Welcome to Season 6, Episode 7 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
I have two rules or truths or demands or whatever you want to call them here today:
1. While Bill Belichick may forbid his players from referencing the Patriots’ rally from a 28-3 deficit to the beat the Falcons, 34-28, in Super Bowl LI, that sure as heck doesn’t apply here.
How can we not talk about it? It’s the sports miracle of all sports miracles, even if it wasn’t so much a miracle at all but a sequence of necessary events that occurred (or were made to occur by those on the field) in the precise order the Patriots required.
We’ve never seen anything like it, we probably never will again, and yes, I know I’m writing this on the 13th anniversary of the Red Sox’ history-altering Game 7 victory over the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series. This Patriots win, I think, was more improbable than even that. Happy to argue it forever if you disagree.
2. Let’s not call this the Falcons’ revenge game. There’s no revenge to be had. Even if they beat the Patriots, 77-7, Sunday night, it’s not revenge. There’s no solace to be had for what happened in February.
The only way the Falcons can get authentic, official payback is if they beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII by overcoming a 29-3 third-quarter deficit come February in Minnesota.
Anyway, the Falcons are 3-2, the Patriots are 4-2, and we should probably start talking about this year’s game at some point.
So kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
■ Julio Jones: The Falcons’ dynamic receiver — didn’t he seem basically uncoverable for most of the Super Bowl? — is having an odd season. It’s not a bad season, mind you. He has more catches through five games this year (25) than he had last season at the same point (24). But he has 150 fewer yards (517 to 367) over the same span, and somehow he still does not have a touchdown this season.
I don’t think you have to be a Patriots pessimist to believe that will change this week. The Falcons have said they want to make it a point of emphasis to throw more to Jones in the red zone. Chances are they’ll throw to him all over the field, given that the Patriots own the 32nd-ranked pass defense in the NFL and are without cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe (who gave it a good fight against Jones in the Super Bowl).
Johnson Bademosi seemed to play fairly well against the Jets last week. But Josh McCown-to-Jeremy Kerley is not even the junior varsity version of Matt Ryan-to-Jones. Those statistics should look at lot better come Monday morning.
■ Grady Jarrett: Remember this guy? He morphed into a modern facsimile of Mean Joe Greene in the Super Bowl, sacking Tom Brady three times and seeming to get in another half-dozen shots on the Patriots quarterback as he threw the ball. Had the Falcons prevailed, he would have been in the discussion as Most Valuable Player, though it almost certainly would have gone to Ryan or Jones.
This season, Jarrett hasn’t exactly built on his Super Bowl performance. He’s still looking for his first sack, and his silly unnecessary roughness penalty on Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler essentially cost the Falcons the game last week.
Jarrett — who, factoid alert, is the son of Falcons great Jesse Tuggle — isn’t the only Atlanta defender who will be aiming the laser pointer at Brady. Vic Beasley Jr., who led the NFL in sacks last year (15½), has just 2 this season while battling a hamstring injury. It’s imperative that the Patriots line doesn’t let these guys get going now as they did that one night in February.
■ James White: This spot in the preview over the last four weeks has been reserved for Dion Lewis – specifically, griping about his underutilization in the Patriots offense. Well, Belichick and Josh McDaniels finally listened to my wisdom (humor me here, I need this) and began deploying the most complete running back on the roster more often.
Last Sunday in the squeaker over the Jets, Lewis had a season high in touches (11, all carries) for 52 yards and a touchdown. Over the last two weeks, he has totaled 18 carries for 105 yards. Either the Patriots remembered what they have in Lewis or, more likely, are just being a little less cautious with a player they know they need late in the season.
So: Happy with Lewis’s role now. Good job, guys.
Now, a word about White: How about that Super Bowl performance, huh?
That was as awesome as it was unexpected. I’m setting the over/under on NBC showing highlights from his performance at 2½ different clips, and I’m taking the over. One flashback for each touchdown he scored in Super Bowl LI, in other words.
The poor Falcons, running into this ghost so soon. This is like the 1997 Patriots having to face Desmond Howard, except he had just one tormenting touchdown, not three.
Grievance of the week
I know, I’m playing the hits here when it comes to whining about injuries. It’s one of my recurring laments, the most frustrating thing about being a football fan: one major injury can derail the most promising of seasons. (I suppose Celtics/NBA fans can have a similar woe-is-me gripe after the Gordon Hayward injury this week. But injuries in the NBA don’t come in bulk week after week the way they do in this most brutal of leagues.)
I say that while acknowledging that the Patriots have endured damaging injuries to important players and still thrived, even as the degree of difficulty became greater. They even won Super Bowl LI without Rob Gronkowski, which tells you how stacked last year’s team was.
But around the NFL, right now? Man, what a tough stretch this has been for marquee names. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last week. Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle) and J.J. Watt (back) went down for the season the week before. Pretty much every high-profile player you see in a commercial is hurt. Not great for the best-laid plans in fantasy football, either.
Prediction, or do you think Arthur Blank comes down to the sideline again if the Falcons take the lead?
The Falcons in their current state are not an easy read. They’re 3-2, trail the Panthers and Saints in their own division, yet rank as one of the more well-rounded teams in the league. While the Patriots are first in offense and 32nd in defense, the Falcons rank fifth and 10th, respectively.
They look good on paper, and yet after a 3-0 start that suggested they had found a quick elixir for the Super Bowl hangover, they’ve lost two in a row, both to AFC East teams. Last week they lost to the Dolphins, 20-17, coming off the bye. Before that, the Bills handed them a 23-17 loss.
Ryan will get his numbers against this Patriots defense, which has allowed six straight quarterbacks to throw for 300-plus yards and is counting more on Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones than we ever could have expected so early in the season.
But Brady — who leads the NFL in passing yards (1,959) and is second to Deshaun Watson in touchdown passes (13) — is going to get his, too. Last time he faced the Falcons defense — you know when — he threw for 466 yards. He might not hit that high Sunday, but he’ll get close. The hunch: This is Brandin Cooks’s big breakout game.
Patriots 42, Falcons 34.