Welcome to Season 2, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The 6-2 Patriots, coming off a comeback victory over the Dolphins, host
Joe Gilliam Terry Hanratty Terry Bradshaw Bubby Brister Kordell Stewart Ben Roethlisberger and the 2-5 Steelers. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY THAT I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. Isaac Sopoaga: Vince Wilfork is about as close irreplaceable as a defensive lineman can be, but the Patriots have been smart and fortunate in their efforts to fill the massive hole left by his season-ending Achilles' injury. Chris Jones is on his third NFL team as a rookie, but there's no doubt he's found a home -- with 4.5 sacks, he trails only Chandler Jones among Patriots. And this week's acquisition of run-stuffer Sopoaga from the Eagles should prove a savvy move. He's a player who has been on Bill Belichick's radar since the 2004 draft, the same year the Patriots took Wilfork in Round 1.
"A pretty good fourth-round pick, I'd say,'' said Belichick Friday, suggesting the Patriots were going to choose him later that round, only to be beaten to the punch by the Niners. "If you knew what his career was going to be, he could have gone in the second -- he couldn't have gone in the first ahead of some people who were drafted in that round obviously. No, I'd say he's had a real good career. To be a fourth-round pick that's done what he's done, I'd say not too many of them have done that, right?"
2. Emmanuel Sanders: He probably would have helped, right? The Patriots signed the restricted free-agent receiver to a one-year, $2.5-million offer sheet in the offseason. The Steelers matched a few hours before the deadline, and he returned to the only organization he has known, where he's had a better than decent season, with 31 catches for 396 yards and two touchdowns. Presuming he'd have been in that class of pass catchers capable of coming in and picking up the offense quickly, he'd have probably prevented some of the growing pains that came with depending on Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson immediately. Worth remembering: Sanders is an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and Bill Belichick spoke admiringly of him this week.
3. Well, I was looking forward to watching Zoltan Mesko: The perception was that the Patriots' surprising decision to cut the well-liked punter in training camp was salary-cap related, and there was probably some truth there. But it's also more than fair halfway through the season to presume Bill Belichick just thought Ryan Allen was better. The rookie hasn't been the second coming of Ray Guy -- he's 14th in the league in net punting average (40.4), though he's put 16 punts inside the 20. But he's been much better than Mesko was in his first year with the Steelers before he was cut this week -- he was 29th in net, with a league-worst three punts inside the 20. And yes, this probably is the only time we'll ever mention the punters in this segment, at least until Guy makes that comeback.
YEAH, DECENT DRAFT, I GUESS. BUT WHAT BECAME OF HUGH LICKISS AND OCTAVUS MORGAN, HUH? HUH!? The Steelers' 1974 draft has to be in the best one-year talent haul in the history of professional sports, right? In their first five picks, they chose four future Hall of Famers -- Lynn Swann (1st round, 21st overall), Jack Lambert (2, 46), John Stallworth (4, 82) and Mike Webster (5, 125). That quartet joined a collection of young talent that the Steelers had amassed between 1969-72 that included Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Jack Ham to form the core of the '70s Pittsburgh dynasty. Funny, the Patriots' best pick in that '74 draft was a linebacker chosen 12 picks before the Steelers took Lambert. I don't think anyone around here would gripe about the selection of tackling machine Steve Nelson, right? Heck, had he ended up in Pittsburgh, he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame himself.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK: I know, this has nothing to do with the Steelers. But if you need a real reason as a Patriots fan to loathe the Dolphins, this Jonathan Martin situation seems to be a good place to start. From the details we know, that team is apparently poisoned with the worst of jock culture.
COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: I mean, he had to be trying to look like Magnum P.I., right? Grew the push-broom mustache, probably wore a Tigers hat, may have even referred to Louis Lipps as T.C., much to the receiver's confusion. Only possible difference? Tom Selleck had a higher completion percentage.
PREDICTION, OR GOOD THING THEY NEVER KNEW WHAT THEY HAD IN MIKE VRABEL: The Steelers' won-lost record isn't what you'd expect, but they've been too worthy a foe for the Patriots during the past decade or so to dismiss them. The defense is playing better, shutting out the Raiders in the second half last week, and they've allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league. If Tom Brady's hand is an issue, the Patriots' offense could have a tough time getting going, especially if Steven Ridley remains underestimated by his own coaches. But the defense, with Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly apparently expected to play, should hold down the Steelers' offense, sending the Patriots into the bye on a positive note. Patriots 20, Steelers 10
(Last week's prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 17. Final score: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17. Season record: 4-4.)
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.