Welcome to Season 4, Episode 11 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, occasionally nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
Well, here it is. We’ve been anticipating this Patriots-Broncos showdown since … I don’t know … since the schedule was released in April? The hype built for this one long before Bill Belichick and his team were on to Denver, as the parlance goes. Of course, now that the matchup is here, it stands as a reminder of why the best-coached teams really do heed the cliché and take them one week at a time: A lot can happen in that interim between when you starting looking ahead to a certain game and when it actually arrives.
This was supposed to be the 17th career meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which has typically been at least an annual event worthy of the anticipation. Considering Brady is 11-5 in his career against Manning’s teams, Patriots fans especially have looked forward to these showdowns.
Instead, it’s the first matchup of Brady and Brock Osweiler, a former Arizona State star who was nine years old when the Patriots selected Brady in the 2000 NFL Draft. Manning was benched in the third quarter of a Week 10 loss to the Chiefs after completing just 5 of 20 passes while throwing four interceptions.
The debate over who had the better career, Brady or Manning, ended with the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX, if not seasons sooner. Even with that war already lost, it is jarring to see Manning relegated to bystander status, left without a battle to fight while his team seems better off without him. At least we know what it will look like when the same thing happens between Brady and 34-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo in November 2025.
Kick it off into that thin air, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started …
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Jamie Collins: We’ve lamented the Patriots injuries before and we will again. We miss watching Dion Lewis make would-be tacklers look like uncoordinated fools with moves Barry Sanders would have been proud to call his own. (Note that I’m not comparing Lewis to Sanders, simply saying he does a fine job celebrating his catalog.) Brady desperately misses Julian Edelman; I’m convinced his gray mood after the win over the Giants was due entirely to the then-undisclosed knowledge that Edelman’s foot was broken. But for all of the prominent absences, it also should be noted that some important players have been returning to active duty, too. Bryan Stork came back two weeks ago. Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon (yeah, I know, he was a mess against the Bills) returned last week. And most important of all, Collins appears poised to return to the lineup this week after missing three games with a mysterious virus. He apparently lost a lot of weight from his illness, and if he shows up looking skinnier than Randy Moss, all bets are off. But if he looks anything like the player he was earlier this season — namely, one of the most dominant defensive players in the league, with 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an infinite number of disruptions caused to the opposing offense — then he’ll be a much-needed reinforcement. It’ll be good to see him again.
Osweiler: So what do we know about this guy? We’ve got few details: He was a second-round pick in 2012. He was buddies at Arizona State with Jack Elway, the son of the current Broncos’ boss and a franchise legend. Gonzaga recruited him as a basketball player, but for some reason passed up the opportunity to be Kelly Olynyk’s teammate. He’s LeBron-sized at 6 feet 8 inches, and may or may not be a better passer. He was the 57th overall choice in the 2012 NFL Draft and the fifth quarterback taken, after first-rounders Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. His name was called 18 spots before Russell Wilson. He played well in his first start, a 17-15 win over the Bears last Sunday in which he completed 20 of 27 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Oh, and he really wanted to play more than he did before this year. (This gem is from last November, when Manning actually had a choice whether he was going to stay in a game or not):
The quarterback change probably makes the Broncos a better team, as strange as that seems given Manning’s accomplishments. But in most weeks, Osweiler just has to be adequate. Most weeks, Manning was not even that. The Broncos have cited an injury as the reason for his benching, but he has 30 fewer touchdown passes this year (9) than he had last year, with two more interceptions (17, against 15 a season ago). Maybe injury is a contributing factor — I’ll believe it’s the main reason right after I believe Manning regularly feasts on Papa John’s pizza — but it appears the soundest football decision is to find out what Osweiler can do. He’ll never have a bigger regular-season test than this.
Gronk: In Rob Gronkowski’s NFL debut on Sept. 12, 2010 against the Bengals, he had one catch for one yard. He’s cruised from there, hasn’t he? Gronk has never had a game without a reception. He has had nine games with just one catch. Eight of those games came during 2010, that rookie season. The other came in November 2011, right around the time he morphed into GRONK! He has seven games with just two catches; one of those happened to occur Monday night, which means that a Rex Ryan team actually did back up its bluster for once. They shut Gronk down for the most part, limiting him to 37 receiving yards, though his responsibilities in the pass-blocking game also may have had something to do with that. Either way, it was one of the least productive games statistically of his career, and it seems to have emboldened the Broncos, who have also said they “have a plan’’ for Gronk. It does feel like he’s in a bit of slump by his stratospheric standards, but he does have three games of 100-plus yards and a touchdown in his last five. The Patriots sure could use another like that Sunday.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
I don’t carry a lot of gripes during Thanksgiving week, though I will have a gripe with any of you clueless hammerheads who might dare to suggest there’s a superior holiday. Thanksgiving is the best because of turkey, stuffing, football, and other reasons you should already know. Right. Family. That too.
But a football-relevant gripe? I’ll give you this:
How about T.J. Ward’s presence in this game? He’s Bernard Pollard if Bernard Pollard were actually fairly good at football.
Patriots fans require no reminder of what Ward did to damage the Patriots’ championship hopes in the 2013 season. And for all of the injuries the Patriots have endured this year, there is relief and hope to be found in the continued health of Gronk.
Stay away from him, Ward. Go cover Scott Chandler. He’s the real threat. No, he is. Honest. You’ll see. Gronk? He’s just a blocker. A decoy. This is Chandler’s day to shine. TERRELL RAY WARD JR., YOU GET AWAY FROM GRONK RIGHT NOW, MISTER!
WELL, ROGER GOODELL CARES ABOUT HIS DEAD PLAYERS, AT LEAST
Headline: Roger Goodell Quietly Says Goodnight To Hallway Of NFL Greats’ Chemically Preserved Bodies
The lede: Slowly walking down the basement hallway as the ceiling’s fluorescent lights turned off row by row behind him, Roger Goodell quietly said goodnight to each of the legendary former NFL players whose bodies he had chemically preserved, sources confirmed late Wednesday evening …
The source:The Onion. Of course.
Good heavens, that is just the greatest. And you just know that if Goodell somehow became aware of it, he’d take every last word literally, given that the ACME engineers who created him never activated the humor module.
[Scene: 345 Park Avenue, New York City. A serious man in a serious suit sits behind a serious desk. He wears a serious look as he looks up from his monitor, ignoring the uneaten pizza to his left.]
“What? WHAT!? Abigail! Abigail, what is this? Have you read this? Have you read these … these lies, Abigail? I do not have a lair of entombed former players! This is nonsense! This is fiction! I don’t keep anyone in the basement except for Kensil! You know that. This is slander … or libel .. one of those. I’m not a laywer, Abigail! Get me Jeffrey Pash on the phone, pronto. I will sue this … this .. this ONION for all it is worth! WAIT! Hmmm, should we? Dare I? All right, let’s try. This is, after all, a serious matter, one in which my personal integrity is impugned! Abigail, call Jeffrey Kessler first, just in case he’s free. Oh, and when you’re done, be sure to let that bootlicker Mortensen aware that we’re taking this matter seriously. We will control this narrative, Abigail! Our integrity with the hoi polloi depends on it! And when you’re done with that, FETCH ME THE KENSIL!’’
PREDICTION, OR ARE THEY REALLY GOING TO LEAVE IT TO THE PANTHERS TO SILENCE MERCURY MORRIS?
If that ends up being the case, and the Panthers, who improved to 11-0 by providing football fans with a wonderful gift — a humiliating Cowboys loss — run the table and mute the obnoxious ’72 Dolphins once and for all, I guess that means we are all Cam Newton fans. (I’m cool with that.) But I’m not sure that will end up being the case. I don’t think the Panthers are going unbeaten. And I don’t think the Patriots are, either.
This is the toughest Patriots game to predict of the season. Hell, it would not shock me if this is a game in which the defense picks up the slack for the offense and suddenly NFL “experts’’ start acknowledging that, oh yeah, New England does have the best defense in the league in terms of points allowed.
But … it’s tough to win in Denver under almost every circumstance, and Osweiler is an upgrade on the quarterback who at the least was an active participant in an 8-0 start, and the Broncos’ defense must have savored watching film of Marcus Cannon this week, and Danny Amendola’s status is uncertain, and … I think the Patriots come back with a blemish.
There’s no shame in losing this game, when some circumstances are conspiring against them, nor is there any in losing that zero in the loss column. But if it’s going to happen, it’s probably this week. Broncos 24, Patriots 23.