Unconventional preview: Patriots-Bills

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 16 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The 11-4 Patriots, coming off a 41-7 thrashing of the Ravens that locked down a 10th AFC East title in 11 years, host Joe Ferguson, Vince Ferragamo, Jim Kelly, J.P. Losman, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Fitzpatrick Thad Lewis and the 6-9 Buffalo Bills. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started already …


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THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I’LL BE WATCHING:
1. Julian Edelman:
I mean, he’s the go-to guy now, right? He needs four catches Sunday for 100 this season and nine receiving yards for 1,000. He went to the back-burner a bit when Rob Gronkowski was back, but in Gronk’s absence he’s again become essential to the Patriots offense. I’m still not sure what to make of his season. He’s clearly come a long way, to the point that there’s a debate as to whether he or David Givens — who had touchdowns in seven straight playoff games during his too-short Patriots career — was the better seventh-round find. But is Edelman better than Wes Welker at this point? And how much of his success is directly attributable to Tom Brady, whose brilliance over the past couple of months is underestimated on a national level? This much we do know: Edelman is a talented player having a great year, and it will be cool to see him hit two milestones that would have seemed out of his reach not so long ago.

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2. Fred Jackson: Despite playing with broken ribs, Jackson ran for 111 yards last week against the Dolphins en route to surpassing 5,000 rushing yards in his Bills career. The only other Buffalo running backs to surpass that milestone: O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas. (Would have guessed Joe Cribbs as well, but he did hop to the USFL after a couple of big years with the Bills.) Jackson is a biannual nuisance against the Patriots, and in tandem with C.J. Spiller (77 rushing yards vs. Miami) stands as the reason the Bills could pull off an upset.

3. Thad Lewis: The third-year quarterback out of Duke will start Sunday in place of talented rookie EJ Manuel, who is still dealing with an injured left knee. Manuel played fairly well in his NFL debut in Week 1 against the Patriots, completing 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns in New England’s come-from-behind 23-21 win. Lewis, who will be making his fifth start of the season, threw for 193 yards with no touchdowns and one pick last week in the Bills’ win over the Dolphins. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, playing on a balky knee, couldn’t take advantage of the Patriots’ presumed susceptibility to the pass last week. Chances are Lewis won’t be able to do it, either, even with mainstay Devin McCourty likely out for the Patriots. (Tangentially related to all of this: If Manuel had one more year at Florida State, would he have lost his starting job to Jameis Winston? Are you sure?)

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BINGO. I’VE GOT BINGO
When I was a kid — right, back in the 1970s olden days when you changed channel from one NFL game to another with a dial, linebackers were 225 pounds, and a brain-rattling collision was charmingly brushed off as getting your bell rung — it seemed like a United Way commercial ran during every break in the action.

I was mesmerized by them. They inevitably included some NFL giant — in stature if not always name — reading to a group of kids, or perhaps helping out at a hospital, while also telling us something about the city in which they played.

You were introduced to the person hidden behind a facemask during the games, and the tag line was always the same: Thanks to you, it works for all of us, the United Way.

As a kid, it was reassuring to see that these larger-than-life Sunday afternoon superheroes were real and seemingly kind.

While pulling together this column, I got lost for too many minutes in the YouTube vortex while looking for a Bills or Patriots United Way commercial from the ’70s or ’80s. Disappointingly, the pickings were slim, but I did come up with a couple from later years.

Here we have Jim Kelly, a good man with bad hair and worse pants …

… and from a decade ago, when the commercials started going for quirky humor rather than the sentimental/sympathetic approach, here’s perhaps the best one of all: Troy Brown proving his comedic acting chops.

There’s no doubt he totally dominated shuffleboard, right?

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COMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
This is Isiah Robertson. Maybe you remember him.

He was a superb linebacker for some talented Rams teams in the late ’70s. Made the Pro Bowl six times, All-Pro four times. Had hair Oscar Gamble could respect.

Played a few quality years with the Bills in the early ’80s, but apparently didn’t appear on a piece of cardboard during that time.

Was a linebacker ahead of his era, big and fast and versatile and could get after the quarterback or stop the run.

Well, he could usually stop the run.

It wouldn’t be a surprise whatsoever if Isiah Robertson, 64 years old now, still had Earl Campbell‘s cleat marks on his sternum.

PREDICTION, OR BILL IS NOT LOSING TO THE BILLS NOW
Leave it to Bill Belichick to put all that’s at stake this Sunday into blunt perspective:

“We know what we can control: we win, we get into the second round of the playoffs. We know that, and right now that’s really all we care about.”

The Bills are no pushover, as the Dolphins found out in trying futilely to build momentum after their win over the Patriots. Buffalo’s pass defense has improved since the return of Stephon Gilmore, who missed the first several weeks with a broken wrist, and they are eighth in total defense overall.

But only one team has something to play for, and the Patriots know that first-round bye is particularly crucial this year. Belichick and Tom Brady won’t let it slip. They’ll have bingo. The Patriots will win again.
Patriots 24, Bills 13

(Last week’s prediction: Ravens 27, Patriots 17. Final score: Patriots 41, Ravens 7. Season record: 7-7. Man, 7-7. That’s just brutal. Can anyone out there loan me a clue for the postseason?)