Welcome to Season 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted and often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. The Patriots open the 2013 Sunday with the usual high expectations when they take on the Buffalo Bills. We'll preview that particular game Saturday. But before we do, let's take a look at the big picture with ... well, call it an unconventional preview of the Patriots' new season. Gostkowski with the kickoff, and we're underway ...
THREE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYERS WHO ARE NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
1. Vince Wilfork Hard to believe this will be Big Vince's 10th season in New England. It seems like just yesterday some among us -- yeah, OK, me -- were whining about Bill Belichick's decision to take the University of Miami defensive tackle with the 21st pick in the first round when running backs Stephen Jackson and Kevin Jones were still on the board. Yeah, I'd say it worked out OK for the Patriots. Wilfork has been the fulcrum of the defense for years now, the planet around which everything else orbits. He's as close to irreplaceable as a defensive player can be. Not a bad career for a guy chosen one pick ahead of J.P. Losman.
2. Rob Gronkowski: Some Sundays, this core of unsung rookie receivers will look like they've been playing with Tom Brady for years. Other Sundays, they'll look like ... well, a core of rookie receivers who were in elementary school when Brady joined the Patriots. With Wes Welker in Denver, Aaron Hernandez in the Bristol County House of Correction, and Danny Amendola already having made his debut on the injury report, it's imperative that Gronk returns to good health and unstoppable form if the Patriots offense is going to operate at peak efficiency. He has a chance to be the greatest tight end who ever played. I just hope they're not rushing him back.
3. Aqib Talib: Let me tell you, it was tough to narrow this down to three. Chandler Jones, who indicated for half-a-season as a rookie that he's the pass rusher the Patriots have been looking for since Willie McGinest departed, is certainly worthy of consideration. Nate Solder has perhaps the most important duty on the team -- protecting Tom Brady's blindside, and we don't need to revisit a certain harrowing practice against the Bucs for a reminder of what can happen when he doesn't get the job done. Amendola is another option worth considering -- he needs to be Wes Welker 2.0. But the choice here is Aqib Talib, because as a genuine above-average cornerback, he allows all of the pieces to fit properly in the Patriots defensive backfield. Devin McCourty can become a ball-hawking safety know while the affably cocky Talib deals with the Stevie Johnsons and Mike Wallaces of the world.
TOM BRADY: REALLY GREAT IN '13, OR A SLIGHTLY DECLINING GREAT?
I don't know about you guys, but I refuse to believe that the 2001 Patriots season -- the most improbably joyous journey I think most of us will ever have as sports fans -- actually happened in 2001. For one reason, the memories remain fresh. And the two most pivotal participants -- Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, obviously -- are still masterminding a prolonged run of incredible success for the Patriots. (Even if Lombardi Trophies have been hard to come by recently, what with winning a Lombardi Trophy being an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. And it's harder still to fathom that Brady, who completed his first NFL pass to, naturally, Rod Rutledge on Thanksgiving 2000 ...
... is now in his 13th season, 36 years old and searching for that elusive fourth Super Bowl title that would clinch his status as The Greatest Quarterback Ever, Including You, Joe Montana. On the surface Brady was as insanely brilliant as usual last year -- he threw 34 touchdown passes against just 8 interceptions, and his 4,827 passing yards were the second-most of his career. But ... his accuracy at times seemed to be less laser-precise than it has been before, and his 63-percent completion percentage, his lowest since 2006, would seem to suggest that he missed on a few throws he might have completed in the past. He's still playing at an elite-among-the-elite level, but he is 36, and most legendary quarterbacks have shown dents in the armor at a much younger age.
Here is the complete list of quarterbacks who have thrown for at least 3,500 yards and 27 touchdowns in a season at age 35 or older:
I'm not suggesting you should brace yourself for the beginning of a subtle decline -- hell, maybe he will play this way at 40. I'm just offering a friendly reminder to enjoy it, because we'll never see anything like Tom Brady's prolonged, incredible heyday ever again.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
I know, I go to the Martin well often here. What can I say, he's probably the Patriots player I admired the most in those last years when I was a fan before anything else. But in a season in which the Patriots are carrying 14 rookies, it seems right to revisit Martin's 1995 NFL debut -- a 102-yard performance in which he scored the winning touchdown in a 17-14 victory over Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns. You know the story so well by now that it's probably starting to sound apocryphal. But it's not. As Martin was surrounded by media in the postgame locker room, Patriots coach Bill Parcells walked past the scrum and hissed with a smile: "Don't go putting him in Canton just yet, fellas." The funny irony, of course, is that Martin, who ran for 14,101 yards in his 11-year career, made it to Canton before Parcells did. All rookies should arrive with such success.
BELICHICK UNFILTERED, BECAUSE BELICHICK UNFILTERED IS ALWAYS EXCELLENT
Do you feel inspired yet? You're inspired right? It amuses me how many observers -- including many in the media who should know better -- believe the real Belichick is the monosyllabic stone-faced guy who grunts and snorts his way through so many press conferences. Sometimes I wonder whether that image is counterproductive -- I think Spygate would have gone away sooner had he addressed it -- but it's the approach he's going with, and it clearly has had very little if any effect on the on-field product. Still, some need that reminder that he's more than an automaton in a gray sweatshirt programmed to say "it is what it is" every third answer. And fortunately, there are a lot of reminders out there, whether it's the remarkable lessons he provides on the tactical history of football when the mood strikes, or the heartfelt verbal sendoff he gives to beloved retired players such as Tedy Bruschi and Troy Brown. Or something like this: A reminder that there is much more to him behind the scenes, as well as a reminder, as if one is actually required, that the Patriots are damned lucky to have him as a coach.
SEASON PREDICTION, OR MIKE WALLACE IS GOING TO BE THE NEW ALVIN HARPER
The passing game will endure more hiccups than usual as the rookies adjust to playing with a quarterback who will stare hate-lasers through the back of your head if you make the same mistake twice. But if Gronk and Amendola are reasonably healthy, they'll be fine, and certainly much, much better than the Doug Gabriel And The Interpretive Pass-Route Running Band of 2006. Besides, the versatile running game led by Stevan Ridley and everyone's favorite breakout candidate Shane Vereen will pick up the slack in the early going, and a young and versatile defense might actually take some of the burden off Brady and the offense for once. Barring catastrophe, and you know exactly what that means, the AFC East crown belongs to the Patriots before a game is even played, and the regular season is nothing but a warmup for the postseason. They have old faces in familiar places, and yet in a lot of spots youth is on their side. This is a very good team, one that could be playing in the New Jersey snow in February if most of what needs to fall right does. Prediction: 13-3, with postseason wins over Indianapolis and Denver. I can't pick them to beat Seattle in the Super Bowl just yet. But I can't pick them to lose to Pete Carroll in a Super Bowl, either. To be continued.
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.