Rams linebacker who probably still has the oil derrick decal from Campbell's helmet imprinted in his chest, does too.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Vince Wilfork praised the Texans and specifically Johnson for their considerable ability this week, and I'm sure his sentiments are genuine. But I bet in a private moment both he and Johnson would agree that this year's Houston edition doesn't have the pure, top-of-the-depth chart talent of a team that they both played on more than a decade ago.
The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are widely regarded as the most talented roster in college football history, with 17 future first-round picks, many of whom are still NFL stars today. The roster included Wilfork, Johnson, Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow Jr., Jeremy Shockey, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, D.J. Williams, Bryant McKinnie, William Joseph, Phillip Buchanon, Vernon Carey, Devin Hester, Roscoe Parrish, Antrel Rolle, and Jerome McDougle ... among others.
Even a marginal quarterback such as Ken Dorsey could win with that crew. Which he did. Not sure about Gino Torretta, though.
PREDICTION, OR 'IS THIS THE WEEK THIS NITWIT FINALLY PICKS AGAINST THE PATRIOTS?'
First of all, nope, and second of all, who are you calling a nitwit, son? Johnson said this is the biggest game in Texans history, which sort of dismisses the franchise's first playoff victory last January over the Bengals but also tells you how much this game means to Houston. Their approach in attempting to the beat the Patriots probably is no secret. They'll try to control the ball with the great Arian Foster -- the Texans average 36 minutes of possession time, so that is their usual mode of operation. They'll take a few shots with Johnson. And they'll count on Watt and friends to pressure Brady up the middle and try to hide the deficiencies in their tattered defensive backfield. Watt will get Brady once or twice; Brady will get the Texans' cornerbacks much more often. It's going to be wildly fun, especially for the home team, which will be the consensus favorite in the AFC after the final gun if it isn't already. Patriots 41, Texans 27.
Previous game's prediction: Patriots 38, Dolphins 17. Final score: Patriots 23, Dolphins 16. Season record: 9-3.
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.