Welcome to Season 2, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday at noon. (Because our Patriots season preview ran Friday, this got bumped back.) The Patriots, coming off a tumultuous offseason but still among the handful of true contenders, take on
Alex Van Pelt Rob Johnson J.P. Losman Trent Edwards E.J. Manuel and the new-look-yet-again Buffalo Bills. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY THAT I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. E.J. Manuel: The first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft, Manuel missed most of the preseason after injuring a knee and requiring minor surgery. Even if he's not fully healthy and has never played an NFL game, the Florida State product is a better option than anything else the Bills have -- Matt Leinart failed an audition, bro, and Jeff Tuel is Jeff Tuel. Sure, the prudent thing might be to allow him to make sure he is 100 percent healthy and in command of Doug Marrone's up-tempo offense. But when you're the Bills and these are the quarterbacks who have played more than 12 games in a season for you since Tom Brady joined the Patriots ...
|9||Alex Van Pelt||2001||8||178||307||57.98%||2056||12||11||76.4||2||6|
... well, you can't be faulted for wanting to see what E.J. Manuel can do as soon as possible. Jim Kelly has been retired for 17 years, you know?
2. Kenbrell Thompkins: Ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd has a sore foot and wants a trade. Stephon Gilmore, a budding star at cornerback, is expected to miss six weeks with a broken wrist. And Tom Brady is the Patriots' quarterback, as you probably know. Some young receiver is going to have a big day for the Patriots, and based on how quickly he appeared to acclimate in the preseason, the hunch here is that it is Thompkins, the talented yet undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati.
3. Tommy Kelly: There seems to be a strong belief that Kelly can add something to the Patriots' defense that has been lacking in recent seasons -- an inside pass rush. In 2010-11 with the Raiders, he filled that role well, totaling 14.5 of his 34 career sacks in those two seasons. But he had just one last year in 16 games, and at age 32 it's fair to wonder exactly how much he has left. I'm actually pretty optimistic he'll help now that the stench of the Raiders has been washed away, but it would be reassuring to see him wreak a little bit of havoc alongside Vince Wilfork Sunday.
As you probably heard last week, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson offered some expert insight and evaluations of the Patriots defensive backfield, which was fine but for one problem: He thought Patrick Chung, who has moved on to be a half-step slow for the Eagles this season, still played for the Pats. As it turns out, that's not all Johnson got wrong. Here's the short list of other defensive backs Johnson still thinks play for the Patriots:
John Outlaw, which Johnson thinks is such a cool name that he immediate went out and got "John Outlaw" tattoed across his throat after hearing it.
[Pausing while you check to see if he's a real former Patriot.]
A second Tim Fox after the first Tim Fox hits him so hard he's seeing double.
Weirdly enough, Johnson totally knows Mike Haynes held out and was traded to the Raiders.
FOUR TRUTHS WE NEED TO REMEMBER EVERY PRESEASON
1. Roster projections are interesting, and the debate is fun, but they are a total exercise in guesswork even for the most rational and informed reporters.
2. The final 53-man roster after the last cutdown is not the final 53-man roster at all. There will be plenty of auditions for the last 4-5 spots on the roster from players dismissed elsewhere. Welcome back, James Develin. Wish you could have stayed, Matt Mulligan.
3. Hold off on dropping the $100-plus for an authentic jersey of that hard-hitting veteran free-safety you're so happy Belichick brought in. Adrian Wilson, say hello to John Lynch. Oh, and have you met Tank Williams?
4. Call it the Brandon Merriweather Rule: If a veteran is getting significant playing time late in the final preseason game, don't take it as a surprise when he's not on the roster a few days down the road. Happened this year with Wilson (to some degree), Leon Washington (though he's now returned), and Jake Ballard. Tim Tebow doesn't count, since he was a fourth-string talent with a famous name.
THE GREATEST BILLS GAME OF THE 2000s, BAR NONE
That's not me saying that. That's the headline on one of the many YouTube videos of Buffalo's 31-0 whitewashing of the Patriots to open the 2003 season. (I know -- can you believe it's been 10 years since all that Lawyer Milloy/Sam Gash/Drew Bledsoe "we're a family here" nonsense? I bet not one of them has been back to Buffalo for a Bills family reunion since -- hell, all three probably now consider themselves Patriots first. Anyway, I post this not just because of the symmetry of 10 years, or that it's crazy that it has been 10 years, or any of that. I post it because it's a reminder of just how ridiculously good Patriots fans have had it since 2001. I mean, Bills fans regard this win as the greatest of the decade. Patriots fans? They regard it as a belch of a game that was perfectly avenged with a 31-0 win in the regular-season finale en route to the first of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Footage of the Patriots' revenge victory is much tougher to find, and you do know why: Because in the last dozen years, it ranks as probably the 25th-to-30th most fulfilling victory. The Bills' greatest win -- their greatest win -- was avenged the same season, and the Patriots have beaten them in 18 of 19 meetings since. It's a good thing there's no sympathy when it comes to the NFL, because one might almost feel tempted to feel bad that they're still clinging to an irrelevant win a decade old.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Bills fans know him as a three-year defensive end who was once voted one of the team's worst first-round picks in a Buffalo News poll. The rest of us know him as the world's most methodical getaway driver.
PREDICTION, OR MAYBE THE BILLS WILL SIGN J.J. STOKES AND JOHN "J.J." JEFFERSON IN THEIR QUESTION FOR AN ALL-INITIALS OFFENSE It's going to be particularly fascinating, with the turnover and turmoil they endured this offseason, to see exactly what the Patriots' approach is on offense. How much do they go with the fast-paced approach, which worked so well in part because Aaron Hernandez was a matchup nightmare and the opposition couldn't get the right personnel on the field? Will a potentially diverse and versatile running game, with Stevan Ridley leading the way, be emphasized early and often? Or will Tom Brady and his relatively unfamiliar cast take advantage of the Bills' depleted defensive backfield? It's going to be fun getting answers, and I think Patriots fans will like the ones they get. The versatile defense will contain C.J. Spiller and make Manuel try to beat them, and he won't. The Patriots will improve to 14-4 against rookie quarterbacks in the Belichick Era and 1-0 this season.
Patriots 31, Bills 10.
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.